"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."
— Groucho Marx
"I think it is good books still exist, but they make me sleepy."
— Frank Zappa
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, banana bread, 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 smell garlic sautÃ©ing in olive oil (which I often do, garlic being the staff of life around our house), and I see my mother in the kitchen wearing the ghastly apron I sewed for her in home ec, turquoise it was, with white rickrack. Chlorine? The President's Day weekend we stayed at the old Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City decades after the city's heyday but years before its rebirth as Las Vegas East. I was 12 and fell madly in love with the pool boy, Wayne. Pine needles? The secret trail behind one of the cabins at Camp Tamarac, the trail that led to The Rock, where I learned how to smoke cigarettes.
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 how we've lived. We only have 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 vs. The Springhill Mine Disaster on my bookshelf. I haven't read it in thirty years, and I have the sneaking suspicion that if I tried to read it now I'd find it lacking in just about everything I've subsequently come to appreciate in poetry.
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 (with the bravura of the deeply, deeply naÃ¯ve) hitching my way across the country, going west on my own for the first time. I have only two books in my backpack, Brautigan and the I Ching.
And there, on the third shelf, is Annie Dillard's The Living. When I look at it, I don't see the book. I see 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 stitched up. On the shelf below is James Clavell's Shogun, read during a solitary winter vacation in my first house, the one with no central heating. I am curled up in an armchair by the window existing on pots of Seattle spice tea and packages of Archway chocolate chip cookies. And here is May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude. It is my first fall in Seattle. I am renting a tiny apartment in an old house that faces the freeway; the noise, the 24-hour-a-day noise, the upstairs tenant who stalks me, my new (used) Motobecane Super Mirage.
We have all read books that shifted reality for us, made us think of the world in a different way (Lewis Thomas' Lives of a Cell), or books that resonated deeply as they charted unfamiliar emotional terrain (Marge Piercy's Woman at the Edge of Time). We've read books that made our lives bigger, that transported us across time and space, across culture and gender, books that created entire worlds for us to explore and inhabit. Books have enormous, almost incalculable, intellectual and emotional power in our lives.
But there is more. There is this other kind of power: the power to mark our passages, to define us, to remind us who we were, what we cared about, what we dreamed, to evoke time and place and state of mind. 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 on Lill Street. I read that book on the fire escape, dreaming dreams of north and west, during my last and sweatiest summer in Chicago. In Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, I find a postcard from a cheap motel in Battle Mountain, Nevada, where my car broke down — and where I stayed for five very long days while a part was sent from who-knows-where.
Now I see something peeking out of the pages of the French's mustard yellow 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.
Itâ€˜s an appointment card. On Thursday, Sept. 24, 1987, I went to get my teeth cleaned.
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Lauren Kessler is the author of five works of narrative nonfiction, including the Washington Post bestseller Clever Girl and the Los Angeles Times bestseller The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.
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Lauren Kessler is the author of five narrative nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Lauren Kessler is the author of My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence