Bibliophile

Like all good libraries, the one in our town smelled like dust. It mingled with the smell of mildew and burning where the dampness of the outside rain met the shimmer of heat sent up from the baseboards. For a curious and lonely child, there was a holiness and reverence in this place that I never felt in any church. Library smell is incense.

In my small town, I knew many people who saw no appeal in books. They could not understand how I spent so much time with my nose in whatever volume I was reading. Even my own mother, whose lilting recitations of poetry I heard in utero, worried I was spending too much time reading and not enough time outside. I compromised in the summer by taking books outside, poring over pages dappled by sunlight through the trees, so absorbed in the stories that I did not notice the breeze peppering my hair with dandelion seeds.

Books followed me everywhere. Anne Shirley sat with me at the dinner table, while Sara Crewe primly avoided being splashed in the bath. With a flashlight under the covers at night, I revelled not only in the tales of these texts, but of their physical being. Before I ever understood anything of sex, I knew the heady satisfaction that came with the coarseness of pages and the way they whispered together with the sheets, book smell surrounding me with acidic hints of vanilla and sweetgrass.

As I grew up and tentatively stepped out from behind the spine of a book and into the oft-confusing world of relationships with other human beings, the impact of my learnings remained. I am more easily charmed by a wordsmith than any other. You will hear not the slightest shame from me when I say that I am a vocabulary size queen. Language is my greatest weakness, which is why meeting people who do not read is baffling to me. The people who brag that they haven’t picked up a book since high school fill me with a mixture of ire and pity. A man once tried to pick me up with that line, saying he had better things to do. In his case, he meant the gym (he did have a certain marble-sculpted quality about him), but an attitude like that is the end of the line for me. So little curiosity speaks poorly of one’s imagination. In fifty years, when time has whittled his body down, he still will not know what is beyond the looking glass or why the caged bird sings. And he will not care.

When I was still an innocent naif, it was no surprise that books eventually led to a greater understanding and appreciation of sensual experiences. What shocked me, years later, was how much the inverse was true. Lustful moments were narrated in my head as they happened, my frantic frontal lobe struggling to find the words that matched the way it felt when I realized that sometimes lingual has nothing to do with speech. The right adjective can make me flush to the roots of my hair, my eyes glazing as I conjugate verbs, sound memory coming in onomatopoetic bursts. These images are not pictures, but description. They are glissando shudders of anticipation, the fleur de sel taste of skin in the dark.

In spite of the mental narration, words from other people are an addiction, and not just those from authors and poets. I save particularly well-constructed e-mails from friends. The few handwritten letters I have received are among my most treasured possessions, and I know them by heart. On days when I lament ever having fallen in love with a man who is incredibly reserved in professing the same, I open the bedside drawer and read the affirmations of fervor and fidelity. The elegant scrawl on yellow legal paper is soothing, for I remember that he lives in action, not words, but he has crossed over on occasion just because I needed it.

I know there is more to life than the words that describe it. There is beauty and grace beyond the horizon of what language can describe. I am no longer a lonely observer of the world around me. Still, I always see flickers of another world underneath the surface, like swimming fish. The dense weight of a book in my hand will pull me under without so much as a struggle.

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