But one thing I especially love is the smell of a library filled with old books. It’s a scent our children may never know.
Fortunately, for us, our local library still has books in it, but many places are rapidly going digital.
In the not-so-distant future, books may go the way of vinyl record albums and become something that fills dusty shelves in thrift stores.
Modern libraries have almost no smell at all, or if they do it’s sterile, metallic and cold.
Old books have soul. They carry memories, the imprints of all the hands that have held them and thumbed through their pages.
A kind of communion occurs between the reader and author. Old books are the closest we will ever get to talking with the dead. Through their voices we can experience life as it was a hundred or more years ago.
You can have a relationship with a book that you can never have with a Kindle—and I love my Kindle, but it’s only a tool for reading; it doesn’t involve the whole sensory, tactile experience of holding a book.
And where do the old books go? My friend, Rakhal Purkayastha, told me when he was in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, that trucks used to come to Wooster College in Ohio, where he was based, and cart off the old books.
When he asked where they were going, he was told, “to be burned.”
He recounted this story one morning when he introduced me to the library at St. Anthony’s College in Shillong, Meghalaya. It was in the basement of the media arts building.
The light was muted the way I remember from libraries in my past.
And the shelves were filled with books in Hindi, English, Urdu, Bengali and Khasi.
Even though I couldn’t read most of them, I loved to look at them; the writing looked like the footprints of fairies dancing across the page.
One corner was piled with ancient journals.
This was where I used to go when I felt homesick or overwhelmed with the bustle of life in India.
For a while I would escape, gliding in a plane over the Amazon or climbing an ice mountain in Antarctica.
So many good memories are connected with books and libraries. As a troubled teenager, I sometimes skipped school and hitchhiked to downtown Canton, Ohio.
There was a great library there with several floors packed with books on rickety metal shelves.
I used to sit on the floor between the shelves and read Thomas Hardy, C.S. Lewis, Virginia Wolff, influences from my mother, most likely. She loved British writers.
Today I have books that I haven’t read for years, but I can’t get rid of them.
There’s something comforting about their faded jackets and yellowing pages.
Some belonged to my parents and have annotations in my mother’s handwriting.
And, of course, there’s the smell, musty and familiar.
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