There’s mustard on pages 51, 52, and 53 of this copy of C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy. No doubt, at some point, you became hungry. And I would guess, in all probability, that you had a sandwich. A sandwich, as everyone knows, is the perfect food to eat when you are reading because you can hold it in one hand while you hold the book in the other. The only problem is that eventually, you will have to turn the page. When this event looms, the sandwich must be dropped and the pages turned with the sandwich hand. Surely, this is how mustard got on the pages of the book. I have made this deduction because of my many years of experience in reading and eating.
You got up from the couch, wandered into the kitchen, book still clutched in your hand, looking for sustenance. You made a sandwich—toasted thick sliced bread with generous amounts of mustard and mayonnaise, fresh sliced tomatoes, crisp lettuce, jaggedly cut cheddar cheese, and piles of deli turkey. You sat to eat it at the kitchen table, the book held in your left hand, the sandwich held in your right. You were reading, forward, slowly and carefully chewing the sandwich, the bread squishing closer together as you bit into it, the slices of bread parting wider at the opposite end of the bite, allowing the tomato to slide precariously towards the plate, and mustard to ooze out of the back end onto your fingers. Then, you had to turn the page. So you turned the page.
Some people may wonder why you did not wipe your mustardy, sandwich-y fingers on a napkin before you turned the page of the book. Surely, any sensible person would not get mustard on their book? But only some strange creature that has never read while eating, would ever ask such a question. There is never time to wipe your fingers before you turn the page. It would break your concentration! You would have to stop, fall out of the enchantment that had been carefully woven around you by the ebb and flow of the story in order to look up and find a napkin, which would be nowhere near the kitchen table. No one who reads and eats ever wipes their fingers before they turn the page. Who are these readers? They are not like you and I, who wander with our nose in the book from the kitchen table, to lay stomach down on the bed, or sprawl idly on the couch, or even squish and contort into the armchair by the window. They are not here, devouring book and sandwich alike. And you are not really here in this room, at this table, on this couch, or on that bed either. You are somewhere else entirely. You are in the story. There is no napkin in the story.
And that, of course, is why you are eating in the first place. Adventures make a reading body very hungry. What’s the difference between an adventure and a story? Trick question. There is no difference. Take The Horse and His Boy, for example. The fifth book in Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia tells the story of a young boy named Shasta who lives with a vile old fisherman. One day, a knight and his warhorse stop there for the night and the fisherman decides to sell Shasta into slavery. But the warhorse is no ordinary horse; he’s a talking Narnian horse and the two of them—well, really the horse decides—that they should escape back to Narnia. So begin their adventures. By the time the three of you get to the middle part of the adventure (which happens to be around page 51), you have been on a weeks long journey on horseback across Calormen, desperately trying to get to Narnia. You’ve been running from lions, and plotting how to get through the great city of Tashban without your being recognized by anyone. No wonder you are hungry! You couldn’t possibly proceed across a desert without a sandwich. My god! You aren’t a machine.
This always happens to readers, because fact is, reading produces hunger. It does this, because stories play havoc with time. How long have you been away? Days? Weeks? Only a few hours! How is this possible when you’ve gone through months of drama, intrigue, plot, and adventure? People have grown up. Others have died, and yet it is only three in the afternoon. The spatial-temporal displacement that we call reading is a phenomenon that has not been adequately studied, especially its effects on the stomach. In your mind’s eye, you are elsewhere. You have experienced days in the space of one sitting. You have crossed oceans and continents. You have fought and fled, loved and died, a thousand times. You feel as the characters feel, as if you were one and the same person: lust, longing, heart racing, heart beating, fear, and fury. So that by the time you get to this meal scene in the book, you find yourself as hungry as Shasta. Having climbed barefoot across hill and dell, stone and grass, you are famished.
Now, what? What is it that you want? Breakfast, by god. Breakfast. You may have to set the book down for just a moment—not closed and flat on the table but open, arching upwards, making spine of the book crack in the middle—as you leap up to open cupboards and refrigerator doors in a vain attempt to discover bacon and mushrooms, fried eggs and toast, coffee and cream. Your mouth will water having read the lovingly described breakfast the dwarves have cooked: “And immediately, mixed with the sizzling sound, there came to Shasta a simply delightful smell. It was one he had never smelled in his life before, but I hope you have. It was, in fact, the smell of bacon and eggs and mushrooms all frying in a pan.” You will most definitely have smelled this before, and because of this, you will want just such a breakfast. Right now! It really does not matter to you whatsoever that you may or may not have eaten a sandwich just pages prior. That was days ago in story-time! It will not matter to you one bit that it is 11 p.m. where you are. It is morning in Narnia, which is where you’ve just come from, and to where you are going back.
Of course, you will discover that no such delights exist in your cupboard or your refrigerator. You will find something very unlike bacon or eggs or mushrooms to munch on while you make your way through the final pages of your book. Maybe it is a stale piece of Halloween candy, long forgotten in the back recesses of the cabinet. Maybe it is another sandwich, less satisfying, since you ate the last of the turkey. Maybe it is a package of saltines covered in peanut butter. It will not be anything like bacon. It will not resemble eggs. It will not taste like breakfast. You will munch on it in desultory fashion, escaping back into the book, disappointed with your food options in the here and now. For days afterwards, you will long for the breakfast you only ate in your mind. And when you finally get such a breakfast, you will find it as a comforting and satisfying as the story you read.
Angela Toscano is a human female. Sometimes, she is also a graduate student who studies the early 18th century novel. She tries very hard not to get food on her library books. Follow her @lazaraspaste.
Eat Your Words is a bi-monthly series where writers discuss memorable literary food scenes and meditate on eating while reading. Please send queries and submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.