Tuesday, November 25, 2008


if i had to state my one, true, enduring passion, for something, not someone, it's books and reading.

i have lots of books. i am not precious about whether i buy them new, or second-hand. i don't like writing in them in pen, that is a no-no, but i have made notes in pencil. i stopped lending them to friends because i had to then make a list of what went where, and then often-times ask for them back. in the past, i've lost copies of books, so now i have to say "i'm sorry, i don't lend my books to anyone" and it's a similar line to the one i give the beggars on the streets, "i'm sorry, i don't give money to people on the street." they don't quite know what to do with that one. i give them full eye contact, and there is sincerity in my voice. somehow, though, i've managed to misplace my copy of hemingway's the sun also rises. this annoys me, because despite my non-lending policy, i don't have it here. and i bought it overseas last year, second-hand in florence, and it was here. where is it?

other people who lend me their books, indeed foist them upon me, well, what can i say? i accept, i read, and i return. meticulously. i make sure their names are in the front cover, and i make sure i don't keep them too long.

i actually found a copy of one of my books in a friend's book-case years after i'd obviously lent it to him. there was my name in the front cover.

so i think i've mentioned this online used book ordering service called abebooks.com. you can search and order books from all over the world. i haven't failed in one of my searches yet. another one was in the letterbox today: food, a history.

this is another book i've had written down on a scrap of paper for years, and i can't remember where i saw it, what specifically made me want it. it arrived today from syracuse, ny, and this is in chapter 1, the invention of cooking. while i am omitting all footnotes, i note where they occur to show that the claims and statements made are supported by other works. this is scholarly, but oh so readable.

"It is no way to eat oysters. You see the fastidious eater-out fiddling with them in restaurants, coating them with lemon juice strained through muslin napkins, or dousing them with bizarrely flavoured vinegars, or sprinkling them with glowing strains of vermilion tabasco or some other blindingly, chokingly hot liquor. This is deliberate provocation, designed to refresh the bivalves before death, a little mild torture under which you can sometimes feel that you see the victims wriggle or flinch. Then the diner manipulates spoon and scoop, prising and sliding the oyster out of its bed onto a curl of cold silver. As he raises the slick, slippery molusc to his lips, the sheen of the creature clashes with the shine of the cutlery.

Most people like to eat oysters that way, but it means they forfeit the full, true oyster moment. Unless you discard the utensils, raise the half-shell to your mouth, throw back your head, scrape the creature from its lair with your teeth, taste its briny juice, and squelch it slightly against the palate before swallowing it alive, you deprive yourself of a historic experience. For most of history, oyster-eaters enjoyed the slightly fetid, tangy smell of the inside of the shell, undoused with the disguising sweetness of aromatic acids. This was the was Ausonius liked them, in 'their sweet juice, mingled with a sensation of the sea'. Or in the words of a modern oyster expert, your aim is to receive 'some piercing intuition of the sea, and all its weeds and breezes... You are eating the sea, that's it, only the sensation of a gulp of sea water has been wafted out of it by some sorcery.'[fn]

For almost uniquely the repertoire of modern western cuisin, the oyster is eaten uncooked and unkilled. It is the nearest thing we have to 'natural' food - the only dish which deserves to be called 'au naturel' without irony. Of course, when you eat oysters in a restaurant, the shell has been barbed and unclamped with all the panoply of civilization by a trained professional, wielding appropriate technology, an inviolable ritual and a stylish flourish. Before that, the oyster was reared underwater on a stone tile or wooden trellis, herded in an oyster-bed, grown for years under expert eyes and harvested by practised hands - not plucked from a rock-pool as a prize seized from nature. Still, it is the food that unites us with all our ancestors - the dish you consume in what is recognizably the way people have encountered their nourishment since the first emergence of our species.

