Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reading (and writing) with the senses (fka Sensual Reading)

(originally posted elsewhere, years ago, but since edited and updated)

I'm imagining myself sitting in a little dive just off the highway. It's one of those places in which you can smell the grease in the fries, and have to wring out your hamburger bun. It used to be an ice cream parlor. And though I rarely find myself at one of its corner tables anymore, it is still marked in memory as one of my favorite places to write.

As I sit at my kitchen table imagining, I remember the view from where I sat: old men discussing the weather, and its effect on their joints; the ladies in the back, spooning mashed potatos -- the kind with the dark, dark gravy -- and Superman ice cream.

I never brought my laptop to this little diner, prefering always the feel of pen against paper. In fact, as I write this now, I am ever mindful of not smearing my ink -- quite a task for a left-handed writer.
But there is method, as they say, in this madness. Writing is an experience of the senses. If the senses -- all of them -- are not involved, then you can only find half the story.

But perhaps I am old-fashoned.

I have in my posession an illustrated edition of Tennyson from 1885. It is well-worn. Okay -- it's in tatters. It is unlikely it would fetch much on Ebay. But it is the pride of my collection.

Reading, you see, is also an experience for the senses.

My Tennyson has layers: a path to travel before reaching the contents. You first blow the dust off the cover: it's an image so old it's a cliché, but it is no less necessary. You lift the book to your nostrils. The musk of age travels to your brain, and the smell gives the words context. And, finally, you turn the first page.

There is a feeling elicited by a bound book that an eBook -- even as they become slimmer and more convenient -- will never touch.

Not that there is anything wrong with eBooks -- anything that gets more people reading can only be a boon to society.  And I'm not saying I don't have a weird sort of love affair with my kindle. Let's face it: it's handy to have around, and sometimes, the words are all you need.

And sometimes, the book, itself, is part of the experience.  I think of Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian."  Much of the book takes place in libraries, with the main character poring over old diaries and papers and various bound histories. Is it an enjoyable read on the Kindle? Probably. But, to me, to read such a book in an electronic format is to lose some of that feeling of "there-ness."  

When I read "The Historian," I'm holding a thick volume, and smelling that scent that hides just beneath the cover. It is as if I, too, am sitting in that darkened room, reading the account of the main character, in the form in which she left it. I'm there with her, turning page after page, feeling the grain of the paper beneath my fingertips. Hearing the scratch of the page as I turn to the next.

That sound; the weight and smell; the edge of the paper, digging ever so slightly into the creases in my fingers: All of it, the book's way of making its presence known. 

Think of your closest friends -- not the people you know from chatrooms or internet forums; the people with whom you can enjoy the quiet moments. Is it their words that bring you comfort and joy? Or is it their presence? Is talking on the phone the same as walking together through a park?  The words may be the same -- but that sweet, blessed companionship can only come, at its fullest, when you are together.

The obituary for Print has been written more times than I can count. The book, we're told, is dead. It just doesn't know it yet. Book stores are allowing now-empty shelves to gather dust, as the owners head off to more certain pastures.  What a shame.

I love words. I could read words, sentences, stories all day. And for that, certainly, the Kindle, or my laptop, or even, occasionally, a recording will suffice. But for the best a story has to offer, in those quiet moments of reading and reflection, I'll take a the weighty presence of a hardcover every time.

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