I love my Kindle—its efficiency, its portability, and the way the device instantly transports me—like some digital form of astral projection—into the world of a book simply because I thought of a title and clicked a key. But the love that I have for my Kindle will never surpass my love of books.
I recently tweeted, in essence, that I was cheating on my Kindle by reading Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Steve Jobs in hardcover, which I bought the other day. Using a traditional media format to read about the greatest inventive entrepreneur of the digital age strikes me as an irony if ever there was one.
A slight digression about tweets. I know, I know. You’ve read me blog about them before, comparing them to chocolate. And I’m not recanting. But if you’ll permit me to mix and match my metaphors, I’d like to add that I also find these marvelous digital encapsulations of information akin to the notes that we midlifers used to pass surreptitiously in school. (Like a convert to Catholicism, there’s no zealot quite like a late-adopter.)
This morning, a tweet traveling down the Twitter conveyor belt so captivated me that I had to pass it to my neighbor in the next row by re-tweeting it. (Admittedly, a book cannot do that.) Here is what I discovered when I unfolded the intriguing morsel:
old book smell.
Did you know?
“Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.”
—Perfume: The Guide
Isn’t that a fascinating piece of new information? Isn’t that a lovely notion? And it makes so much sense (intended pun) at every level. Most of us love books because of all that they evoke—past memories, past experiences, past sensual and tactile pleasures.
Have you ever read Pat the Bunny to a child? If not, then try to recall the very first book shipment you ever received, and what it felt like to see your name on the outside label, to open the package, and to hold in your small hands the book that you yourself selected and purchased. My own memory takes me back to St. Mary’s Elementary School in Elyria, Ohio, and the TAB book club. I can still remember those catalogs, and how I would circle each book that I coveted. It was a good day at school when those shipments arrived.
Part of a bookstore’s lure is the way that it feeds all of our senses. I’m thinking especially of an old bookstore, one that deals in rare and used books. The memories that these bookshops elicit, especially the olfactory ones, can be profound. I think that Diane Ackerman was correct to have started off her book, A Natural History of the Senses, with the sense of smell, which she calls “the mute sense.”
Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary, and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the Poconos, when wild blueberry bushes teemed with succulent fruit and the opposite sex was as mysterious as space travel…Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.
The aged-paper smells of an old bookshop remind me of my grandmother’s attic, where piles of folded newspapers and books commingled with old sewing patterns and scraps of fabric, and the light streamed in through narrow windows, revealing trumpets of dust motes hovering above the steamer trunks and dress forms. These objects, combined with the properties of physics and memory, are called forth by the scents of mustiness, of age and locked time. Madeleines did it for Proust. For me, it’s a bookstore.
Do you remember your first time visiting a library? I recall walking with my mother down the sandstone sidewalks to the Elyria Public Library’s children’s room. It was located in the basement of a grand old mansion. One had to walk down sandstone steps and hold on to a black iron railing to enter the space. It was a place of mystery for one who had just learned how to read, as impressive as a church, although not quite as intimidating.
Smell, sight, touch, hearing, and taste. I have book memories for all of these. Even for the last one. I’m sitting in the library—I’m in high school now—and I’ve just run my Number 2 pencil through the hand-cranked sharpener that is mounted on the wall. I return to the heavy wooden table, sit down, and begin poring over my notes for a book report, absentmindedly chewing on my freshly-sharpened pencil.
No, a Kindle can’t do that for you.
An exegetical acknowledgement: The original tweet that elicited this post came from blogger Iris Blasi and was re-tweeted, where I discovered it, by the Book Lady of The Book Lady’s Blog. As we crawl further up the conveyor belt, we see that Blasi credits CuriosityCounts (by way of book editor Peter Joseph) for the image, which, ultimately, takes us all to the original source, the book Perfumes: The Guide.
Yes, it always comes back to a book.