Today on Project Gutenberg #61

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Feeding the Mind by Lewis Carroll

Shock of all shocks, Lewis Carroll did more than just write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I mean, I knew that, but do most people? We might also call him by his real name, Charles Dodgson, if we feel so inclined. When he wasn’t busy writing the most famous children’s books to ever be corrupted into grimdark fantasy and/or drug use metaphors, Carroll/Dodgson was a man of many talents. A mathematician, a photographer, an inventor, et cetera. The piece we are reading today was never officially published during his lifetime, as far as I can tell. There is a note at the beginning from a William H. Draper dated 1907, about nine years after Carroll’s death. Draper claims that Carroll wrote this piece in 1884 to give as a public lecture.

As you might expect, then, the piece is rather short. Its subject, as the title implies, is how to properly nourish the brain with appropriate reading material and how to actually be well-read as opposed to just appearing so. Carroll packs a lot of opinions into just a few paragraphs. He says that “we should set ourselves to provide for our mind its proper kind of food” (page 19), as well as the proper amounts: “over-reading…is a dangerous propensity, tending to weakness of digestive power, and in some cases to loss of appetite” (Page 20). People should also take the time to actually think over the books they’ve read and compartmentalize the information so it can be found later. To Carroll, the mark of a genuinely smart person seems to be whether or not someone can read a nonfiction essay and then answer questions about it afterwards. And the whole thing is wrapped up in an extended food metaphor, playing up the idea that we should care for our minds the way we do our bodies.

Mr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his very amusing book, ‘The Professor at the Breakfast Table,’ gives the following rule for knowing whether a human being is young or old: ‘The crucial experiment is this—offer a bulky bun to the suspected individual just ten minutes before dinner. If this is easily accepted and devoured, the fact of youth is established.’ He tells us that a human being, ‘if young, will eat anything at any hour of the day or night.’

To ascertain the healthiness of the mental appetite of a human animal, place in its hands a short, well-written, but not exciting treatise on some popular subject—a mental bun, in fact. If it is read with eager interest and perfect attention, and if the reader can answer questions on the subject afterwards, the mind is in first-rate working order. If it be politely laid down again, or perhaps lounged over for a few minutes, and then, ‘I can’t read this stupid book! Would you hand me the second volume of “The Mysterious Murder”?’ you may be equally sure that there is something wrong in the mental digestion.

Pages 29-30

If you ask me, the whole thing is unbearably trite and patronizing. Carroll makes no secret of his disdain for people who don’t read the things he thinks they should — novel readers get it particularly bad — and the whole thing reeks of a sense of intellectual superiority. Yes, people should read often and read outside their comfort zone and learn critical thinking. But Carroll’s tone throughout the whole piece is too off-putting for you to absorb his message. He comes off like a real killjoy, is what I’m trying to say. Honestly, my main takeaway from the whole thing is that it’s hilarious irony for Lewis Carroll of all people to be telling us to read serious nonfiction rather than “indigestible” novels with little true substance. Dude, if we all did that, no one would still know who you are after 150+ years.

So yeah, I would say skip this even though it’s short. In fact, we might say there are much better things to feed your mind with.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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