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Reading and smelling books – the experiences of an unashamed serial bookworm

Last updated on June 7, 2020

book loveReading is a sensual experience to me. Yes, I smell the paperbacks and hard cover books I read. Don’t you? I love the feel of those old cloth book covers on my fingertips. The crackle of a spine. The sound of every paper page turn. I’m reading a lot on devices these days now, because it’s convenient and gives me access to books and papers I couldn’t otherwise find. And a definite plus with my vision issues, since I can blow up what I’m looking at and sidestep getting a hernia from dragging around a large print book. No matter how I get them, though, I’m about the words, It’s always a sensual experience. Lines from different stories are tied up with different points of my life. Even my emotional state. When I see those words later, I instantly connect to how I felt when I read a particular story, how the story made me feel the first time even though it might strike me different later. And there’s been a lot of stories. A boatload. I’m an addict.

Hi, I’m JD and I’m a serial bookworm. No, I can’t stop any time. Just send books.

I’ve mentioned before I’m one of those freaks of nature who could read before kindergarten and started writing down the stories in my head when I was about 9. It was all downhill from there, by the way. I do credit the high velocity reading I did before I got to that point for the early writing. By that time, the entire grade school reading curriculum was already a memory, so I guess when you cram so many words into your brain in such a short amount of time they leak out?

Anyhoo…

In those days, even at that age you could hop on your bike and take off to the neighbourhood library unsupervised. Which you often did just to get your homework projects done anyway, because there was no Internet yet. I’d motor through my homework, so I had time to spare before rushing back to look after my sisters. And okay, I had an advantage there, because I could read so fast. Research took me no time and I could crank out four or five or ten hand-written pages of presentation without blinking. Actually, I usually had to hold myself back because four or five or ten pages was nothing from my point of view. Which people hated me for, for some strange reason, but I digress…

I spent many of those stolen post-homework hours reading massive leather and finishing cloth-bound reference books and encyclopedias in secluded corners away from anyone I knew from school. The heft of those things alone suggested they were full of hidden secrets. The creak of opening the covers always gave me a silent thrill, because it suggested they were rarely used and I was about to see things few saw.

Oh yeah, and Stack Requests… Oh magical, hidden treasury of special reading few ever see. You wouldn’t think a person could get so excited about a bunch of weird, dusty sometimes brittle old pages. Or putting in those hand-written requests on the slips of paper you dropped off in the librarian’s inbox. And then waiting nearby trying to look nonchalant until they called your name. They’d always bring your precious pearl up from the secret basement in one of those plastic totes with the split flapped lid. And if it was super special, get walked to the special conditions room by the librarian who ran through the rules for how to handle the thing though she just did the same thing with you last week. But it was the ritual before flipping open the lid to drool over your reading treasure. And you couldn’t linger over it too long, because they only gave you so much time in the special room. So as much as dying to savour it, efficiency was the key to cramming those precious words into your brain.

Microfilm readerAnd then there was reading microfilm and microfiche. Does anyone still remember what that is? I experience a rush of nostalgia every time I see it come up in a film. There’s a whole generation who will never know the singular thrill of reading those blueish illuminated, projected pages spinning past your face on the big flat screen of that giant machine that looks like you could cook a roast in it. I felt like one of the research-to-get-the-truth-out-at-any-cost investigative journalists I admired so much and hoped to emulate in some small way. But c’mon, as a kid? It was the coolest piece of equipment any adult would let you get your grimy hands on. And sometimes, you even needed it for school projects, so didn’t have to make up an excuse to the librarian to use it!

I still harbour a particular fondness for those multi-drawered card catalogues. Keepers of the secret Dewey Decimal system codes that allowed you to find everything on earth. I miss those chunky wood hunkered sentinels watching over our hushed reading odysseys. The weighted wood noise of them when the drawers slide open. The imperfect manual typewriter letters on the cards crookedly spelling out the details of where to find my next fix… heaven.

