Digesting ideas

Some things you don’t understand from the get-go

In Haruki Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, one character tells a story to another, a story related to him originally by his father. At the end, the listener asks the storyteller whether his father believed the somewhat extraordinary events in the story.

The storyteller replies:

I think he totally accepted it as the weird tale it was. Like the way a snake will swallow its prey and not chew it, but instead let it slowly digest.

—Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, pg. 84

I like the visual of the snake. It’s a handy metaphor for how I understand learning. Sometimes we’re confronted with an idea that we don’t yet have the capacity to critique. We incorporate it into us, slowly considering the idea’s implications as we digest it.

This notion of digesting ideas reminds me of an observation Alberto Manguel makes in A History of Reading:

Just as writers speak of cooking up a story, rehashing a text, having half-baked ideas for a plot, spicing up a scene or garnishing the bare bones of an argument, turning the ingredients of a potboiler into soggy prose, a slice of life peppered with allusions into which readers can sink their teeth, we, the readers, speak of savouring a book, of finding nourishment in it, of devouring a book at one sitting, of regurgitating or spewing up a text, of ruminating on a passage, of rolling a poet’s words on the tongue, of feasting on poetry, of living on a diet of detective stories.

—Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, pg. 170–71

Later, Manguel adapts the common phrase “you are what you eat” to this sense, writing that “we are what we read.” This “gastronomic metaphor” applies as much to reading as to thinking. (Perhaps this is no surprise: for me, the two are closely entwined.) Slowly, as we digest ideas, we change—they become part of us.