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Why am I always hungry when I read?

I have come to connect reading with food – a bond that grows particularly strong in summer.

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It began for me in childhood, when my hometown library rewarded kids in the summer reading program with cups of vanilla ice cream that we ladled onto our tongues with tiny wooden spoons.

That’s how I came to connect reading with food – a bond that, perhaps because of my personal history, always seems strongest in summer. I’m not alone, apparently, as a recent visit to my local library reminded me.

Where I live in Baton Rouge, we have a beautiful new headquarters library that will soon feature a companion café. In the meantime, a gelato stand serves patrons at the library entrance, and one recent Friday, a pizza vendor was peddling his pies to readers who were heading home for the evening with new stacks of books.

In the warm twilight, my teen-age son and I sat in the library courtyard and savored our gelato, the table beside us groaning with enough new titles to last us a month. We felt satisfied, both physically and mentally, though I knew the satisfaction would be teasingly fleeting.

Reading – especially summer reading – makes me insatiably hungry, a challenge for a bibliophile trying to watch his weight. If there’s a support group for such a thing, New York Times book critic Dwight Garner would probably be a member, too. “Perhaps you grew up, as I did, attaching your addiction to reading with an addiction to eating,” he recently confessed to readers.

The subject came up in passing within Garner’s review of Rita Dove’s “Collected Poems,” where Dove revealed herself as an enthusiast of the reading-and-eating habit as well.

Here’s a passage from Dove’s poem, “In the Old Neighborhood,” where she recalls her long habit of eating and reading at the same time:

I’ve read every book in this house,
I know which shelf to go to
to taste crumbling saltines
(don’t eat with your nose in a book!)
and the gritty slick of sardines,
silted bones of no consequence
disintegrating on the tongue....

That was Romeo and Juliet,
strangely enough, and just as odd
stuffed green olives
for a premature attempt at The Iliad
Candy buttons went with Brenda Starr,
Bazooka bubble gum with the Justice
League of America.  Fig Newtons
and King Lear, bitter lemon as well
for Othello, that desolate
conspicuous soul.
But Macbeth demanded  dry bread,
crumbs brushed from a lap
as I staggered off the cushions
contrite, having read far past
my mother’s calling.

Dove’s poem made me think of Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic who chronicled his nearly lifelong enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes in a 2012 book, “On Conan Doyle.” He recalled not only his first reading of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in boyhood, but what he was eating when he read it:

"With a dollar clutched in my fist, I pedaled my red Roadmaster bike to Whalen’s drugstore, where I quickly picked out two or three candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold bottle of Orange Crush. After my family had driven off in our new 1958 Ford, I dragged a blanket from my bed, spread it on the reclining chair next to the living room’s brass floor lamp, carefully arranged my provisions near to hand, turned off all the other lights in the house, and crawled expectantly under the covers with my paperback of The Hound – just as the heavens began to boom with thunder and the rain to thump against the curtained windows."  

All of this has come to mind as I pack a bag of books for a family beach trip next week. I’m bringing along, among other things, Dove’s “Collected Poems” and Sarah Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Café.” They should go great with the cheddar cheese, wheat crackers, and white wine I’m packing, too.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana and an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”       

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