Metaphors of Reading

How do we talk about our reading? And what might this tell us? Over the past few years, in the course of research into other areas of the history of reading, I have become fascinated by a series of metaphors that recur when people talk about their reading. They are so ubiquitous in the discourse about reading that we often fail to realise that they are metaphors at all. When we read voraciously, or thirst for knowledge, or escape into a good book, we are, of course, speaking metaphorically. In so doing, as every schoolchild knows, we are likening one thing to another, or ‘carrying across’ meanings; in one of Shakespeare’s most famous metaphors, for example, when Romeo says that ‘Juliet is the sun’, what he’s doing is attributing to Juliet the characteristics of the sun, and endowing her with the positive connotations of sunshine – its warmth, its beauty, its life-giving powers. As the sun rising signals the beginning of a new day, so Juliet’s presence signals the beginning of Romeo’s new life and new love. The main point is this: To understand the metaphorical resonance and charge of Romeo’s statement, audience members must feel, as Romeo does, that the sun is fundamentally good (we might wish to represent this as Juliet = sun = good). If we posit an alternative universe – on a planet closer to the sun, perhaps, where the sun’s rays burn, scorch, kill – Romeo’s metaphor would have an entirely different sort of meaning (which we might then represent as Juliet = sun = bad). Metaphors depend, in other words, on a shared cultural consciousness, a shared understanding of the connotations of particular basic elements, and recurring metaphors should therefore give us a way into what we might call the cultural unconscious of the past.

As every schoolchild should also know, though, metaphor is subtle, slippery, shifting, complicated. Meaning does ‘carry across’, but it doesn’t do so straightforwardly. ‘Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant’, as Emily Dickinson puts it. We cannot simply translate ‘Juliet’ as ‘sun’; the metaphor simultaneously points out similitude and difference. Juliet both is and is not the sun. Caution is advisable. And it is doubly advisable when we are dealing with the past, which is, as LP. Hartley reminds us, ‘a foreign country’. In this blog I won’t therefore be offering answers to what metaphors may mean. Instead, I will mostly be offering a series of examples of metaphors that have caught my eye, and posing a number of questions, in the hope that others will wish to contribute their own interpretations, or offer some further examples.

Let’s turn now to some of the accounts of reading that started me thinking about the question of what metaphors about reading might be able to tell us about the people and cultures of the past. I will begin with John Keats, looking into Chapman’s Homer:

MUCH have I travelled in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been,

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told                      5

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,

When a new planet swims into his ken ;                   10

Or like stout Cortes when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific—and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise —

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.[1]

Interpretation of the poem is probably unneccesary here, except to say that the extended metaphor that makes up the poem is a very common one. Readers very frequently configure themselves, or others, as travellers through different worlds. And they often describe themselves as pleasurably ‘lost’ in those worlds, as ‘escaping’ into foreign lands that allow them to become different beings; no longer their everyday selves. In The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven, 2000), for example, Jonathan Rose cites Ewan McColl’s Theatre of Action as follows:

They [books] were a refuge from the horrors of the life around us… Unemployment in the 1930s was unbelievable, you really felt you’d never escape… So books for me were a kind of fantasy life… For me to go at the age of fourteen, to drop into the library and discover a book like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or The Mistaken Subtlety of the Four-Sided Figure… the titles alone produced a kind of happiness in me… When I discovered Gogol in that abominable translation of Constance Garnett with those light blue bindings… I can remember the marvellous sensation of sitting in the library and opening the volume and going into that world of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin in The Overcoat or in The Nose, or The Madman’s Diary. I thought I’d never read anything so marvellous, and through books I was living in many worlds simultaneously. I was living in St Petersburg and in Paris with Balzac… And I knew all the characters, Lucien de Rubempre and Rastignac as though they were my own friends.[2]

Readers are travellers; books are cities, countries or entire worlds in which the voyager may wander. What might we wish to say about the particular cultural moments that create intensive clusters of metaphorical discourse likening reading to exploration? What might this say about our human needs and desires to escape, or to imagine that we might be able to escape, the mundane?


The idea voiced by McColl that the characters in books are friends, or indeed that books themselves are friends also appears repeatedly in accounts of reading. Jane Austen, we are told by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, knew the characters in Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison ‘as well as if they were living friends’.[3] And G.O.Trevelyan wrote of his uncle, the historian and statesman Lord Macaulay, that ‘While he had a volume in his hands he never could be without a quaint companion to laugh with or laugh at; an adversary to stimulate his combativeness; a counselor to suggest wise or lofty thoughts, and a friend with whom to share them.’ His books were ‘companions’, ‘comrades’ and‘society’ to him.[4] That sense of a productive antagonistic tussle is also often prevalent in the accounts we see from others – Thomas Carlyle (another historian), for exmple wrote of his reading as ’an arduous struggle with sundry historians of great and small renown’. So readers conceptualise themselves (and are described by others) as being in relationships of different kinds with their books, as if books were living beings. Why should this be such a feature of writing about reading? Why should human beings need to think about books in this way? What do such metaphors tell us about relationships, and about books?


Readers often describe themselves as lost, as enchanted, as ravished or carried away by literature. But they also use more earthy metaphors, such as those to do with food, drink, and digestion. Most famously, perhaps, Francis Bacon wrote that ‘some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.’[5] James Boswell enjoyed playing with Bacon’s metaphor:


By many quoted this remark we find

That knowledge is the proper food o’ the mind

To follow then this Metaphor with care

My study to a larder I compare

So at this moment you may here behold

Large Books of Law like hams which we are told

Westphalian Peasants just as common make

As Scottish peasants their coarse bannocks bake

With as much ease as ours make oaten cake

Law is substantial as a Bacon ham

And feels as heavy if with it you cram.

