Intimate with Print

When venturing in search of new (or used) books, the Serious Bibliophile requires a few essentials: canvas bags for carrying the books home, a bottle of water, a dedicated and equally bibliophilic companion, a list, and a lot of time. The canvas bags are necessary for two reasons: 1) they won’t tear when you cram them full of books of different shapes, and 2) they represent environmental consciousness. Using the cloth bags will help you resolve your eco-guilt from bringing home a dozen print books. The bottle of water will keep you hydrated as you make use of the ample time you’ve allotted for this session. When you want to go dashing down every aisle, whisking books off shelves with the irrepressible glee of a 5-year-old on a sugar rush, the list of titles to look for will help you to exert some self-control. The companion will also help you make use of your time; her enthusiasm for finding and reading the books you desire will the hours disappear quickly.

My most frequent book-buying companion is Katie, and she is meticulous about observing the rules above. We regularly schedule trips to one of Jacksonville’s largest used bookstores, our canvas bags, shopping lists, and protein bars in hand. If the trip to the bookshop occurs somewhere in a long day of errands, we have learned to eat before we step across the sloping threshold. Book-buying on an empty stomach is a dangerous business. Combine our crankiness from hunger with our desire to buy four times the amount of books our budgets allow, and we represent a serious threat to ourselves and all other customers.

Because I am a lover of literature – poetry and prose, drama and nonfiction – you might assume that a book’s content is the only thing that matters. However, accessing literature is a multi-sensory experience, an indulgence for the hands, eyes, and nose – as well as the mind.  The books I purchase are stories I want to read, in formats I can easily access. So, aside from interesting content, what am I looking for in a good book?

While shopping with Katie, we wandered into the Classics section in search of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I had read the book eight years ago, for my AP Language & Composition class, but I’d somehow lost track of my beloved copy. Katie found the card with “WOOLF” printed in large, blocky lettering, and began to scour the stacks for the book I wanted. She found several editions, published by different companies – their fonts, pages, and binding wildly varied.

Our process is a simple one: Katie pulls an edition off the shelf and hands it to me, I open it to check whether the print is easy to read, and Katie uses my observations to filter the books she passes to me. I rarely require books in standard large print (size 18), because I apply a collection of magnifiers, reading glasses, and bifocals to texts I read. For me, ideal print is dark against the page, not a spidery or blocky font. Fonts like Courier New that echo the look of a typewriter are a recipe for disaster, while seriffed fonts like Times or Garamond are easy on my eyes. (WordPress tells me that the font I’m using now is Times.)

The quality of the page is also important. Often, I prefer to shop for used books because the yellowing pages are easier for me to read. Bright white pages can be glary, making the letters difficult to distinguish. Yellowed pages, on the other hand, soften the glare of overhead lights and contrast well with most fonts. If the book has any markings in it, it becomes exponentially more difficult to read. Occasionally, I can read a text that has underlining throughout, but, if someone has highlighted in the text, forget it!

The book’s spine is worth considering as well; if the book does not open easily, it will be difficult for me to get close enough to the pages to read them. When I was younger, I used a dome-shaped glass magnifier to read print. Now, I prefer reading glasses with 10x bifocals; I don’t have to worry about wedging a heavy glass dome in between the pages, but I do need to get about two inches away from the printed text to read it. Since I regularly underline in books, I must be able to get close to the text.

Because of my necessary textual intimacy, I have to give all my books the sniff test. Unless a book smells appealing – musty, old, and well-loved or crisp, new, and papery – I am reluctant to read it. I once avoided a textbook for my Mark Twain course, because, when I got deep into the pages, I could only smell the acrid glue of the binding.

The olfactory pleasure of books prevents me from switching to an all-digital experience of literature. Arguably, many more books are available online as e-books and free texts, but I know how desperately I would miss that Good Book Smell. Plus, my tactile relationship to texts helps me to navigate them with ease. I often remember where a passage is located because I remember reading it halfway down the page, on the left side, in the second column. My spatial awareness of text on a paper page disappears when I switch to texts on my computer. Audiobooks, however, are a welcome addition to my library, and I enjoy listening to a book while following along in the print edition.

If you’re thinking that my preferences sound like a load of cumbersome specifications, you’re very close to the truth. It is certainly easier on my eyes when I have an audiobook doing the reading and I can simply skim the pages with a pen, underlining as I listen. Yet I continue to gravitate to the printed page, even in the absence of audio recordings. Something in the experience of curling up with a good book – my nose, without exaggeration, deep in the pages – conveys a coziness, a tranquil absorption. As my body performs the posture of reading, the book is a reassuring weight in my hands. Getting my fingers around the edge of a page, sliding my bookmark into place, drawing a thin bracket around a particularly moving passage – these gestures comprise the sensory pleasures of a revitalizing experience.

