Thoughts on Smelling a New Book

James needed to go to the library; he had four films that had to be returned before they incurred dollar-a-day fines. I was quite willing to take him, but I vowed to scurry right over to the periodicals sections. No books would entice me that day.

And you know, I’m sure, where this is going.  We walked into the library. The sirens in the new book section sang to me.

“Come and look!” they trilled. “Oh, just come and see…”

NO, I  thought firmly. I squinched up my eyes, picturing, on the big screen of my mind, the books on my shelves.  Two sequels to Call the Midwife.  Two books by Kay Jamison Redfield.  A couple of books I need to read for the community reading initiatives I love and support. A book my grandbaby recommended.  The newest Louise Penney, just arrived in that day’s mail. Food memoirs. A couple of YA books I’ve been longing to get at.

NO, I said.

And then: Well. I’ll just look.

And lo and behold, the library had just gotten a shipment of brand new books in.

And lo and behold, the latest volume of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series was right there. And a few feet down the way was Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.

And lo and behold, there I was at the checkout counter, sheepishly sliding both books toward the friendly checkout lady. At least they’re slender volumes, I thought to myself, and I handed over my patron’s card.

The library lady scanned my bar code and waved the wand over the McCall Smith book, sliding it over to me. She pulled the Tyler toward herself, then looked up, her hand on the volume.

“You know,” she said, “you’re the first person to take either of these books out. Don’t you,” and here, her voice got dreamy, “don’t you love new books?”

She smiled at me. We looked down at the books, and then each of us, as if by telepathic command, picked up the book at hand, and cracked open its fresh crisp cover. We bent our heads to the pages.

Where we inhaled, each of us, deeply.

“Ah,” she said, and sighed. It was a sigh, if this is possible, full of both satisfaction and longing.  “There is nothing,” she said, “NOTHING, like the smell of a new book.”

And oh, I agreed with her. I crept to an empty table with the new books, and I opened into the 44 Scotland Street story, and I read, appreciating words and smell and heft and crispness, until Jim found me, four new films in hand, and we went home.

In the next two days, I devoured those two little books, plunging into their familiar stories, saying hello to characters I knew and loved, glorying in the sensual, physical reality of them. They smelled good, for sure. They felt good in my hands, small and light, yet hard of cover. Their bindings were glossy.  Their paper was crisp and softly, matte-ly, manila, easy on the eyes.

Reading them was like feasting. And I thought, THIS is why bound books will never disappear.

If you, like me, always have to have an extra book at hand–in case of a sudden emergency, snowstorm, or other mystifying delay, you, maybe, also enjoying traveling with an e-reader. I download at least three books before heading to the airport–I never know when a flight will be delayed, when we’ll spend some extra time circling, when my ride will get caught in traffic and I’ll have some sudden quiet terminal time on arrival.  I take my tablet–onto which downloading the classics is pretty easy, and delightfully free,–and in one light, sleek, tidy package I have enough reading to last for 36 straight hours.  At least.

An e-reader is a lovely thing in cases like these. My bag is comfortably light, and my mind is lit-up alert, and I am entertained and engaged all during those long hours of waiting and flying. I flip the pages with a simple finger slide. I slip into the story unfolding brightly, lightly, in front of my wakeful eyes.

In my bed at night, though, I prefer warmer, more ambient lamp-light. I want a calmer, more anchored, feel to my words.  I need the comfort that only the printed page can give me, with its smell and its texture and its meaning all rolled together in one big, aromatic, rough-grained package. Reading an actual, old-school book calls many senses into play.

When I commuted, driving an hour each way on twisty country roads, I took to listening to audio books.  I found, to my delight, that HEARING a book was an entirely different experience than reading it.  Hearing the narrative is sharing the experience, and the quality and engagement of the voice actor makes or breaks the book.  A great reader like Barbara Rosenblatt makes any book a wonder. I listened to her read all the Amelia Peabody books, listened from before Ramses was born until well after he was of an age to marry.

Sometimes I would be so engrossed in the story that, in a moment of narrative break, I’d look around at the hilly, wooded road and have no idea where I was, how far I’d come, or how much longer I was going to have to drive.

And months later, coming around a curve with no sound lilting me but the thrumming of my tires, I would suddenly hear, in my mind, the very words I’d listened to once before–  my unthinking mind had taken in those sights while I soaked in those words. Fragments of sounds blow through, the surroundings calling them up.

I enjoyed listening to books back in those days.  But it was a very different experience than reading them.

So it is with reading a book from a lit screen.  It is not bad, or lesser, but it is a different experience, and I think, limited in a physical way.  A screen engages our eyes, and our eyes engage our minds.

A recording engages our ears; that voice meanders through, linking visual to heard to understood.

And a bound book–well. What doesn’t it link? The grainy feel of the torn edged page. The smell–the smell of the untrammeled new pages, or the soaked-in smell of a well-used book, which could carry remembrances of chocolate, of coffee, of cigarette smoke or cheap perfume–links to the narrative. The font choice enlivens the writer’s word choices.  The weight of the book–is it slender and easily lifted?  Is it hefty and deserving of flexed-arm respect?–informs the reading. Reading Vinegar Girl, I sit up in bed and hold the book before my  un-spectacled eyes. Reading Nobody’s Fool, I roll on my side and let the bed provide the support.

My hands stroke the pages as I turn them. My eyes caress the ink.  I am, in reading a bound book, fully, sensually engaged.

I am glad of technology, cognizant of all that it’s made possible, the many gifts it has given to all of us lucky enough to have access.  But I know that it is not the be-all, or the end-all. I know that there is value to the screen, and I know that there is value in powering that screen down.

And there is real and magical and measurable power and value in the printed page, the paper journal, the bound book. There is calm for the needy, hope for the bleak-minded, and delight for the child, the actually chronologically young or the child hidden in our ruins. Put a good book in my hands, or a funny one, or a foolish one–whatever kind of book the day’s events tell me to find. Unplug my yearning, slow down my twittering. Engage me, whole and all.

I will open, plunge, and connect.  Synapses will race and questions circle and a whole new dialogue be called forth by the engagement of all my senses.  This–this is reading.

And this is why I fear no revolution, no disappearance.  We’ll always have our books.


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