Horace resembles a plump wild duck drest

To which good wine and spices give a zest

Warton’s Poetick Hist’ry seems a Pye

In which old things & new together lye.


And many other readers follow their lead in describing their reading practices in alimentary terms. John Mitchel, reading aboard the Dromedary Hulk at Bermuda described himself as:

Reading Homer and basking in the sun upon the sea side of the breakwater. Weather delicious. Have also been swallowing autobiographies – Gifford’s, Thomas Elwood’s, Capt. Crichton’s autobiography by Dean Swift. ….[6]

On 1 December, 1898, Joseph Conrad wrote to his friend R.B. Cunninghame-Graham about the receipt of Cunninghame-Graham’s recently-published travel book Mogreb-el-Acksa: A Journey in Morocco:

Your photograph came yesterday (It’s good!) and the book [Mogreb-el-Acksa] arrived by this evening’s post. I dropped everything–as you may imagine and rushed at it paper knife in hand. It is with great difficulty I interrupt my reading at the 100th page – and I interrupt it only to write to you. A man staying here has been reading over my shoulder; for we share our best with the stranger within our tent. No thirsty men drank water as we have been drinking in, swallowing, tasting, blessing, enjoying, gurgling, choking over, absorbing, your thought, your phrases, your irony …[7]

Conrad is here self-consciously metaphorical, characterising himself as a thirsty traveller, much like those journeying through Morocco, but also as a greedy swallower of books, with a thoroughly physical response.

If books are meat and drink to their readers, are they a necessity of life? Like the sun (Juliet?), do they sustain and support life? Would their readers die without them? Written on a blank leaf in one Geneva Bible, we see this idea made explicit in verses by the Bible’s owner, Susanna Beckwith:

Heere is the well where waters flow, To quench our heat of sinne, Heere is the tree where truth doth grow To lead our liues therein. Heere is the iudge that stintes all striffe When mens devices faile, Heere is the bread that feedes the life that death cannot assaile The tidinges of saluation deere Comes to our eares from hence The fortress of our faith is here And sheilde of our defence. Then bee not like the hogg that hath A pearle at his desire, And takes more pleasure in the trough and wallowinge in the mire Reade not this booke in any case But with a singles eye Reade not, but first desire Gods grace To vnderstande thereby. Pray still in faith, with this respect to mortifie thy sinne that knowledge may bringe god effect to frutifie therein. Then happie thou in all thy life What soe to the befall Yea double happie shalt thou bee When God by death thee calles.[8]

Does this metaphor then stem from the idea that the Bible – the One Book – is, to believers, quite literally the source of life everlasting?

Only a tiny selection of the metaphors that interest me have appeared here. There are thousands more examples, and I am attempting to collect and categorise as many as possible. I am particularly interested in the period 1780 to 1850, but would welcome further examples, and indeed responses of all kinds to this blog post.


[1] John Keats, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, in John Keats: The Major Works, ed. Elizabeth Cook (Oxford, 2001), p.32.

[2] Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, (New Haven, 2001), p. 316,, accessed: 09 September 2014

[3] James Edward Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen by her Nephew (London:

, 1989; first published 1870), 79.

[4] George Otto Trevelyan, The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, Volumes I & II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), ii, 388.

[5] Francis Bacon, ‘Of Studies’, in The Essays, ed. John Pitcher (Harmonsdsworth, 1985), p. 209.

[6] John Mitchel, Jail Journal, (Dublin, 1913), p. 64,, accessed: 09 September 2014

[7] Joseph Conrad, Frederick R. Karl (and Laurence Davies) (ed.), The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad Volume 2, 1898-1902, (Cambridge, 1986), 2, p. 124,, accessed: 09 September 2014

[8]The Bible, that is, etc. [Geneva Bible], (London, 1597), Blank leaf, facing prefatory address to Queen Elizabeth I;, accessed: 09 September 2014

3 comments on “Metaphors of Reading
  1. Simon Frost says:

    A wonderful reader-centered approach to the book. Thank you. We’ve spoken about this before, and I apologise for being predictable in my response, but it seems very much as though you’re treating the book as a resource, not quite a common-pool resource, but an open resource at least, from which readers can gain benefits: an intellectual journey, company, imaginative sustenance, and so on. This seems to have everything to do why readers take the trouble to read (and refreshingly little to do with textual exegesis).

  2. Katie Halsey says:

    Thank you, Simon – yes, that’s exactly what it’s about. I’m really interested in the reasons why people read, and also sometimes why they don’t! And I think how they talk about their reading metaphorically might be helpful in understanding more about this. People so often don’t read books for the reasons we (academics) might think, and in the Academy, we ignore the real reasons for reading at our peril, I’d say.

  3. Sara Whiteley says:

    Really interesting post, Katie – thanks! You may well be aware of this, but in cognitive studies of reading the things which readers say about engaging with books are often used as a basis for developing theories of narrative engagement. Richard Gerrig, in his 1993 book ‘Experiencing Narrative Worlds’ draws on metaphors about ‘transportation’ which he identifies in reader’s discourse, for instance. And Peter Stockwell, in his 2009 book ‘Texture: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Reading’ draws on metaphors of ‘transportation’, ‘control’ and ‘investment’ which he found to be prevalent in online reading group comments (I can supply page nos for these references if needed!). It would be fascinating to think about whether metaphor use relating to reading has shifted or remained the same over time.

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