I first met this set of encyclopedias in 1976, when they were a dozen years old and I was just a bit younger. They were on a bookshelf in the living room of my grandmother’s house in Fredonia, New York. I courted them again and again over three decades: whenever I was visiting and not occupied with other things – setting up domino reactions, blowing soap bubbles, photographing family, seeing local sights, watching television, playing darts in the cool empty basement – I might pull out a volume and look for something to read, just as I would at my own home with the World Book encyclopedias and, later, a much newer set of Britannica with soft covers that smelled of educated leather, a very different smell from any other encyclopedia.
This set travelled with my grandmother to a seniors’ residence. And then, when she was reducing her possessions to those few that would fit in a smaller apartment, I finally took it home with me in a rented car. It has anchored the bottom shelf of my bookcase for about fifteen years now, half of that since its original owner departed in hopes of meeting the source of all knowledge.
I don’t often pull out a volume and open it. I don’t need to; fresher information is available in fire-hose quantity through the same device I’m typing this on, and even the entertainment value of this dinosaur of knowledge is not as great as other options.
But a computer does not feel like a volume of this 1964 set of Britannica. And it certainly does not smell like it.
I have pulled out volume 7, Daisy to Educational Psychology, this evening. It is in good shape, less bumped and broken than some of the others. It feels solid, like a volume you would pull off the shelf in the first library where you learned what solid, smart books feel like. Though it would make a poor pillow, it is as comforting as down and cool, dry linen, inviting you to black-and-white dreams of knowledge. It has a hard cover in a deep red textured material that is at least meant to recall leather. When I open it, it makes a high, resonant creaking-cracking sound, something between a straw slurp and the opening of an ancient coffin from inside.
And then I smell it. Because that is what one does. There is nothing other that plucks the strings of memory as smartly as smell. You don’t know for sure that you are getting the real, authoritative, well-aged knowledge unless it smells like a book from your school library.
And this does. It smells like the grey-suit-with-school-tie version of a book. It is a crisp smell but not sharp, neither flowery nor floury, but partway between an HB pencil and a soda biscuit. It smells like the book where I first learned of logarithms; it smells like the book in which I made my first explorations of the German language. It smells like the official records of things my parents and teachers did. It smells like the elaborate mathematical equations it displays: it is the book-smell version of a schoolchild’s idea of an Ivy League physics classroom. It smells like maps and diagrams and dot-screened documentary photographs as you first learned the smells of such things. It smells like a Christmas morning of the mind.
It is the smell of plywood desks with laminate tops engraved by ballpoint pens; it is the smell of sitting lotus-legged on the hard rug floor between rows of shelves in the library, the comforting cliffs of knowledge towering above you as you relax in the quiet canyon of discovery, secure that no dedicated ignoramus will smoke you out. This one smell conveys structure and potential; it tells you that you are about to know more, and there may be a test.
This smell is the wrapping on a gift from God, the God of knowledge, the God my grandmother surely looked forward to meeting. What sort of a grandmother has a set of Britannica? A tall, graceful, smart, witty grandmother, magazine-model beautiful, lifelong teetotaller, former missionary, small-town western New York pragmatic, widow, high-school teacher. A woman who believed in gifts from God and believed that knowledge was one such. A woman whose name was literally a gift from God: Dorothy, from δῶρον (doron, ‘gift’) and θεός (theos, ‘god’).
And these books are a gift to me from my grandmother. She is ashes now, but this yard and a half of unburnt paper – bought when she was younger than I am now – remains. It takes up space I could use for other things, yes, but that’s what memories do.