The Smell of Books

I was walking around downtown near Vancouver’s spectacular public library building last week, when I overheard some brat ask what kind of person would waste such a neat building on a library. He’s lucky my hands were in my pocket, otherwise he’d have learned the answer was “Mr. Back-of-the-Hand, that’s who, you uncultured little snot!” Though my tongue was not also confined to my pockets, I somehow managed not to issue a retort. His dad looked big. I doubted I would be the victor in the “my dad can beat up a mouthy stranger” battle that would inevitably follow any supposedly witty remark I might have offered.

(sound of pants being hitched up to chest level)

“When I was a boy, kids had more respect for books!”

Actually that’s a lie. I had more respect for books. Other boys were occupied building crucial wrist muscles for puberty by playing with hockey cards. And the girls? Sadly, they were busily purging brain cells in a desperate attempt to ready themselves for the cut-throat junior high dating scene (“No one likes a know it all, dear.”)

For me, Sunday was the day. Oh sure, I had to go to church, but hey, that just gave me an hour of good “think time” – sort of like an hour on the toilet, if you will, except with more audience participation. But the reward came after, when we usually trundled down to the local library, respendent in its sickly-orange 60’s-vision of-the-future decor.

I knew the librarians by name. Could I have been any more of a geek?

I spent hours in that library. It started with a quick visit to see if there remained any Asterix or Tintin comic that I didn’t have memorized. Then a quick flip through the card catalog for any item that might be of interest – usually something in the “how to make your own X” genre. There was, of course, the requisite trip to the biology section to bone up on female anatomy (“be prepared”), followed by a quick prayer at the altar of the Church of Science Fiction (Reverend Arthur C. Clarke presiding). Finally, I’d stop at the magazines to find out if helicopter cars were a reality yet or if Popular Mechanics was going to continue jerking me around with that promise for another month.

The thing I remember most: the smell of library books.

I can’t identify the particulars of the smell of library books. It’s not just the smell of the paper they’re printed on, it’s more than that. It’s the smell of page-turn sweat, infused painstakingly in each page of a thriller novel, the spilled ingredients hastily swabbed off the pages of a recipe book, the oil embedded in the binding of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by the guy who threw the book across his garage when he realized it didn’t contains instructions on how to fix his Yamaha two-stroke engine. It’s the smell of people who care about learning something new.

I’m addicted to books. You may laugh but I actually must go into Chapters whenever I pass it. Must. It’s not quite the same as a library, but it’s close enough for a junky like me, acting like an ex-smoker sniffing the exhale from a drag on a passing Marlboro.

What worries me most is that people just don’t read enough these days and it shows. I’ve had to explain words to people in my MBA class (then again, who am I to talk about vocabulary use – I used the word “epidural” instead of “diuretic” in class the other day. Whoops.) A classmate asked me what I read to keep up to date and I had a hard time narrowing it down. I listed a bunch of books I’d read in the last few months, less than my usual amount due to the MBA. It didn’t really seem a lot to me, but it seemed a lot to the other people.

Access to knowledge is the most fundmental right, one which we’re in danger of losing. Media concentration, government censorship and reader apathy are stripping us of the ability to make intelligent, informed decisions. That’s why it’s worth “wasting” such a neat building on a library – to signify just how important an institution it is, you uncultured little snot.