A good book, like a good meal, is a multisensory experience. For instance, one cannot devour Thomas Mann with the eyes alone, but should take him with a good dose of Richard Strauss. Philip K. Dick, on the other hand, pairs best with the likes of John Cage, Dashiell Hammett with Gershwin.
Music, however, can only set the mood at best – more than sound is necessary to truly bring a book alive. Of course, good writing helps, and one might almost call it a prerequisite, but even the tawdriest of prose can jump off the page with the help of the right drink.
As a literary critic, I take chances with my reading material. I have to if I want to fill this column on a semi-regular basis. Great literature doesn’t just pop up in bookstores every two weeks or so. Now and then, I get hold of a book so bad that it’s simply stunning (Jock Young’s Epsilon Zeta comes to mind. It read like a 12-year-old’s wet dream), but that is rare enough.
Much more typical is the case of Brian Hayes’ Group Theory in the Bedroom, a deceptively titled book of essays about complicated math. After muddling my way through the first of these, I asked a friend majoring in math and economics to skim a chapter or two, worried that Hayes’ writing would be accessible only to those for whom advanced math was an everyday activity. I was wrong; even he had no idea what was going on.
Disheartened, I turned to drink. Drunk, I turned back to Hayes’ essays – and got them.
I won’t say that I could replicate his math. I won’t even say that I attempted to puzzle out his equations. What I got were the bigger ideas he was trying to communicate, the actual intention behind what had previously seemed only opaque exercises in mathematical esoterica. And I couldn’t have done so without Gordon’s gin.
But that’s a rather gauche and unprofessional story. The average readers need not imbibe themselves into literary comprehension, always having the option of simply setting a book down – for good, if need be.
Of what use, then, is this column? The answer depends on how seriously you’re willing to take what might seem like an astonishingly pretentious suggestion: that you begin pairing your literature and your liquor – treat a fine book like a fine meal, and select an accompanying drink accordingly. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you wait to start reading until you’re already three sheets to the wind. I’m merely advocating the responsible co-selection of reading and drinking material.
A crisp mojito might bring added life to Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (a good tempranillo will pair better with Death in the Afternoon, a cheap sangria with The Sun Also Rises). Bourbon adds flavor to William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren and all the best tragedians of the postbellum South. You can’t beat a cream sherry when reading Dickens, while Stevenson’s sea stories go down easy with rum. The great Irish modernists remain a question all their own – does Joyce pair better with a stout or an Irish whiskey? (Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, I can state from personal experience, is the sort of romp that works well with the former.) And I simply won’t go into the bizarre and eldritch concoctions Hunter S. Thompson’s best work calls for.
There’s no exact science to this, of course, and nobody’s going to fault you for mixing Sartre with Schlitz anymore than they’d criticize your combining Shakespeare with Schoenberg. Snobs, of course, may scoff at your taste, but they’d mock that merlot whatever you were reading. The point isn’t to impress anybody – the point’s to enjoy yourself and to add a new dimension to your favorite literature while you’re at it.
But really – Schlitz?
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.