Quote Me On That
Has social media killed off the collections of with and wisdom that once graced the best bookshelves in town?
By Robbie Smith
February 13 2023
What do the words at the very top of this page mean to you? A once-fashionable literary genre, ‘Table Talk’ is now something of a lost art. It’s the collection of , witticisms and profundities said by one person at table over a lifetime, then published in a book. Those quotations form a kind of autobiography in speech and thought, minus a narrative thread.
Napoleon, Beethoven, Frederick the Great, Goethe, Orson Welles, and Hitler are just some of the (largely male) world-historical figures whose Table Talk has been published. To see what you’ve been missing, here’s Samuel Johnson, reflecting on the relative merits of the fruits of the vine: “Claret is the liquor for boys, port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.”
Here’s the inimitable iconoclast Martin Luther: “The covetousness of the Popes has exceeded all others’, therefore… the devil made choice of Rome to be his habitation.” And how about the poet WH Auden, on pithy form, discussing that great mythic heroine of German literature: “Brunnhilde is not a young woman. She is as old as God and much heavier.” Delightful – and more than just quotation, for with these books you get a sense of the mind of each subject. So why is no one publishing Table Talk anymore? A few reasons come to mind.
The success of biography as a genre has put this more patchwork style in the shade. We have fewer heroes these days, and Table Talk is a genre of homage. The men who published Luther’s Table Talk were immortalising their hero and packaging him as a great man for later generations of Protestants. But now we’re less happy to take people at their words (often with good reason).
Also, the links between eating, drinking, and thinking are weaker than they were. The noble tradition, started by the Ancient Greeks with their symposiums, that our deepest thoughts occur in company and in drink, has been on the back foot ever since the first coffee house opened in the 17th century. We don’t hold court in our own houses so much; we eat in restaurants, where the food and drink are stars in their own right, rivals at least to conversation. Reflection has its place, and that place is in our quieter, more sober moments. The division of the working day and the working week into segments roughly corresponding to business and pleasure has solidified boundaries that were blurrier before. But like other lost arts, Table Talk survives in the form of the impulses that drove it.
Take a look at what’s near you right now as you read this magazine – most likely your mobile phone. And on its screen there are probably one or two social media apps – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.
All of these portals, as well as online comments sections, encourage us to put our thoughts into words and see them published. We are constantly in the process of setting out our views in written form, just as the publishers of books of Table Talk were setting our their subjects’ views. Consider the
issue the other way around. Is it possible to imagine the contents of Table Talk books appearing on social media? Consider Luther, who declared the Pope to be the Antichrist. I could see much of what appears in his Table Talk as a series of Facebook rants. Or take Samuel Johnson – “When a man is tired ofLondon, he is tired of life” – he was born to Tweet.
The biggest difference is that we don’t publish our Table Talk as books now, even though our thought is published as never before. Maybe that’s a good thing. Much comment is ephemeral and should stay that way. But it’s hard to be sure that the desire for a record of our minds is a relic of the past.
Perhaps we will rediscover that urge to collate and publish, to claw back our Table Talk from the digital ether into which we throw it. We may not be as far away as we think we are from publishing Boris Johnson: the Collected WhatsApps.
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