Literary Libations with Alexander McCall Smith
What to sip while dipping into your favourite reads
There are restaurants these days that serve something they call the pairing menu. Wines and food are linked so that one gets the right white wine with the fish and a suitably robust red wine with the meat. It gets more subtle than that, of course, but the general idea is clear enough: an experience can be enhanced if there is thoughtful pairing.
So what about books and wine? Or books and spirits? A clear head is needed for any reading, but the careful and moderate consumption of any drink – including tea – can increase a reader’s pleasure. There are rules, though, and here they are. (Actually these are suggestions, rather than rules, even if they sound prescriptive.)
Let’s start with poetry. Some poets have been closely associated with beer. Dylan Thomas was often photographed in a pub, holding a glass of beer, looking quite the poet in his loud-checked tweed suit. Auden, by contrast, was frequently seen sipping a martini; he had very strict rules relating to the time at which such drinks might be served – six o’clock on the dot. Other poets are closely associated with wine: Omar Khayyam, the author of that great work, The Rubaiyat, recommended a jug of wine to be consumed with a book of verses under the bough of a tree. The Roman poet, Horace, author of those lovely bucolic odes, clearly should be read with a glass of white wine from the hills outside Rome.
The correct pairing for fiction requires some thought. Some authors make it clear what the reader should drink when reading their work. Laurie Lee’s classic Cider with Rosie speaks for itself, as does Compton Mackenzie’s famous comic novel, Whisky Galore. Apart from such cases, the reader may choose whatever seems suitable. But do not make any assumptions: if somebody suggests that Russian novels should be read with vodka, bear in mind that Russian novels are notorious for having vast numbers of characters and if you drink vodka while reading them you will rapidly become confused as to who is who. Russian novels should therefore be read while drinking tea that has been served from a samovar. That is an inflexible rule and must be followed.
There are special rules for the reading of Canadian novelists. Books from Quebec should be paired with Bordeaux or Cotes du Rhone; they do not go with California or British Columbian wines. There has been some debate about this, but this appears to be a fairly firm rule. Robertson Davies should be read with a small glass of Canadian rye whisky, although some people believes he goes with Scotch. Margaret Attwood is best read with coffee.
There are so many wonderful Indian novelists writing today. These books are best read while drinking Assam tea. Do not make the mistake of drinking China tea while reading these writers: your enjoyment will be marred by such a solecism. Australian writing is often about hot, duty spaces. Have plenty of water on hand to protect against dehydration while exploring Australian literature.
Children’s books should be read aloud to children while drinking sodas. Diet drinks are now recommended for these purposes. The children themselves should be given ice cream while being read to, although this has serious implications for the books themselves. Librarians are very familiar with removing all sorts of substances and stains from the pages of children’s books. While engaged in this task, librarians may drink tea or coffee, depending on their preference.
Non-fiction needs to be read in a state of cold sobriety, except for books dealing with distressing subjects (for example, economics). Such books should be read with a large gin and tonic. There are also those who say that books on economics should be written with a large gin and tonic, but that is another, more controversial question into which we should not stray.
It is perfectly all right for a reader to note, in pencil, what drink was taken while a book was read. Such annotations should be made on the verso side of the title page. They will often cause some puzzlement later on to others who may pick up the book. Such puzzlement all adds to the enjoyment of reading, even if it is sometimes mistaken for an obscure – and coded – system of ranking a book.
Apart from these rules (or suggestions) readers may do exactly as they like, even if it is clearly the wrong thing to do. We should not take ourselves too seriously, as this article possibly (no, probably) suggests.