“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” – C. S. Lewis
In December, I promised you all a post on tea and books. I had just come across Birgit’s “Tea and Books Reading Challenge” over on The Book Garden, which was inspired by C. S. Lewis’s famous remark, and I was delighted to have a cast-iron excuse to bring together two of my favourite pastimes: reading and drinking tea. As so often, the thousand and one trivial concerns of daily life then got the better of me and before I knew it, January was drawing to an end. But the weather here in Paris has suddenly taken a turn for the worse and, as I walked down the cobble-stoned streets of the 5th arrondissement on my way to work yesterday morning, wincing as the icy wind bit deep into my exposed face and legs, it occurred to me that it was the perfect time to bring the idea forward again. For what could be more delicious when faced with raw winds and leaden skies than to curl up on the sofa with a warm blanket over one’s knees, a mug of steaming tea at one’s elbow, and a good book? The mere thought makes me quite faint with longing…
There are many excellent reasons for associating tea and books. It seems to me, though, that what lies at the root of their connection is the power they both have to transport one elsewhere. In the fragrant steam from a pot of tea, as between the pages of a book, there lies an “invitation au voyage”, to quote Baudelaire – a seductive invocation to cast aside the greyness of everyday life and discover other worlds. The senses and the imagination are awakened, and without stirring from the depths of one’s armchair, one can travel to the furthest reaches of the Orient and experience in a single hour a lifetime of passion and dreaming.
More prosaically, the book lover and the tea drinker are both characterized by their willingness to spend vast sums on the indulgence of their favourite pursuits. Second-hand paperbacks and teabags dunked in chipped mugs constitute a form of economy and do possess a certain charm, but the true book lover and tea drinker is afflicted with greed: his soul hungers for not one but ten new titles; and his longing for such and such a rare vintage hardback edition wages a war with his prudent conscience which prudence does not always win. To see the gold lettering on that spine added to his already crowded shelves seems to him the very summit of felicity – until his eye alights on another treasure and the craving starts up again, stronger than ever. Similarly, it is with immense pride and satisfaction that the tea enthusiast runs his eye over his prized collection of tea tins, with infinite care and only after much deliberation that he selects one, and with the ardour of the enamoured or of the newly-converted that he speaks of the particular blend he once tasted and yearns to find again.
Perhaps there is indeed something fanatical about the connoisseur. There is at any rate within him a deep-seated appreciation of ceremony and ritual. Choosing a pretty teacup from the array in the cupboard, pouring the near-boiling water into the teapot, smoothing down the thick cream pages of an expensive new book or lifting an old favourite up to one’s face to sniff in the scent of dust and ink emanating from its yellowed leaves, are so many steps in the sacred dance, gestures loaded with meaning to be accomplished solemnly, reverently even, in order to attain that state of contemplative inner peace which is their ultimate goal and justification.
To combine the pleasures of tea and books is perhaps the greatest pleasure of all. Many times my mother and I have sat at a table at Ladurée or Angelina’s after a book-buying spree and gleefully gone over our purchases as we waited for the waiter to set before us a burnished silver teapot and a delicate pastry. With a small but marked gesture of possessiveness, we inscribe our names on the fly-leaves of our respective volumes. My mother’s distinctive rounded hand-writing and favoured violet ink stand out boldly against the white paper, staking her claim, branding the books as hers – a necessary precaution against her daughter’s thieving habits. It is a ritual we associate with the chink of porcelain cups. Whether it be in the lavish Second Empire décor of Ladurée, the airy Belle Époque elegance of Angelina’s, or the wood-panelled, mullion-windowed, English cosiness of the Tea Caddy, just around the corner from Shakespeare and Co, where once I sat reading over tea and apple crumble for a lovely hour and a half after wandering the Latin Quarter between classes, the effect is the same: a quiet contentment creeps over one; the soul expands in the aromatic steam; and the words drift off the page to float loosely in the air about one, enticing one to dream. Une invitation au voyage…
© Florence Berlioz 2012