Mildew and Vanilla

For me, true bliss is a place where a shelf is full of well-worn paperback books.

BY: Ptolemy Tompkins

 

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I like books. Not just reading them, but the things themselves. I grew up in the 70s, and the older I get, the more I find myself picking up copies of books that date from back then--paperbacks mostly--in used bookstores or at rummage sales.



Some of these purchases can be rationalized.

This might come in handy at some point

, I’ll say to myself as I lay down two dollars for a copy of some novel or nonfiction book that I know won’t really ever come in handy at all. The truth is I just like the feel--the atmosphere--of the thing. I have, for example, at least three different editions of Herman Hesse’s famously hard-to-get-into novel "The Glass Bead Game." The first copy I bought for the perfectly sensible reason that I still, at some point in my life, intended to try to read it. The second copy? Well, I just liked it. It was the old Bantam paperback edition that I used to see on countless peoples’ shelves back when I was a kid and a teenager. The pages had yellowed around the edges in that particular kind of way that Bantam paperbacks--as opposed to, say, Dell or Ballantine paperbacks--do. And when I held it up to my face and flipped the pages, it had that smell that so many paperbacks from back then have--vaguely like vanilla, with a faint touch of the mildew it no doubt picked up over the course of decades in someone’s attic or summer house.



How could I not buy it?



My third copy of "The Glass Bead Game"? Another Bantam edition, but an older one, in which the yellowing process was further along, and the smell of vanilla was more pronounced. This one, in addition, had only cost a quarter, so I really had no choice but to buy it as well. Who was to say? Maybe when I did finally get around to reading the book I’d like it so much that I’d want to pass one or two of my copies along. Now I had them, just in case I did.



On one level, of course, all of this is very easy to explain. It’s another case of that mild psychological malady that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called “collectionism” which so many people suffer from, and which I wrote about in a

previous post about the knick-knacks I have on my desk at work

.



But on another level it’s more complicated than that. Why? Because while books are objects, and as such are similar to the stamps, coins, salt-and-pepper shakers, and various and sundry other mundane items that different people like to collect, on another level they’re not like those objects at all. They are--to state the matter simply--special. All books, even the silliest and most ephemeral, have something slightly otherworldly about them, because the book is the single most central and important tool for the conveyance of the transcendent in the history of the world. No other human invention stands at the intersection of the visible and the invisible, the worldly and the more-than-worldly, in the way that the book does. It is from books that all of us first learned--at an age so early that most of us don’t remember it--that life has holes in it: openings that lead up and out to other places, other realities.



A friend of mine who likes to read aloud to her young daughter recently noticed her looking at her in puzzlement one night, as she lay in bed engrossed in a book.



“What are you doing?” her daughter asked.



“I’m reading,” her mother answered.



The girl burst into laughter. “Then why,” she asked, “aren’t you saying anything?”



When I heard that story from my friend, I caught, for a moment, a vague memory of just how astonishing it had been to me when I’d first discovered for myself, at age five or so, what reading really was. For me, from then on, that initial penetration into the invisible world-above-the-world would always be associated with the feel--and the smell--of a concrete, actual book in my hand. This very physical item would become my ultimate symbol of the fact that there is more-- much more--to life than what we can see or feel on the surface.



As a writer and editor, I spend a great deal of my time these days dealing with electronic texts of one kind or another. From the pieces that I write and edit at my computer, to the endless emails I send and receive, to the articles by other people that I read online or send to the printer to take home in my briefcase, I now live in large part in a world of pages that certainly aren’t yellow around the edges, and most of the time aren’t even printed on paper at all.



That’s all fine and good, and convenient in all kinds of ways. It may even be that when I finally get around to reading "The Glass Bead Game" there will be some super-searchable, hyper-footnoted e-version that’s so full of extras and conveniences that I’ll have to take advantage of it. But no computer or iBook or any other such disembodied form of transmitting the written word will ever, for me, completely take the place of those plain, humble, yet endlessly mysterious objects that lie stacked up on my shelves.



For me, the world-above-the-world will always smell faintly of mildew and vanilla.



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