Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What Are You Reading For Dinner Tonight?

As I cannot eat meals at home without a few savory print-based side dishes as accompaniment, I routinely have reading matter piled on my little dining room table.

Per usual, there are the latest issues of The New Yorker, New York, Macworld, Traps (a quarterly for drummers), etc. that require attention. Though these magazines, over time, sojourn, nomad-like, at various spots throughout my home, they always find their way back to the table.
On the chair to my left, I keep the prior two weeks' Sunday New York Times: It generally takes me a full week to get through the entire paper and its supplements; I keep the prior week's issue around for bird-cage duty.

On the chair to my right lies a stack of recently read magazines and catalogs of all sort, kept just in case. In case of what, I don't know but I seem to need them around for at least a month.

I tend to favor the al fresco magazine dining experience simply because magazines lie flat and do not require that I devote one hand to holding a book open while eating with the other hand.  No rude remarks about one-handed reading, please; honi soit qui mal y pense, pal.

Despite the periodicals advantage, I always have two or three reading-in-progress books on the table. When books find their way into this rotation, progress is generally very slow.

And progress can grind to a halt when my head hits a book in its solar plexus, the wind gets knocked out of it, and my interest flees like a fart in a windstorm, i.e. I was reading a book on reading theory when, all of a sudden, I realized I was reading a book on reading and could no longer continue reading the book: this was going too far, and could have only been worse if I'd been reading a book while eating at my dining room table about a single/divorced guy reading a book while eating at his dining room table.

In my experience, there are no rules about matching the right reading material to the right foods. While the best books do get better with age, they ain't wine. For instance, it is completely unnecessary to read Amy Tan with Chinese food; Umberto Eco with Italian; Aravind Adiga with Indian; or Amos Oz with Middle Eastern. Nor do you need to read Tolstoy while eating a big, heavy meal to keep the food from overwhelming the book; Tolstoy and tapas work just fine together.

When I get home each evening, the dining room table is a smorgasbord strewn with open magazines, a newspaper section, a book or two with bills, napkins, and knives re-purposed as bookmarks, the result of profligacy during breakfast; I'm a slob. It's an open buffet, and like a rat I nibble here, nibble there for awhile; graze with goat-like gusto when I hit on something tasty. I also have to have the reading matter positioned correctly so lighting glare is minimized, I can comfortably read, and bring fork to mouth without incident.

It's the same when I go out to dinner by myself; I always bring something to read. Books are a cheap date and, like another solo human activity, you don't have to look your best or try to charm.

In a recent New York Times piece by Leanne Shapton, Dinner Companions, leading novelists talk about the one book they want to have with them as a dinner date. Jay McInerney, for instance, opts for A.J. Liebling's classic gastronomic memoir, Between Meals. Too obvious, for my taste. A.M. Homes would like to dine with John Cheever's Falconer. I say, feh.

I'm more into exotic literary nourishment, like Bruce Wagner, whose perfect dinner companion is In the Land of Pain, Alphonse Daudet's journal chronicling his slow, agonizing death from syphilis. A dream date, I do declare, and a meal to die for.

Speaking of meals to die for, those who enjoy stewing in their own juices with a side dish of suicidal ideation to accompany an entrée of fricasseed sorrow, shame, and hopelessness will be pleased to learn that Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation makes Daniel Kehlmann's mouth water as "the most enjoyable, and the funniest, of all the major works of philosophy, perhaps because it's the bleakest." This is my kind of guy, getting right to dessert.

And then the aftermath. As I do not read and tell, suffice it to say that when dinner's over and I bring my dining companion home and into the bedroom, I don't remove its dust jacket until I've gotten to know it a little better. That's just the way I was raised. But after the second dinner date, it's dishabille time and no book is safe from my peepers and paws.

Bon appétit e bon livres!
____________

Originally appeared in Fine Books & Collections on this date.

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