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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.

6 comments

1 Jaye { 01.20.17 at 1:22 am }

It started for me at camp with a flashlight and Nancy Drew under the covers. A waft of mountain air and the scent of a wool blanket set me up for a lifelong love affair with reading. No matter how high or low my emotions, I live many lives. Thank you for reminding me of these gifts. And thank you for your wisdom!

2 Lauren { 01.20.17 at 7:49 pm }

My tweenage flashlight reading, alas, was more Lolita and Tropic of Cancer — the raciest books on my parents’ bookshelf.But I was a HUGE Nancy Drew fan. Books do give us the opportunity to live many lives. That’s how I think about my life as a writer, too.

3 Richard Greene { 01.20.17 at 7:26 am }

and then there are the books unread that season on your bookshelf for years and why one day you know they are ready to be read……..thats another blog for you to write

4 Lauren { 01.20.17 at 7:47 pm }

Would love to hear an example of this, Rich.I do occasionally buy a book I don’t read. Rather than feeling guilty, I’m just gonna think “it’s ripening on the shelf.” Thank you for that.

5 Colleen { 01.23.17 at 4:03 pm }

I have a book on my shelf that I began and never finished – one of only two that I can think of, and I am bound and determined to finish it someday. And yes, I’ll have to start over at the beginning because it was 34 years ago that I had to stop reading “August 1914” because I went into labor with my first child and when we got home from the hospital I was just too overwhelmed to get back to reading Solzhenitsyn. One of these days… The other book is about characters that I just don’t give a crap about and so I do not care what happened to them; but who knows, perhaps someday I will be curious enough to pick it up again. On the other hand, life is too short and the books are too many to read those that do not call out to you in some way.

6 Lauren { 01.26.17 at 2:12 am }

I know, Colleen. So many books, so little time.

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