11 March 2010 10 Comments

Why I love clogged Arab toilets better than Amazon Kindles

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.)

10 Responses to “Why I love clogged Arab toilets better than Amazon Kindles”

  1. Nicole 11 March 2010 at 8:36 pm #

    Somehow, I thought this post was going to veer into territory dangerously close to this, but it (obviously) didn’t.

    I also think the digital experience isn’t nearly as satisfying as spending hours in a bookstore, finding a book you may never have otherwise picked up, or having a book call to you from twenty feet away in the library (which accounts for the large stacks of books by my bed). (The Kindle would also elminate my tendency to buy extra copies of books I love, just in case something happens to the first copy…)

    I have to confess that I get nostalgic for the cute card catalog drawers, but not the annoyance of actually having to USE them.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 27 March 2010 at 12:05 am #

    You’ve pointed out an additional element, Nicole: the finding of the book. Finding a book on amazon just isn’t the same.

  3. miriam 20 April 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    Matt: Don’t forget the joy of finding a book nobody else has heard of in the last 20 years and enjoying it thoroughly.

    Some of these books have inscriptions and it’s like reading old postcards. You get a little taste of somebody else’s life–just a subtle hint, but enjoyable nevertheless.

    I love libraries, I love bookstores, old and new, and book sales, and the shelf at the Good Will store or the Salvation Army where books are an afterthought. Each of these represents a potential adventure.

    However, I don’t think I’d like Arab toilets. That seems to be an acquired taste.

  4. Matt Beynon Rees 4 May 2010 at 5:10 am #

    It’s true, Miriam. I picked up an old copy of a biography of General Allenby in Hay-on-Wye a decade ago with the inscription of the original owner — who had been serving with the British army in India at the time. Fascinating stories that travel with books are gone as soon as the book goes digital. …As for the acquired taste, I agree that it may be a particular quirk of mine to favor these particular bathrooms…

  5. Gail 22 July 2010 at 6:29 pm #

    Maybe it’s a guy thing, this loving Arab toilets. Your description reminds me too much of the outhouses at Girl Scout camp in the late 50′s. They had seats though, that opened onto the noxious pit and one always had to look for the enormous spiders that lived on the concrete tubes that were attached to the underside of the seat. Cute boys came around once a week and threw lime down on to the pit to cut the smell, I guess. In my travels through Egypt, I never ran across a squat toilet so I must’ve stayed at more upperclass places; they charged at least $5 per night. But you’re absolutely right about the smells of a good bazaar. To be perfectly honest, I’d rather wander through a crowded bazaar anytime, than go to New York City. I can honestly say I’ve wandered the world alone in my youth, alone, except maybe for the temporary traveling companion, but I’m terrified of New York. As for the Kindle, It would have it’s place in my life for books I don’t want to keep. I keep your books and those of Daniel Silva. Books on the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which is my special interest. Books on the Boer War and Isandhluana. I do find odd books on Amazon and Alibris, most used and I love to feel them and wonder who owned them before me.

  6. Matt Beynon Rees 25 December 2010 at 6:50 am #

    You’re right that the encyclopedic scope of online shopping for books is appealing, Gail. I note that bookdespository.co.uk is now sending books abroad without charging for shipping, which is an improvement on amazon. As for Isandhlwana, it has a special place for me, as we often used to drive up to Brecon where the unfortunate (at least that day) South Wales Borderers were based.

  7. Pam 20 January 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    When the Kindle first came out, I bought one and used it quite a bit. But I found that I did miss real books and so now I seem to go back and forth between the Kindle and real books. I am in a real book stage now (although I do have to say that I have your last book on my Kindle). Now that I can synchronize my Kindle with my Droid, I never have to be without reading material.

    Re: Palestinian toilets: In 1968, I spent a year in Thailand and there were many of those hole in the ground toilets. I did get somewhat used to them (I was much more agile in those days) but since I had numerous attacks of gastroenteritis, the holes in the ground lost their charm…since we are being wonderfully graphic here, I will say that the combination of toilets in the ground and painful diarrhea does indeed make me wish for a Japanese version.

  8. Matt Beynon Rees 27 January 2011 at 3:32 am #

    There are times when we all want a Japanese toilet, Pam ;) Ah, but the inclusion of the Droid in the Kindle/book mix is something I’ve yet to face. Does that mean you read on your cellphone?

  9. Matt Beynon Rees 27 January 2011 at 3:33 am #

    Oh, and Pam, wherever you keep your copy of my books, I’m just happy that you have it!

  10. Gail Bentzinger 13 May 2011 at 10:46 pm #

    Whenever I’m in the UK, I come back with 10 or so books that would have been nearly impossible to obtain here. In fact, last time my one checked bag weighed in exactly at 50 pounds. They asked me if I was carrying bricks. No. Books from Hatchard’s.


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