Even if you are one of those people who think they hear the scream of the pear or peanut as they seize it and munch it raw, you will still find virtually no food in modern western cuisine as convincingly 'natural' as the oyster, for, with very few exceptions, such as some fungi and seaweeds, the fruits and vegetables we eat - even the 'wild' berry picked from the bramble - are the result of generations or aeons of selective breeding by man; the oyster remains a product of little modified natural selection and varies markedly from sea to sea. Furthermore, we eat it while it is still alive. Other creatures have more food of this kind. Australian Aboriginals [sic] guzzle witjuri grubs, prised from gum trees, plump with half-digested wood-pulp in their guts. Nenets chomp the living lice lifted from their own bodies, 'like candy'. [fm] Nuer lovers are said to show mutual affection by feeding each other lice freshly plucked from their heads. Masai drink blood squeezed from wounds in live cattle. Ethiopians like honeycombs with the young larvae still alive in the chambers. And we have oysters. 'There is a dreadful solemnity' in eating them, as Somerset Maugham observed, which 'a sluggish fancy cannot grasp',[fn] and which would surely make the Walrus weep without hypocrisy. What is more, oysters are fairly unusual among raw foods because they are generally ruined by cooking. To put them in steak-and-kidney puddings or skewer them wrapped in bacon, as the English do, or smother them in various kinds of cheese sauce, as in the dishes called Oysters Rockefeller and Oysters Musgrave, or to stuff them in an omelette, as in the signature dish of the regional cuisine of the Chinese province of Xiamen, or to chop them for stuffing veal or big fish, is to smother their taste. Inventive recipes can occasionally be more successful: I once had an impressive dish of oysters at the Athenaeum, in London, lightly poached in wine vinegar and pasted wtih spinach-flavoured bechamel. Such experiments are justified for fun but rarely advance the frontiers of gastronomy.

The oyster is an extreme case, but all raw food is fascinating because it is anomalous - an apparent throwback to a pre-civilized world and even to a pre-human phase of evolution. Cooking is one of relatively few odd practices which are peculiarly human - odd, that is, in the scales of nature, judged by the standards of common approaches to nourishment, as evinced by most species. One of history's longest and most luckless quests has been the search for the essence of humanity, the defining characteristics which makes human beings human and distinguishes them collectively from other animals. The effort has led nowhere and the only objectively verifiable fact which sets our species apart from others is that we cannot successfully mate with them. Most of the other features commonly alleged are inadmissable or unconvincing. Some are plausible but partial. We arrogate 'consciousness' to ourselves without knowing quite what it is or whether other creatures have it. We claim unique powers of language - but other animals, were we able to communicate with them, might dispute this. We are relatively inventive in problem-solving, relatively adaptable in our ability to inhabit varied environments, relatively dexterous in our use of tools - especially of missiles. We are relatively ambitious in our works of art and in making embodiments of our imaginations. In some respects, in these connections, the gaps between human behaviour and that of other species are so enormous as to qualify, perhaps, as differences of quality. We are genuinely unique in exploiting fire: although some apes can be taught to use it, too, for limited applications like lighting a cigarette or releasing an odour of incense, or even keeping a fire alight, this only happens under human instruction and only people have ever taken the initiative in harnessing flame. [fn] Cooking is at least as good as all the other candidates in an index of the humanity of humankind - except for one serious qualification: in the vast span of human history, cooking is a late innovation. There is no possible evidence of it that is more than half a million years old, no absolutely convincing evidence from more than about 150,000 years ago.

Of course, it all depends on what one means by cooking. Cultivation, in some eyes, is a form of cookery - 'terram excoquere', as Virgil called it - exposing clods to the baking sun, turning the earth into an oven for seeds. [fn] Animals with suitably robust stomachs prepare their food by chewing the cud: why should this not be classed as cooking? In hunting cultures, the men who make the kill often reward themselves with a meal of the partially digested contents of the stomach of their prey: instant replacement for the energy expended in the hunt. This is a kind of natural proto-cookery - the earliest known incidence of eating processed food. Many species, including ours, make food edible for infants or the infirm by chewing and regurgitating it. Warmed in the mouth, attacked by gastric juices, pounded by mastication, it acquires some of the properties of food processed by the application of heat. The moment you rinse your food in water - as some monkeys do with some nuts - you start to process it, and indeed there are real raw-food freaks who like to leave on the dirt. Like Farmer Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd, they would 'never fuss about dirt in its pure state.'

