This summer I was able to visit my grandparent’s house for the first time in over four years. My Grandfather had passed away shortly after we moved to Europe and we were rather fortunate that we still had a connection to that old anchor of memories and were able to visit. We came away with a lot of mementos, including a big box of books.
I have had a love affair with books for as long as I can remember. I collected them before I could really read them. I still have the copies of certain picture books that I saved up for and bought as a child. I remember checking out copies of Hardy Boys books from the school library back when I could only manage to read about three pages before they were due back. I still hunt through used bookstores looking for editions of favorites that I remember from my childhood—hard to find titles like the Anatole series by Eve Titus or “My Nine Lives and How I Lost Them” by Countee Cullen.
One of my most treasured memories is of the day Dad took us down to the crawl space under the stairs and pulled out a box full of his old Hardy Boys books. The first 40 books in the series, hard backs, with dust jackets! We got rid of the dust jackets (NO!!! Why!!!), but I still have those books on a shelf today. I love old books. They have history. Sometimes, they have bits of paper stuck in their pages that are like treasures or time capsules. Sometime we simply imagine all the hands that have held them. Old volumes and their history pose us with mysteries we can never solve.
Anyway, this week I was doing some study and using some of those old commentaries of my Grandfathers. I was distracted from my object by the books themselves. They smelled like that house that I love. I used to think there was only one place on earth to catch that scent. One particular volume had all sorts of connections to my life. The inside cover revealed that it had originally been my father’s book, purchased the year I was born. At some point it had become a part of my grandfather’s library. A bookmark revealed that he had been reading it the year my oldest son was born. Another piece of paper, used as a marker, was an outline for a Sunday School class conducted on the radio for shut-ins, from shortly before he passed away.
Over the years I have resisted the lure of electronic readers. They feel wrong to me, in spite of the many positive aspects of such a system. Earlier this year, I conceded that such an apparatus would certainly be the way to go with reference books and stuff used for study, but cherished novels should always have a place on shelves (preferably bound in hard cover). Now I am reminded that all books have a special quality that no microchip could ever replace.
Perhaps the writers of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” put it best in a conversation between the school computer teacher and Rupert Giles, the librarian:
“Honestly, what is it about [computers] that bothers you so much?”
“Computers don't smell, Rupert.”
“I know. Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a—it has no texture, no context. It's there and then it's gone. If it is to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be… smelly.”