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The rain, a cane, and a hint of Spain

Tonight, around 6:00pm, Ozzie begins to bark, sounding the signal of an approaching car. I sling my large pink floral purse over my left shoulder, check for my cane, sunglasses, wallet, keys, and cell phone, and head toward the front of the house. I open the door and try to keep Ozzie, the curious cairn terrier, from running out onto the landing to greet Javier, who has arrived to pick me up. My efforts fail as Ozzie slips past my legs and through the narrow opening – he is relentless when there are new people to greet!

After he has paid his respects to our pup, Javier offers me his arm and we descend the front steps. It’s sprinkling and we tromp through the wet grass to get to Javier’s car. Javi opens the door for me and I slide in. We begin our trek in search of Thai food, driving through an intensifying downpour. Luckily, Javi has a snazzy umbrella that will accommodate both of us.

We arrive at the Thai restaurant and hurry inside. Our waitress greets us and says, “Nice to see you again!” I do not recognize her voice, and I wonder how she recognizes me. Though I enjoy their food, I haven’t been to this particular Thai restaurant in a while.

This evening, Javi and I are of one culinary mind; we agree on vegetable spring rolls as an appetizer and end up ordering the same entree – Phad Se-yew with chicken,  mushrooms, and carrots. The spring rolls arrive already cut into 2-bite pieces. They are arranged in an asymmetrical design on a square plate. A round cup of dipping sauce with peanuts sits in one corner of the plate, while a colorful garnish occupies another. After we have each eaten one piece of spring roll, I stare hard at the plate and reach for what I hope is another piece. I am relieved as my fingers brush the crispy surface of the roll. As I dip it into the peanut sauce, I remark, “Oh I’m glad those are more spring rolls on that edge. I thought that was another pile of garnish.”

“Oh yes,” Javier replies devilishly. “It’s all garnish. Don’t eat it!”

When the entrees arrive, I take a few bites before remembering to search for the garnish, a bunch of shredded raw carrots twisted into a decorative design, that lingers somewhere on my plate. I know this from past experiences. I cannot count the number of times I’ve lifted a forkful of phad thai to my mouth and gotten a messy clump of raw carrot caught up with the rice noodles and scallions! We finish our meal, and Javier helps me spoon my leftovers into a small white takeout box. We pay at the register, where the cashier puts my debit card onto the counter in front of me (instead of placing it into my outstretched hand).

Full of excellent food, we decide to run some errands at the Town Center. While we search for a parking spot, Javier reads the names of passing stores – Apple, Pottery Barn, Artsy Abode…Switching from his pleasing Madrid accent to a low, exaggerated French impression, he intones, “L’Occitane en Provence.”

“What! They have a store here?” (I am excited. Because I cannot read store signs and don’t regularly check maps of the Town Center, I lose track of the stores on offer.)

“Yes, it’s right there.”

“Can we go in?”

“Sure…”

We enter the shop, and the first thing I notice is the size. The store is not very deep and the ceilings are not very high. I am not sure how I know this – it must have something to do with how the air feels and how the sound of the radio, playing “La Vie en Rose,” behaves in the space. As I step through the door, the sales assistant calls from behind the counter, “Bonjour!” I barely notice her greeting. I am overpowered by the heavenly smell of warm, soothing Provence lavender.

For lavender enthusiasts like me, Provence lavender has a very distinct scent – entirely different from the pointy, medicinal smell of the typical jar of lavender bath salts. Lavender grown in Provence has a relaxing, full, floral aroma that calms my mind and makes me think of sun-drenched meadows of lush green grass and soft, inviting blossoms.

This whole shop smells like lavender, probably because, as Javier informs me later, there are bunches of lavender for sale by the entrance. As we wander around, the woman comes from behind the counter to offer her assistance. I ask her how long the store has been here and she says, “Just over a year.” We chat a little about the products I’ve tried – the shea butter lip balm and the lavender hand cream. I tell her I am there to explore the whole store.

Suddenly, she comes closer and says, “Oh! All our products have – I don’t know what they’re called – those dots that spell things!”

“Braille?” I ask in a small, hopeful voice. There’s no way it’s braille, I think to myself. Nobody has braille on all their products.

“Yes, braille!” She sounds excited. She snatches a box off a shelf and offers it to me, placing it in my outstretched hand. “Here you go!”

My fingers travel over the smooth surface of the box. I feel an upraised print logo, and, as I turn the box over in my hand, my fingers come across the beloved, familiar dots! It is braille! Worn down and not terribly easy to read, the braille quietly proclaims, “peony eau de toilette” (No caps).

“That is too cool! Well now I have to buy something from your store,” I tell her.

After a bit more exploring, I leave L’Occitane with a new perfume – the peony one. Blame it on the braille. How could I refuse something so temptingly embossed?

The peony perfume is a warm, fresh floral scent that smells incredible! It carries hints of damp earth; it smells like the depths of a garden.

The braille and the perfume are not the only catalysts of my future shopping experiences at this store. As the saleswoman rings up my purchase, she wraps each item in tissue paper that she has misted with perfume. When I hand her my card, she swipes it and places it in my hand. She slides the receipt across the counter to me, verbalizing each move she makes.

