Smells are condensed feelings. The first girl I ever made out with was a hot little blonde from Texas. Just to be sure I remembered her, when I wasn’t looking she poured her White Shoulders perfume all over my car seat.
I remembered her.
For years afterward, every time I smelled White Shoulders, I’d turn in a haze of youthful lust and see, 9 times out of 10, a blue-haired old lady pushing a tennis ball-footed walker.
Talk about cognitive dissonance.
Of course it wasn’t the perfume, it was the memories I associated with it—the girl, the sultry summer nights, the hormonal joy—that I loved.
A far more enduring (and dependable) association, for me, is the smell of my first true love—with whom (or rather, which) even now my wife and I share a passionate love triangle: Books.
I can’t remember when I wasn’t in love with books—with the places they took me, the things they made me feel, and the ideas they introduced me to.
As early as I can recall, I would thrum their pages, feather their edges, and breath deep their aromae so that later, as I drifted off to sleep, I could recall “the smell of” Huckleberry Finn or The Call of the Wild or The Three Musketeers. (Ahem. Don’t think literal here, think literary.)
There were newbook smells—paper, ink, and binding (or, in the case of paperbacks, glue—wonderful glue). There were oldbook smells, faded versions of the former with all kinds of exotic mold overlaid. And not just any mold, but bookmold. Libraries are virtual harems of bookmold. Be still, my beating heart!
Books like The Once and Future King, Dune, The Lord of the Rings, The Time Machine, Slaughterhouse Five, Watership Down, and I Am Legend took me places I could never go to without them.
Books like Cry the Beloved Country, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Flowers for Algernon, The Great Gatsby, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Catcher in the Rye broadened my understanding of what it means to be human.
And books by writers like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Aquinas, Brother Lawrence, Thomas Merton, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and most importantly The Bible, changed who I am.
Traditional books are being replaced by ebooks. No doubt many traditionalists (including me) will keep libraries of “real books,” just as jazz, blues, and classic rock aficionados keep libraries of “real music” on pristine black licorice discs.
But it’s the association that will never go away. When Gutenberg introduced the printed book, how many monks and scholars mourned the lost smell of “real books” on vellum and parchment?
Will today’s Millenials and post-Millenials miss the “real book” feel and smell (?) of hard plastic and back-lit e-reader screens when heads-up holographic books take their place?
Of course they will.
But what will never go away—God forbid!—are the journeys, the feelings, and the ideas that books take us to.
Yes, I’ll probably break down and buy an e-reader in the not-too-distant future. Even if they don’t create a “book smell” app.
But, oh, those sultry summer nights.
Goodbye, books, I love you.
Hello, books—whatever new form you may take—I love you.