A sense of books

Posted on October 15, 2016


My contribution to a “musings” column in the Weekend Reading section of The Hindu…

Sir Francis Bacon had great taste in books. Think of his most famous quote: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” The image isn’t so much of the bibliophile as a food critic, taking a bite from the latest bestseller, chewing thoughtfully, composing a review inside his head. But other senses come into play as well, while reading, and not many seem to have rhapsodised about them.

Where are the quotes about the smell of gum and vanilla that fills the air when you open an old book?

Where are the sighs of satisfaction on sighting the Vintage Classics cover of Jane Eyre, the simplicity of the heroine reflected in the simplicity of the font (Baskerville) and the simplicity of the image (the silhouetted profile of a woman; so attuned is this visual to Jane’s self-descriptions, which suggest she’d be more comfortable with the dark… I am poor, obscure, plain, and little… I am your plain, Quakerish governess…).

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Where are the great debates about touch, about glossy versus matte covers? Or about the right amount of paper thickness, so it sounds exactly right when the page is turned, every whiplash flick a reminder that we are spurring the story ahead?

I would also argue for the institution of prizes for passages that explicitly engage the senses. The way Abraham Verghese makes us inhale Ethiopia in Cutting for Stone: “The fragrance of eucalyptus stoking a home fire, the smell of wet grass, of dung fuel, of tobacco, of swamp air, and the perfume of hundreds of roses… It was the scent of a continent.” Or the way Kerouac, in On the Road, makes us see how he sees: “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgandy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

Finally, here’s Dickens, in Oliver Twist: “It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon.” A bibliophile isn’t just hungry for books. He’s also hungry from books. We began with a Bacon metaphor. The end arrives with a bacon metaphor.

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Posted in: Books, Shelf Help