Maybe the presence of the lavender makes her more empathic and open-minded. Maybe she is a kind and considerate person by nature. Or maybe it’s the braille, the small rows and columns of unobtrusive, resilient dots marking each sweet-smelling box that calls her attention to the needs of her customers.

Heightened Senses: Smells (Part 1)

There’s a popular theory that when one of your senses is diminished, the other four (let’s call them four for now, but we can debate this later) are heightened, accentuated, incalculably brightened in some way. So I’ll be devoting a series of entries to exploring this phenomenon in completely un-medical terms, as it relates to me. I can’t really say how my low vision makes these sensory enhancements work – so I’ll focus instead on a qualitative delivery of the experience of living with the senses I have.

Today it’s smells, especially smells I love. I’ll give you a few examples. When a smell reaches my nose that I absolutely love, I feel the urge to tilt my head back and imbibe the air. I find myself compulsively smelling the item, if it’s close enough to hold, or wanting to compulsively smell it, if it’s not close enough. Here are some places where the smells make me weak at the knees.

The glorious thing about having low vision is that most smells surprise you; you can’t see the smelliferous object approaching, so its aroma greets you sometimes gently and sometimes with terrifying vigor – but always surprisingly. Even if I’m walking past a place whose smell I love and I know perfectly where I am, there’s no guarantee that the wind will bring me that glorious aroma!

At the grocery store, there are two areas in particular that get to me – one is seasonal (a fleeting pleasure!) and the other, thankfully, mercifully, is not. The first is the cinnamon broom display at Publix. The most delightful thing about this particular sensation is that I inevitably forget that I will experience it. I enter the store, get distracted by the metallic rustlings of the shopping carts, and start rummaging for my grocery list. Then the cart glides forward — I prefer to push the card while my shopping companion steers by leading it from the front – and I begin to be accosted by smells. Flowers, bakery items, and generic clean building smells are the first, and they’re totally unremarkable. Then we’ll round a corner and somehow, some fortuitous puff of air will send the cinnamon broom smell sailing in my direction. And I want to grip the cart and tilt my head back and smell it, forever. The scent is punchy and potent; it zips through the air with a terrible ferocity. It slices through all the other smells and makes me stop and tune out the rest of my environment. I want to ignore everyone, turn off my ears, close my eyes, and experience SMELL all by itself. Cinnamon broom. Exquisite.

I have one hanging in my apartment now and the smell has worn off. This makes my chance encounters with the c-broom display at Publix so wonderful. No cinnamon broom in the home could ever smell like one in the store. I expect it at home.

The other sense-stopping aroma at Publix can be found in the produce section. So much of grocery store produce is lackluster, deficient in smell and color compared with the fruits and veggies from a farmers’ market or organic store. But the apples! the apples! I entice my shopping companion to read me all the varieties, asking mildly which are on sale, all the while thinking, Please say fujis! Please say honeycrisps! Oh lord, galas! And if these favored varieties aren’t $3.29/lb, I start to examine them.

I pick up an apple, turning it over and over in my hands and feeling for blemishes. I don’t want to fall in love with an apple’s particular perfume only to discover that it’s dented, squishy, or discolored. Then I smell it! And that floral, crisp, inviting aroma lifts me off my feet. I can’t fight down the sighs here. Especially when it comes to the honeycrisps, I can’t refuse. My desire to smell apples is insatiable, and I think it has something to do with the timbre of the smell – if I can apply that musical word here. Predominantly, the apple smell is a light one, light, riding on the air, not heavy or weighty like some of the more showy, succulent fruit smells. Apples don’t smell like peaches – when you smell a peach, you smell the whole tree – flowers, roots and all. A peach smells like all of its components – its aroma is thick with juice and sunshine. But apples smell light and crisp, like themselves – they lack the earthy dampness of peaches. The apple smell is an easy intoxicant because it doesn’t weigh you down. I could smell apples for hours.

The third contender in my particular scent rundown is the smell of woodsmoke and campfires. I love the afternoons when I walk outside and I can smell someone heating up a grill. I’m not talking about the delicious barbecue smell here – I’m talking about the pre-barbecue smell. And in winter, the smell of a fireplace has extra special allure. I once sat around a campfire with some friends on a winter evening, wearing a turquoise hoodie (since we Floridians are so ill-equipped to handle the cold) and the campfire smell seeped into my clothes. I remember smelling the sleeve of my hoodie all the way home. I don’t think I washed it for a month. I didn’t even continue to wear it – I would just pick it up from time to time.  And of course, smell it!

Campfires and warm, smoky aromas draw me in. I find them infinitely inviting. This does not include the acrid smells of cigarettes or the sickly sweet funk of hookahs. I restrict my smoky preferences to the woodsy, green scents. However, I will grant special admittance to smoked paprika and lapsang souchong tea (a black tea whose leaves are dried and smoked). The tea especially smells like campfire heaven.

I could go on for pages, but I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that there are way more interesting and fantastic smells out there to stop and enjoy. Forget the roses!

(Don’t really forget them. Just save them for later. I’ll do an entry on flower smells I love in the future.)