As soon as you squirt lemon juice at your oyster, you are beginning to alter it, to apply changes which affect texture and taste: a generous defintion might call this cooking. A marinade, applied for a long time, can be as transforming in its effects as the application of heat or smoke. Hanging meat to make it gamy, or just leaving it around to rot a little, is a way of processing for texture and digestibility: it is obviously an older technique than cooking by means of fire. Wind-drying, which is a specialized form of hanging, works a profound biochemical change on some foods. So does burying - a technique, once common to induce fermentation, rarely used in modern western cuisine but commemorated in the name of gravlax: literally, 'grave-salmon'. Burial as quasi-cookery is also recalled in the dark tint now chemically applied to kinds of cheese which were traditionally preserved in the earth. Among some horseborne nomads, cuts of meat are rendered edible by being warmed and pressed in the horse's sweat under the saddle on a long ride. [fn] Churning milk is a process of almost alchemical magic: a liquid becomes a solid, white becomes gold. Fermentation is even more magical, because it can turn a boring, staple grain into a potion that can change behaviour, suppress inhibitions, conjure visions and unlock imaginary realms. Why should cooking with kindled flame be privileged among all these startling ways of transforming food?"

i'll stop there. the above passage finishes halfway through page 5. PAGE 5. can you imagine what delights await me?

it has occurred to me over the recent years that i have some sort of fiction-fatigue. i've read so many novels, that they all seem to, while not the same, follow similar plot lines, like commercial movies do. it surprises and delights when i read something that is different, unfamiliar and unpredictable. i know there is different fiction out there, but it just seems hard to commit at times. it's like making new friends once you're over 40. i just can't be bothered, really.

non-fiction, like that above, is fresh and unpredictable. i can find out things i didn't know, find out more about topics i know a little about.

my reading has bothered people over the years. once, my ex-husband ripped up a couple of books in a fit of rage, i wasn't paying him enough attention perhaps. he hated my reading, so much. it was a continual source of conflict between us. but did i stop reading? no.

if i could, i would lie in bed all day, day after day, reading. if it were the olden days, i would be one of those spinsterly women, slightly sickly, who sits and reads, because it's all she has. i would take to my bed regularly, withdrawing from the world and all in it, and read. hell, i do that now.

can you read too much? i think so. my daughter is way more of a reader than i was at that age. my reading obsession didn't really kick in until i was in my mid-to-late teens. sure, i read heaps before then. all the standard books, and some non-standard. i remember climbing onto my parents' bed and riffling through the cupboard, i found a novel called the fan club, by irving wallace, a story about a fan club of misfits and psychos who kidnap a movie actress who is part marilyn monroe, part sharon tate, and the hottest, sexiest star in all of hollywood. from memory, there were four guys in the fanclub, one was like a nice guy, one was like a loser-nerd-creep premature ejaculator, one was a bastard woman-hater, and i can't remember the other one. it's a very misogynistic book, as the men all take turns raping her (the rapes in great detail) and basically she gets smart, and realised that she has to make them think she is falling in love with each and every one of them, but they all have to keep it secret from each other. in the end i think she escapes, possibly she kills one of more of them.

my dad liked erotic literature, so i read his emmanuel books, the story of o, as well as the fan club one. i couldn't have been older than 13 or 14, because it was around then that my parents split, so the books wouldn't have been there after that. i can see the scene, dad like steve martin as the jerk, i don't need anything, well, just my irving wallace, that's all i need, my irving wallace and oh, this story of o. that's all i need as he shuffled out the door, suitcase in hand.

i have over the years tried to find a copy of the fan club. i wonder if it is still as erotic as i remember it. i'm wanting to get some david foster wallace books (as a result of an article in the current monthly, oh what a good publication that is). maybe if i order a couple david fosters and the irving, the bookseller won't notice that i'm ordering crap with my quality.

reading at the moment: bio of princess masako of japan, the duchess, the seven words you can't say on television, steven pinker, barack obama's dreams of my father.

doing: the age quick crossword and avoiding doing a letterbox drop for unchain st kilda, make sure you vote council out!


KittyMeow said...

Man I am a true book addict. I have been neglecting my addiction lately for my Nintendo DS - the sense of escapism is similar!

If I'm reading, I can go for hours on end - staying late just to finish my book. Rarely anything lasts me more than a week.

About predictive plot lines - I find going along for the journey is more enjoyable than knowing what the ending will be. My favourite "journey" author is Tad Williams. He can spin a story over 5 books long, over 800 pages each and suck you in so far that you dont even worry about knowing that its all gonna come good in the end.

