This month’s Brain/Food subject is the incomparable Rohan Maitzen: English professor, blogger, editor, and activist for online scholarly engagement. (I’ve always loved the fact that it is, without fail, the Victorian specialists who are most likely, in any given English department, to be the movers and shakers when it comes to new technologies; dear post-modernists: stop writing with your fingers dipped in water, no one is taking you seriously anymore.)
Rohan introduced me to both George Eliot and the best Turkish food restaurant in Halifax, and so I’m pretty much beholden to her for life anyway—but even more so now that she’s done this Brain/Food interview for Jam and Idleness!
Oh, and she also reminded me that I really need to get back to Christina Rosetti—and eat dinner RIGHT NOW.
Do you associate and/or need a particular food in order to engage in really productive reading or writing? (E.g., I ate peanut butter toast so frequently while in grad school, I now can’t really get going on either without the toast.)
For me, the ultimate companion to a good book is a hot cup of tea—Murchie’s No. 22 blend, preferably, in a hefty pottery mug with a nice round shape for warming my hands on (I’m in Halifax, after all: I’m usually cold). If there are cookies around, that’s a bonus, but it’s settling in with my tea that makes me feel like I’m really reading. Sadly, nowadays I have to avoid caffeine in the evenings, but I’ve found that a glass of wine is a fine alternative!
In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie is described as being “lost to a vague sense of jam and idleness.” As you are a George Eliot specialist (indeed the person who introduced me to Eliot, bless your soul), I’m curious to know what such a phrase would look (and taste!) like in your life—either now, or as a child.
Browsing in a bookstore is the activity that feels most idly luxurious to me: contemplating the shelves gives me a wonderful sense of plenitude, and peering into tempting volumes gives me glimpse after glimpse of new ways to think and be without any imperatives to think or do anything in particular. But the taste of happy freedom to me is a latte drunk on the deck of Granville Island Market (in Vancouver) on a sunny day, idly watching the Aquabus putter back and forth and listening to the buskers and the sea gulls. Bliss!
What is the one book you love so much that you can’t be objective about other people not loving it as well?
I know you’re expecting me to say Middlemarch, but actually I have worked with it so often professionally that—while of course I love it profoundly—I have had to develop a thick skin for dealing with haters. The books I absolutely cannot be objective about are all six volumes in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. This amazing series captured my imagination utterly the first time I read it, decades ago now, and I have only to flip through a few pages to find myself once again under its spell—and especially under Lymond’s. If you have tried them and not loved them, I have nothing to say to you! Well, OK, I’d still talk to you, but I’d always quietly count it against you as a character flaw.
What is your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book?
I hardly ever run into anyone else who has read Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field, which is one of my very favorite contemporary novels. It is beautifully written and structured, and exceptionally smart. It’s a novel about women’s friendships and about families, but more than that it’s a novel about the examined life and the myriad ways our hearts perplex our heads. It contains some of the best writing I know about music—and about loss.
Favourite childhood book?
That depends how far back you want me to go! The first book I remember ever reading independently was Robert the Rose Horse, which was a great favourite of mine when I was very small. When I was five or six I fell in love with Jean Plaidy’s The Young Mary Queen of Scots (I still have my tattered copy). This was the beginning of a long obsession with historical fiction.
Who is your literary boyfriend or girlfriend? (They need not still be living, or they can be a character in a book.)
Lord Peter Wimsey—and he has no competition (well, except Lymond, but he’s more like a fantasy lover than a boyfriend). Not just any Peter, though: the Peter of Gaudy Night.*
What would your ideal desert island book be?
This one would have to be Middlemarch. A well-annotated edition, too, so that I could apply myself to all the things I still don’t know about it.
Favourite literary description of food?
“Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.”
That’s from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”—read it (out loud, of course) and tell me you aren’t licking your lips by the end!
Reading and eating simultaneously, yes or no? Dangers and benefits?
Yes, of course! The danger is getting food on your book, but long practice makes this risk minimal for me (I’ve been reading with meals since I was a child). The benefits are that you don’t waste time just sitting when you could also be reading. (For the same reason, whenever possible you should also read while walking.)**
What was your first cookbook? Do you still have it? How does it reflect who you are?
Easy Basics for Good Cooking. It’s a Sunset book with lots of simple explanations. I do still have it, because I’ve never really become an intuitive cook. I’ve also never been someone who finds cookbooks intrinsically entertaining. I just want to know how to get food on the table that people will eat and enjoy. I’d rather be reading than cooking!
Is it okay to write in cookbooks? What about novels or books of poetry? What’s the difference?
I write in all my books. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but across all genres my annotations are pretty utilitarian. In cookbooks, I write in adjustments or substitutions that I’ve worked out over time—or I ruthlessly cross out recipes that we didn’t like (to make quite sure I don’t forget and make them again!) or that contain foods my daughter is allergic to. In novels I flag passages I want to come back to, or bits that I think might add up to something worth talking about if I write them up or teach them. I only read poetry for teaching (I should change this!) so again, I’m keeping track of things more than recording more personal responses. I’m not leaving any great revelations for posterity in my marginalia.
Describe what for you would be the bookish equivalent of an ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer day? How about a steaming hot chocolate on a freezing January night during a snowpocalypse?
Ice-cold lemonade: let’s see. That means it should be refreshing, invigorating, and not too sweet. Something cool, maybe even satirical—but delightfully, not harshly, so. Is there a cooler, fresher, more delightful book than Pride and Prejudice? It’s the ultimate literary palate cleanser.
Steaming hot chocolate, on the other hand, means sweetly comforting. The novel that I find most heart-warming is Dorothy Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon, which borders on cloying but which I adore nonetheless. Perhaps it’s because I’m completely enamoured of both Peter and Harriet that I tolerate a degree of sentimentality in their relationship that I might otherwise scoff at. Sure, there’s a murder, but in that creepy way that Golden Age mysteries have, it manages not to be chilling at all. I find it disturbingly easy to forget the nasty old man lying dead in the basement and just enjoy the romance.
If you could replace those little Gideon Bibles in hotel room nightstands with any book at all, what would it be? What would you have left on guests’ pillows to replace the ubiquitous mint?
Since it’s probably too much to expect anyone to read Middlemarch overnight in a hotel, my vote goes to Silas Marner. It offers as much moral and spiritual uplift as the Bible without the more problematic aspects. Mints are boring, I agree. How about brandy chocolates on the pillows? Or perhaps a bit of candied ginger.
**There is actually a WikiHow article on how to read and walk simultaneously. I feel strongly, perhaps unfairly so, that if you need instructions on this you’re not doing enough either reading or walking to begin with, and are a danger to society.