“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”
(Francis Bacon, Essays (1625), ‘Of Studies’)
Wearing a version of the “dunce cap”, not classically conical but clearly identifiable by the attached donkey ears and worn out inscription of the word “dunce”, Jean holds his book upside-down as he frantically flicks through its pages. When he is wound-up Jean proceeds to flail his limbs in a distressing fashion accompanied by lugubrious music. With his mouth slightly ajar and his little pink tongue on display, he holds a book close to his face and fixes it with a concentrated stare as though he could be about to bring it to his mouth in confusion and frustration, to kiss it, taste it, or otherwise, consume it. Jean reminds us that we all once had this experience of encountering the resistant materiality of a book and prompts us to consider how a book can be thought or engaged with by a non-reader: as an object not defined by its contents, but instead grasped solely for its objectness.
Sorting through the Museum of Childhood’s significant collection of children’s books and critical work on the social and cultural history of childhood, I came across a number of books that invite different forms of interaction: books that are also games (for example books that accompany jigsaw puzzles), books of nursery rhymes with accompanying sheet music, books to be read aloud in groups. One which held my attention is entitled Indoor Amusements, Card Games and Fireside Fun (1881) which, as well as outlining a variety of games and detailing the rules of each game, provides a list of forfeits; one of these absurd and wonderful forfeits is kissing a book (pp.23-24).
‘Kiss a book inside and out without opening it. – This is done by first kissing the book in the room, then taking it outside and kissing it there.’
This forfeit-come-riddle, apart from simply being a humorous trick, seems to raise the question of how we understand the moment of encountering a book, a question which is in some sense answered by Jean the automaton. Kissing a book is an attempt to fix our interaction with books to the present through a physical connection. This close, affectionate interaction with a book is in tension with the way it is portrayed in Jean the automaton or as a forfeit. Jean and the book of forfeits demonstrate how this kissing is in some ways the manifestation of a frustration with reading. Jean’s relationship with the book, then, renews our awareness of the juxtaposition between the vast imaginative world of a narrative and the material limits of its form. Furthermore, this conflict makes us think about the continuous struggle of interpretation, the struggle to master a text in our reading of it and, as a result of this, the ways in which Jean might be a figure for every reader.
The shame intended by the forfeit is similar to that intended by the “dunce hat” worn by Jean; so why would kissing a book work as a forfeit? In what sense might this act be embarrassing or shameful? Is it because it represents the moment at which we succumb to interpretative struggle? Is it that by kissing a book we become non-readers like Jean? Or might it be because this act works as the public exhibition of the intimacy and internal proximity every reader has at some point experienced with a book? Is kissing a book, then, an act which embodies the power of a story to touch and affect us?