Saturday, September 22, 2007

Food, Booze and Books

A friend of mine recently commented on my remarks on books that are difficult to read.

Just because everyone else likes something doesn't mean you have to. I don't like eating at fancy restaurants, I'd rather watch a game at a bar than in the stadium, and I don't like any of those books either.
This got me thinking. My comments about the books I haven’t read were intended more as a commentary on me, not a comment on the books. The fact that I find so many of the great books difficult is because they are difficult. Is that an excuse not to engage with them?

Reading great literature gives you the opportunity to sit under the teaching of the greatest minds of all time – of ALL time. A teacher can be long dead, his bones turned to dust, but through his book, he can teach you. You can learn from him. Sometimes this will only happen if you have the courage, the tenacity, the will and, indeed, the intellect, to engage him on the page. It is certainly a different experience from working with a living teacher, but at the same time, it is not. Some teachers are clear, pleasing to work with. They reach out to you and attempt to shape their ideas to your understanding. Other teachers dish out almost grudgingly, making you work for each step of growth in understanding.

The question is, which is more important; the ease with which you can grasp the idea, or the power of the idea itself? It is useful to separate the value of the content of ideas in a book, from the style or manner of the writing of it. There have been certain teachers in my life that I did not like at all. Yet my time with them was extremely valuable. I cannot say that they did not care about my learning. They did. Style was not the issue.

The fact is, some ideas are hard, and must be hard won. There is no other way.

What especially struck me about my friend’s comments is that in some ways it sounded much like me 20 years ago. Eating in fancy restaurants? Not for me. High falutin’ digs? Not comfortable. I have since learned that this says more about me than about the restaurant. How did I learn this? I have paid my money and I have eaten at fancy restaurants. I discovered that there are few experiences that parallel truly excellent dining.

My first experience, and most memorable (we always remember the first time, don’t we?) was at La Poulet au Dents in Norwich VT. I’m not sure it’s spelled correctly, but it is supposed to mean The Teeth of the Hen. I don’t believe it exists any longer. I took my bride there when we were on a vacation visiting family in NH during our time in exile in the Midwest. It was, up until that time, the most expensive meal I had ever had. It cost us over $100.00 in 1989. For a young married couple on limited means this was a significant splurge.

And it was pretty classy. It’s one of those places where the busboy comes out between courses with a little silver whisk broom and dustpan to sweep off your tablecloth. Yet I must say, it was one of the most delightful experiences I have ever had. We simply put ourselves in the hands of the staff. From the beginning we explained to our waiter that we had not experience with this type of cuisine or establishment and we asked for his recommendations. We were feeling adventurous and willing to try new things (as we usually are when it comes to food). Neither the staff nor the food disappointed.

When it was all done, I sat back feeling an amazed and delighted contentment. I had paid over a hundred bucks for a truly astounding experience of beauty and sensual delight. It was completely worth it, and my horizons had been greatly expanded.

I likened it to attending a musical concert. Many musical concerts will end up costing at least that much to attend. Yet we don’t think that’s particularly odd or unusual. This was music for the palate and the nose and the skin and the eyes. It was the shared enjoyment of good things, with someone I love deeply, and whose company in that quiet sharing was delightful. It came at a cost, and the return on that investment was enormous. You do get what you pay for. This is true on many levels.

More recently I have experienced something similar with another friend who introduced me to single malt scotch. This is certainly not a drink for the weak or flighty. It is a drink to be considered, pondered and enjoyed (pardon the pun) soberly. It actually takes a certain degree of concentration to appreciate it. This does not mean that it is a bad liquor. It is just that it is not an easily accessible liquor, aesthetically speaking. But is it worthy? Oh yes. Oh my yes!

Just don't expect to mix it with 7-up. You can drink it that way, but you will completely (and I mean COMPLETELY) miss the point.

So what does food and booze have to do with books? Just this. I am still young. I am growing into these books. I will be reading until I am dead. I will never stop trying to read War and Peace. I will someday actually tackle Calvin. My difficulty with these books simply means that I have some maturing to do. Someday, I may even learn to love opera. Some people for whom I have tremendous respect assure me that there is much in opera that is worthing learning to like.

Just because it is an acquired taste does not mean that it isn’t good. It just means that I can’t find that goodness yet. But when the time is right, I am confident that I will be ready to learn.

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