As I travel the Middle East to research my Palestinian crime novels, I love to come upon a stinking squatting-toilet, its evacuation hole bubbling with dark, sinister turds and the air strong with the scent of barely digested, unhygienically prepared lamb kebab. I adore such a khazi on sight, because no one cleaned it up for me or tried to create an illusion that it was just like a toilet in Manhattan or Munich or my mother’s house.
That toilet is suddenly all around me and it’s real, down to the ragged little cloth and the old watering can for washing myself afterwards. I can even remember the most spectacularly smelly ones, like the reeking mess of my hotel toilet in Wadi Moussa, Jordan, where I paid $1.60 per night for a room, or the delightful filth of the Fatah headquarters in Nablus.
According to Virginia Heffernan, The New York Times television and “media” columnist, the sensuous depth of my experiences with Palestinian toilets is worthless. Every time I crap, I ought to be doing it in a replica of the Tokyo hotels which spray your backside with hand cleansing soap solutions, whether you like it or not.
How did Heffernan get into my toilet habits? Well, she didn’t. Actually she told me that the scent of books not only doesn’t matter but is a subject she finds tedious. The “aria of hypersensual book love is not my favorite performance,” she writes this week. “I sometimes suspect that those who gush about book odor might not like to read. If they did, why would they waste so much time inhaling?”
So if you like food, do you have to choose one sense as the limit of your experience? If you’re invited out to eat with Heffernan: Don’t look at the plate and don’t savor the aroma; just eat the bloody thing.
The lady ought to get out more and think about her own senses. Most people only seem to notice smell when it makes them wrinkle their nose in disgust.
Whenever I’m in a Palestinian town, I can hardly breathe for all the sniffing I do. Strong cigarettes, body sweat, dust that seems superheated, donkey dung, cardamom from the coffee vendor and other spices in sacks outside a shop. The connection between scent and memory is in fact much stronger than the link between sight and our memories.
So forgive me if I go home from the Palestinian john and give my library the same attention.
I should add that Heffernan’s weird article posits the arguments of the great philosopher Walter Benjamin in favor of the love of a library, its scents and sense of touch. She then puts forward her argument in favor of e-readers which is that… Well, as far as I can see it’s just that she thinks Benjamin would probably have liked the Kindle, even though all the things he says he likes about books in his essay on collecting books don’t conform to the Kindle experience (except for the actual words you read).
It’d be like me writing that my old college tutor Terry Eagleton (author of “Walter Benjamin, or Toward a Revolutionary Criticism” 1981) wanted to elucidate a way for socialist literary critics to utilize new French deconstructionist techniques (true), only to add that he’d probably think Heffernan was a tasty bit of crumpet (probably true, knowing Terry, but no more than a hunch on my part.)
I’m not against the Kindle or other e-readers. I think it’s quite possible that many people will read more because of the ease with which they can download a range of works onto their little screens. One of my good friends here in Jerusalem loves his Kindle and has noted that, while I have to wait weeks for my books to be delivered, he can be reading whatever he wants in the seconds it takes to download a digital file.
My pal also points out that e-readers might be good for authors in the end (despite the fears of publishers) because he can’t lend my books once they’re bought on his Kindle. He has to buy another copy as a gift. See, I’m all for that.
Heffernan’s argument falls in line with the thoughtless cool accorded often-useless gadgets by people who haven’t looked beyond the sleek design and beeping sounds. (By this I mean the following conversation which I’m sure you’ve all experienced: “It’s cool.” “Why?” “It’s just cool, man.”)
Heffernan writes about scrolling through her “odorless dustless Kindle library,” comparing that with a dusty, odoriferous real library. But when she’s scrolling, she oughtn’t to compare herself to people who love books. The best comparison is to people who love card catalogues, because she isn’t looking at the books, only at their titles and some other referents.
“I have literally no memory of opting to get any of these books on Amazon,” she writes as she looks down the list of contents on her natty device. That, Virginia dear, is because though it’s called a “Kindle,” you’re reading a computer. When I look at my computer, I often can’t remember when I wrote any number of blog posts or news stories based on a perusal of their file names. A few words in a digital list are nothing more than that. They have no design, no sensual triggers, no other association at all.
But I remember where and when I bought almost every book I own. (I also have a special place in my heart for the ones I stole as a teenager, but it turns out that might be easier to do with digital devices as well. Another thrill of youth lost to new technology.)
“The Kindle delivers a new kind of bliss,” Heffernan concludes. I’m sure it does, though Heffernan can’t tell us what that bliss might be.
Meantime, don’t forget about books. And, in spite of what I wrote above, don’t forget to flush.
(I posted this on a blog I write with three other international crime authors. Check it out.)