A researcher traces the concept of taste in literature back to the 16th century

LAWRENCE – It turns out we can thank a guy named Bacon for the concept of “taste,” as in discerning the relative value of cultural goods.

That’s what Jonathan Lamb argues in a new article, “What Books Taste Like: Bacon and the Borders of the Book” in the journal Textual Cultures.

Jonathan LambThe University of Kansas associate professor of English argues that a key shift occurred with Francis Bacon’s famous 1597 aphorism on book consumption: “Some books should be tasted by bees, others must be swallowed by the bees, and some must be chewed and digested: that is to say, some books must only be read in parts; others to be read, but superficially, and some to be read fully and diligently and carefully.

This is much earlier than the Oxford English Dictionary citation for the first use of the word “taste” in the sense of aesthetic discrimination. Indeed, writers of the next century would quote and adapt Bacon’s line, Lamb said, a process that would result in a shift from “taste” in the sense of “sampling” to “taste” in the sense of discrimination and distinction.

This kind of tracking of trends in the use of published words over time has only recently been made possible and, in the case of the Early English Books Online database, with access offered by KU Libraries, Lamb said. The new article is based on research Lamb has done over the past two years for a book he has tentatively titled “How the World Became a Book in Shakespeare’s England.”

Lamb said he searched Early English Books Online “and found the language of the books everywhere I could. So when Bacon says certain books should be relished, that’s just one of 5,000 examples I’ve collected of language like this. It includes things like “the book of nature.” People needed a way to talk about the natural world, and the book gave them a structured metaphor to do so. Another example is the phrase “turning a new page”. Most people today think it refers to a leaf on a tree, but it was a popular bookish metaphor in the 17th century.

Bacon’s remark about tasting books struck a chord with his contemporary readers, Lamb said.

“What makes Bacon’s version special,” Lamb wrote, “is, first, that it intersects the idea of ​​tasting as sampling with the idea of ​​eating as understanding and, second, that dozens of writers have repeated his line and used it as a prompt… By redirecting the notion of taste from a quality of books to a faculty of readers… Bacon opens the door to the modern notion of taste as aesthetic discrimination – what you mean when you say you have good “taste” in music.”

Lamb wrote that this led, almost 75 years later, to the work of John Milton, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as the earliest use of this latter concept of taste.

Lamb wrote: “The OED calls this kind of taste ‘a sense of what is appropriate, harmonious or beautiful’, specifically ‘the faculty of perceiving and appreciating what is excellent in art, literature, etc. . The OED dates this notion of taste to 1671, in Milton’s “Paradise Regained”, which refers to the “songs of Zion, of all true taste excellent, where God is justly praised”.

Lamb said Bacon deserved the least inspirational credit for the modern significance of taste as a refined sensibility.

Picture: Portrait of Sir Francis Bacon, British philosopher, scientist and politician. Credit: Simon Van de Passe, Copenhagen, 1626-1647. Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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