LAWRENCE – It turns out we can thank a guy named Bacon for the concept of ‘taste’, like correctly discerning the relative value of cultural goods.
This is what Jonathan Lamb argues in a new article, “What Books Look Like: Bacon and Book Limits” in the journal Textual Cultures.
The Associate Professor of English at the University of Kansas argues that a key change has occurred with Francis Bacon’s famous 1597 aphorism on book consumption: books should only be read in the beginning; others to read, but superficially, and a few to read fully, diligently and carefully.
This is much earlier than the Oxford English Dictionary citation for the first use of the word “taste” with the meaning 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 type of tracking trends in published word usage over time has only recently been made possible and, in the case of the First English Books Online database, with access provided by KU Libraries, Lamb said. The new article is based on research Lamb has conducted over the past two years for a book he tentatively titled “How the World Came to be a Book in Shakespeare’s England.”
Lamb said he researched Early English Books online, “and found the language of books wherever I could. So when Bacon says some books must be tasted, this is just one of 5,000 examples I can find. I gathered from a language like this. It understands things like âthe book of nature.â People needed a way to talk about the natural world, and the book gave them a structured metaphor for it. Another example is the phrase âturning a new leaf.â Most people today think of it as referring to a leaf on a tree, but it was a popular book metaphor in the 17th century.
Bacon’s remark about book tasting struck a chord with his contemporary readers, Lamb said.
âWhat makes the version of Bacon special,â Lamb wrote, âis, first, that he intersects the idea of ââtasting as a sample with the idea of ââeating as a comprehension and, second, that dozens of writers repeated his line and used it as a prompt … By diverting 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 discrimination aesthetic – what do you mean when you say you have a good “taste” in music. “
Lamb wrote that this led, nearly 75 years later, to the work of John Milton, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as the first use of the latter concept of taste.
Lamb wrote: âOED calls this kind of taste ‘a sense of what is appropriate, harmonious or beautiful’, in particular ‘the ability to perceive and appreciate what is excellent in art, literature, etc. ‘. The OED dates this notion of taste to 1671, in Milton’s “Paradise Regained”, which refers to “songs of Zion, all true excellent tastes, where God is well praised”.
Lamb said the bacon deserves at least inspirational credit for the modern sense 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.