I know most people don’t get it, but as you can tell, I still love the whole library reading experience. The energy, the sounds, how it smells in there with all those books. Um, it’s where the BOOKS are. It still happens to me today. Not when you walk in the front door, because there’s electronics all over the place there now and it’s more modern. But when you get back into the stacks, winding up and down the aisles of that super tall shelving in the back where no one goes. The atmosphere in there is something else. Hits me in the centre of my chest and eases all the tension out of me every time.

reading the breakfast cereal boxMy mom was always a big reader and during any meal where my dad wasn’t home, you could find me and my sisters and my mom barricaded behind our individual book hideouts. Talking was a punishable offence. Usually this happened at breakfast. The worst was when your timing was off which happened to me on the regular. That’s when you read too fast and finish the last page of your book before you’re done eating. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m an avid cereal box reader when I run out of book. Seriously, I’ll take any words. Labels off anything in my kitchen are fair game. I just need the hit. I need the words inside me.

It’s funny how the experience you have with some books stick with you. When I was about 11, so back in 1977, I read Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber that came out a few years earlier. It made me think. Definitely changed the way I thought people’s brains worked. Pretty sure that upped my interest in psychology enough to make me study it later. That same year, I read The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson not long after it came out. I read it in a single sitting that went into the wee hours of the morning. Terrified out of my skin, feet tucked up under me and definitely not dangling out over the floor. Fists white-knuckled so hard I cracked the shit out of the spine and curled back both paperback covers. I love horror and the occult and it was the first of many early scare-my-pants-off reading adventures. Definitely responsible for my later Stephen King/Clive Barker/H.P. Lovecraft/Anne Rice/Peter Straub and Edgar Allan Poe addiction.

In the last year of grade school, so we’re talking ’79 now, I read the 8 book series the Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes – I’d seen The Americans, the last book had just come out and realised it was a series, so got them all. Of course. D’uh. Around then I realised how much I loved history. I read North and South right after that and was gobbling up things like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart and Tolkien and Colleen McCullough and Taylor Caldwell and anything with knights or vaguely Arthurian. Anyway, when I read the first book, The Bastard, we had in-class reading time. The teacher prowled around checking what we brought in and sees the title on this doorstop of a paperback while everyone around me is reading 80-page teen adventures complaining they’re too long.

He took a big pause next to my desk and clears his throat and under his breath says, “Um, do your parents know you’re reading that???” My mom was waiting on me to finish it, so told him I had to get through it fast to pass it along. He just kinda laughed and said “Well, um, how about you maybe put a paper book cover over that, so no one has a heart attack.” and wandered away chuckling and shaking his head. I think I still remember that, because I didn’t think there was anything weird in what I did to that point. What can I say? I spent a lot of time in my head and it took me a while to clue-in. Apparently, I was weird. Go figure.

reading romeo and juliet

In grade 10 we were supposed to read Romeo and Juliet outloud in class and on the first day no one wanted to volunteer, so our English teacher drops it on my desk and tells me to read it. I start reading and it hits me how funny some of it is, so I laughed. Slightly concerned, because you weren’t supposed to laugh in the middle of English class, I look up and see the teacher also smirking. And we shared this look, because no one else got it – Shakespeare was a pig. “Draw thy naked tool”??? C’mon, I was 15, it was funny. It’s still funny, dude.

When I run out of books wherever I am, it’s never a good thing. It’s worse than a heroin addiction. I’m telling ya, I need the words. All the words! I’ve been know to amuse myself on the subway reading all the advertising in any car. And the backs of other people’s newspapers. The story notes I’ve written in the notebook I carry around everywhere. The labels off the groceries in the bag I might be carrying. The branding on the pens and pencils in my bag, The card paper cover on the front of the notepad in my bag. Brand labels on shoes. People’s tattoos… I bring reading material wherever I go. And yes, I’ve brought a reading material to weddings, funerals and job interviews.

I’d say I could stop any time, but I’d be lying. Because I can’t. I’m sure there’s people who have no idea what my face looks like because it’s always stuck in a book or laptop.

And you know what? I think I’m okay with that.

;TLDR – No writing wisdom in this piece. I have a reading addiction and don’t care.

[**3M CORPORATION MICROFILM VIEW AT THE LIBRARY image Source: The U.S. National Archives, Capture Date: 4/25/1977, Photographer: DONALD HUEBLER, (c)No known copyright restrictions]

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