I HEART books
Scent triggers memory in a special, direct and immediate way. This was explained to me once – some kind of hardwiring from nasal receptors to frontal lobe – but not well enough so that I can explain it now. But we all know it’s true: a whiff of something, cut grass, gasoline, chocolate chip cookies, and we’re transported to another time and place, an entire scene evoked, a little drama played out on the stage of the mind.
I think books are hardwired like this for some of us. There’s a high-speed connection between book and experience, between what we’ve read and who we were when reading. We have only to glance at a book, the way others catch a scent in the air, and we experience that moment in time when the book intersected with our lives.
I see Richard Brautigan’s The Pill v The Springhill Mine Disaster on my bookshelf. I haven’t read it in thirty years, and I suspect that if I tried to read it now I’d find it lacking. But it’s not just a book. It’s a time in my life. I am standing on the shoulder of I-80 in Nebraska hitching my way across the country. I have only two books in my backpack, Brautigan and the I Ching.
James Clavell’s Shogun? That solitary winter vacation I spend in my first house, the one with no central heating, curled up in an armchair by the window existing on pots of Seattle spice tea and packages of Archway chocolate chip cookies.Annie Dillard’s The Living? An impossibly rainy summer vacation in Bandon, Oregon, during which my then four-year-old son gets clobbered in the head with a boat oar, and we have to rush him to the 15-bed local hospital to get his ear lobe reattached. My books, spine out on the shelves in my library, are entries in a diary I didn’t know I was keeping.
In between the pages, too, are hints of life lived. I go to the shelf and pull out My Mother, Myself, the hardback edition published in 1977, which was a particularly nasty year in the already rocky relationship I had with my mother. Tucked in between pages 44 and 45 I find her photograph, one I must have taken from an old album. My mother looks sweetly at the camera. She has a mop of dark, curly hair and is holding a doll. She is perhaps ten. In Wild Alaska, a Time-Life book with page after page of stunning Arctic pictures, I find a menu for a little restaurant I used to frequent a block from the Fullerton El, just around the corner from my fourth-floor walk-up. I read that book on the fire escape and dreamed of the great north during my last and sweatiest summer in Chicago.
Now I see something peeking out of the pages of my beat-up paperback edition of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and, with great excitement, I pull the book from the shelf. What could it be? What could I have placed between the pages of this wonderful book, this book that made me think thoughts I had never thought before, this book that prompted me to sign up for my first yoga class, this book that I carried around like a talisman for years? I am ready to be wowed.
It‘s an appointment card. On Thursday, Sept. 24, 1997, I went to get my teeth cleaned.