Devouring Books (November 19–January 27), the new exhibition in the Ryerson Library, investigates the relationship of books and food throughout the ages, and complements Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine. Examples of books becoming the literal food of bookworms are on view, as are literary treasures with food acting as the catalyst for high adventure. But how early were these commodities linked in the popular imagination? Did literacy (and the advent of the cookbook) improve (and democratize) culinary pursuits? A look at one of the earliest objects in the show and its intended audience may offer some clues toward the most curious literary tastes of all.
“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”
This paraphrase comes from a letter the extremely well-read Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote to a friend on April 12, 1500. (In fact, the original Latin phrase discussed his obsession with books written in Greek, not just any books. But the sense remained the same.) Man (particularly a Renaissance humanist) could not subsist on bread alone.
The innovative German printmaker Albrecht Dürer never issued his dramatically illustrated Apocalypse (Book of Revelations) in the original Greek, as vividly imagining the end of the world in Latin and German seemed sufficient.
Yet Erasmus, who was one of the biggest champions of the artist’s prints, likely owned the Latin version of Dürer’s Apocalypse from 1498. One of the most startling woodcuts shows Saint John, who was said to have written this very Book of Revelations, receiving his inspiration from a fiery, disembodied being in the form of a book. This entity demands he eat the book, which he does, simultaneously devouring the knowledge it contains.
“And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire: and he had in his hand a little book open: . . . And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter. And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.”
(King James Version)
While Erasmus retained his library to the end of his days (and did not have to liquidate or burn it to feed or warm himself), he too took on a proselytizing role. Erasmus even appeared in a much-copied Dürer portrait engraving with seven of his beloved books. Comments like his humorous privileging of books over food made clear his stance on the importance of education to feed the mind. From the beginnings of letterpress in the fifteenth century, printed books, including many by Erasmus himself, fed voracious appetites of all kinds.
Albrecht Dürer. Saint John Devouring the Book, from The Apocalypse, c. 1496–98, published 1511. The Charles Deering Collection.
Albrecht Dürer. Saint John Devouring the Book (detail), from The Apocalypse, c. 1496–98, published 1511. The Charles Deering Collection.