Rumination (about books and food)

We know this word, right? Ruminate? What does it make you think of? I visualize two things, mainly: first, a cow’s second or third stomach or whatever, where it chews up (again) food that’s been partially digested. I also think of stew–but I try never to visualize these two things at the same time, because that’s just nasty.

Apparently “ruminate” has other meanings–did you know, for example, that it can be an adjective describing the “endosperm of a seed?”–specifically, of a seed that “appears chewed.” Nutmeg looks like this, apparently, as does some random seed called soursop (scientific name, Annona muricata). Completely beside the point I’m trying to make.

Other than the whole chewing thing, the more common definitions have to do with “meditating, contemplating, musing, pondering,” etc. My favorite of these:”To turn over repeatedly in the mind; to meditate deeply upon.” It makes sense: If something is worth thinking about, it’s worth thinking about again. Ask any cow–I’d imagine they’d confirm this. If something is worth eating, it’s worth eating again. It’s worth ruminating over.

Imagine this blog post is a slim little paperback–hold one finger here and keep this thought handy while I skip over one chapter (cause I can’t think of a good transition). We’ll come back to this idea of rumination (at which point I suppose we’ll be ruminating). Aaaah.

I was thinking about books and how, in my favorite books, the protagonist dies, or nearly dies, anyway. No, wait, that’s not what I’m getting at–let me try again.

was thinking about books. I was thinking about how there are all kinds of books: books that make you think, books that instruct you or improve your mind, books that entertain you, and books that distract you from problems of real life. And there are a few good books that take you deeper into real life.

It seemed sort of like different kinds of food–think of a four or five-course meal. There’s an appetizer, which may be excellent in a light, anticipatory way, but mainly serves to whet your appetite for something more filling. There are books like that.

There are also books more like salads than anything else–which are good for you but perhaps not the most delightful to devour, sometimes read as an obligation before you can get on to what you really want.

There are all sorts of dessert books: enjoyable, fluffy delights that are usually the most fun to read. They’re not always the healthiest, and sometimes they distract more than help you to think.

And there’s a main course. Think of any rich, hearty food you like–say, roast beef and potatoes, really excellently made. There is a sort of book that ought, anyway, to do most of the filling and which had better take you deeper into real life than merely help you escape it for a few hours.  I’ve been thinking of this lately: what are some books that are like that in the way they portray true life, even through fiction?

You can flip back to the place you saved in thought, where we were talking about what “ruminate” means. I mentioned early on that I think of a stew, but I didn’t explain why. I like thinking of synonyms for words I like, and one synonym for “ruminate” could be, I think, “to simmer.” I’m not sure you’ll find that in a thesaurus, but it makes sense to me to identify words like “simmer, meditate, ponder, and ruminate” with something like a slow-cooking, savory stew. One reason people always use “savory” to describe a stew is because you’ve got all these different tastes and textures in the same dish and it takes on a little of every ingredient. You taste all these elements and you can’t have one without the other.

[If you hate orange vegetables, don’t read this bit or I’ll ruin this illustration, but think of carrots by themselves versus carrots in stew. They’re not even the same vegetable anymore, because the stewed carrots have taken on eight or nine other flavors and absorbed them.]

My point is just that I’ve found some books like this, that draw on what’s been written previously and turn both works into something glorious. Some examples: Snake, by D.H. Lawrence, alluding wonderfully to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Or Milton’s Paradise Lost, drawing in part from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. There are so many beautiful things in literature that I miss because I don’t take the time to dwell on what it’s saying or what’s been said before.

I’d forgotten how lovely a good book can be. Caught up in books of instruction (none of which are bad) and fact, I forgot how deeply a good author can probe and help me reflect earnestly on real life. Recently I read C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, and I suddenly remembered. He’d redeemed a story I loved anyway, and made it better than before. It was a story that prompted thought, rather than suspended it. It took me this whole time to get to it, but if you haven’t read it I wholeheartedly recommend that you do.

If you have read it, or if you’ve thought, while reading this, of another especially lovely book, feel free to share those thoughts. Thanks for reading.

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