The sensuality of reading books

I love when a book succumbs to being read. Its pages soften, its spine relaxes. It forms itself to me. It knows it’s mine. The book unfolds itself to me like a new relationship blossoming under my fingertips.

Effects of many reads, softened and tabbed. ee cummings Tulips and Chimneys, Sharon Olds The Dead and the Living, Louise Bogan The Blue Estuaries

Much of what I read for pleasure is poetry. Reading poetry is different than reading a novel, at least for me. I don’t read poems in the order they appear, but rather pop around looking at passages, stopping to savor poems that speak to me. I love the succinctness of poetry, its vivid expression, its metaphors, and how captures the echos that reverberate within. Poetry is like having the right side of your brain describe what the left side of your brain can’t explain. If poetry itself can be difficult to explain logically, then it makes sense that the relationship one has with books may be based more on feeling than rational decisions. Like a relationship. The relationship can be rather right-brained and based in the senses:

The familiar feel of the book cover.

The tightness of the spine.

The scent and texture of the paper as the pages are turned.

The font and spacing on a page.

The way a book changes and relaxes with being read. People are no different in this regard.

The manner in which I mark a favorite poem tends to be specific to the particular book. I tend to tab certain pages, but in some cases, the tabbing has become ridiculous. Sometimes I use a different tab placement or color as a sort of temporal stamp of when I liked a poem, or whether or not I wish to share the poem with others.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets of the Portuguese, tabbed

Other times, I decide that dog-earring feels appropriate for a book. My hands alter the page of a loved  poem as I read it longingly, folding the corner of the page to make it shorter than the rest. The page has lost its factory-pristineness in my hands. The poem and I move one another. I suspect that Anne Sexton would approve.

Anne Sexton's Love Poems, dog-earred

Fiction can be different than poetry. Many times I won’t mark any pages of a novel. Still, a long book takes longer to read and so the pages have more time to give way and mold themselves to my hand. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was like that. I didn’t rush through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance so we had plenty of time to get acquainted. Both are paperback books with nice soft spines.

And what could be better than a book that was lovingly handled by the author to sign it?

Or one that was handed down by a loved one?

From my grandmom, with the note "Thoreau and his words have always made me feel better after reading them!"

I love to look at books I haven’t read in a long while and discover the treasures within. Sure, I linger over the passages I have marked in some manner, but I also enjoy looking at any bookmarks left between the pages. Impromptu bookmarks are the best kind of bookmark: a concert ticket, a letter, a leaf. These items  bring back memories of when I last read the book. I remember that flower but can’t quite place its origin. Who is the letter from? What concert is it? Look at the year!

Used books are like finding forgotten gems. At one time, I attempted to find all original Edna St Vincent Millay poetry that was out of print as individual offerings yet could still be found in used book stores. I always prefer the format of the original printed book to that of later compilations or re-issuings. The way I see it, the author’s original intent was for the book to be considered as one offering, devoured as one chunk. Perhaps a book represents a certain time in an author’s development or thinking, as step along the ladder. One of the reasons I love Sylvia Plath’s Crossing the Water is that it represents a transition between the more youthful The Colossus and the spellbinding Ariel. The transition can be lost in compilations. But I digress. Some Millay books that I found in used bookstores have inscriptions in them, one from 1939. All the books show indication of being well-loved by their original owner. Formed to their hands, now forming to mine. Slowly we get acquainted as I linger on my favorite pages.

Of course the sensual aspect of reading a book and feeling it release its contents is lost on computers and electronic reading devices. The entire tactile experience of reading is made sterile. My copy of Catcher in the Rye feels different than your copy, I am certain of it. Read an e-copy and they’re all the same. I think there’s a place for electronic reading (you’re doing it now) but books are interactive and are more than the sum of their written words. Books can never be truly replaced. I’m sure this is crazy talk to some.

How crazy am I really? Well, I like to arrange my poetry in a certain way on my shelves. I’m not so particular about other literature genres, as long as they are organized by topic or type: art, gardening, fiction. I get more involved with poetry. My early Confessional poets are grouped together so I can imagine the authors chatting as they once did: Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Snodgrass. Far away on the shelves from the Confessional poets I have Louise Bogan (next to Theodore Roethke in homage to their romance). Sharon Olds is next to Galway Kinnell, since they both taught at the same university. Passionate more than crazy, we’ll say.

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickenson, tabbed

But there’s more. Years ago while in graduate school, I would go into the local big chain bookstore and browse the poetry section. It didn’t take long to realize that it was chronically out of order, sometimes with a certain author’s work spread randomly around the section. I found myself straightening the poetry section. It became a meditative task. I was doing it for the authors, I’d tell myself. I focused on my favorite authors, of course, and in some way those books who found their way into the hands of their eventual readers bear the impression of my care for them along their journey. The pages of the books became a little softened in my hands and ready to release their beauty. Primed for poetry. Relaxed for reading.

7 thoughts on “The sensuality of reading books

  1. This certainly would go down as one of my favourite posts. I don’t read much poetry but fiction and non fiction books are definitely my thing. I enjoy the feeling of a book in my hand. It feels like being in the company of an old friend and we understand each other.

  2. “Poetry is like having the right side of your brain describe what the left side of your brain can’t explain.”

    Wonderful! Thank you for such a lovely few minutes. :-)

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