As for someone who's novels often leave you feeling like you've been slapped in the face, I recommend Iain Banks - or Iain M Banks for his sci-fi. Its pretty nerdy stuff but he has a great ability for pulling the rug from beneath your feet.

squib said...

Those are three anathemas for me: not lending books out, not giving beggars money, and oysters

Mex said...

i stopped lending books out after one of my friends in high school returned a book to me squashed torn and with BENT OVER PAGES. i was mortified and vowed to never lend again!

i will greedily borrow books from others though. i love reading which i think comes from my mother. we have an agreement in the family that when my mother dies i will get the books and my sister gets the chesterfield couch. mother often spends days in the confines of her bedroom devouring book after book and i can definitely stay up all night happily evading sleep to do the same. my boyf has been charged with building me a new bookshelf because the books as they are now are spilling across the floors. quite gross.

Melba said...

squib i'm confused by your double negatives. you hate lending out books, giving beggars money and oysters, or you hate people who don't lend books, give money to beggars and oysters.

the only thing clear was you don't like oysters.

i love 'em. that's why that text resonated so strongly with me, especially the bit about it's like tasting the sea.

mmmm. mouth watering right now.

kitty, thanks. might look them up. i'm not into sci-fi, but who knows? should keep an open mind.

mex - a choice between a chesterfield couch and a bunch of books? no decision there. i'm with you.

KittyMeow said...

Iain Banks stuff under that name (without the M) is not sci-fi. I couldn't tell you exactly what genre really. Drama? Trippy drama? He has a beautiful way of describing humanity and emotions. I urge you to read The Bridge - Its about a man that has a car accident and the realisations and hallucinations/dreams/memories he has while he is in a coma.

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squib said...

hmmm okay I like lending books out, I have no problem with giving money to beggars, and I hate oysters

It's nice to know a book I have enjoyed might be enjoyed by someone else. Most of them come back

Beggars. I can't imagine saying no

Oysters. Yuck

That's all

Rant Rambler said...

First of all, I'm new to the blogging world, and thanks for your blog, I'm really enjoying it (despite the oysters - yuck!).

I definitely do not lend books. Books are precious and carefully placed in cupboards with glass doors to protect them from dust.

It all comes from the day some friends borrowed some comic books and returned a mess of colourful dirty papers. Comic books and books are incredibly expensive and I'm not rich, so a zero tolerance, and no lending policy were needed.

However, I devour every book and comic book I can borrow from others, which of course I treat and take care of better than their owners.

Anonymous said...

I loaned a book to someone back when i was in Widget University, and i never got it back. That was about twenty years ago, and i still have moments when i stop and stare into the distance, wondering if i'll ever get that book back.

It was about the 'theft' of the pacific by European colonial expansionism.

I don't loan my books out anymore.

I wouldn't have loaned it out then, but it was a girl who wanted it, and, well, you know the rest.

Pepsi said...

That made my mouth water for fresh oysters, when all I had to hand was a banana.

I lend only the books I've regreted buying so would prefer they'd never come back.

I have also been know to buy gifts of books for friends/family with a 'PS: can I borrow it when you're done' in the card - works a treat.

Melbs, I would also concur with Kitty, Iain Banks for quality drama - I would recommend.

I have also ventured to the M as well, though did struggle getting my head around the culture - I have sci-fi geek tendancies.

Oysters natural - yum-o!!!!

KittyMeow said...

Pepsi, I looooove the Culture stuff - It does take a little while to get into it cos Banks offers no explanation for the science straight up. Its only later that he'll sometimes explain things. But I love how fast paced it is and I like his future universe. :-D

sublime-ation said...

I've always been a bookworm. And I am glad, because it has given me my career, even if it is a lowly paid, often arduous and frustrating one.

I rarely lend books out anymore, as often mine are some sort of special inherited book that has sentimental value, but a friend who I've kind of fallen out with just dropped off some books that had been borrowed, and I am pleased to say it was a beautiful feeling as I thought they'd been long lost.

One of the books was the book that made me want to really be writer, when I was 17.
So that is a nice flipside to the lending thing.

Also, why do non-readers feel so threatened by readers? I encounter this too.