Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Magic of Books

How is it that words on a page can summons a smell, draw out a tear, or satisfy a longing?

For the last couple of days I have been reading again here and there in Jeffrey Cramer's annotated edition of Thoreau's Walden, and (if I am left alone) it's like a visit to the woods, fields, and ponds around 19th century Concord, Massachusetts. After reading during lunch, my walk from the break room back to the bookstore feels not like the 50 ft. stroll that it is, but more like I'm walking back from the vale of Walden itself. When I read, I sit with Henry in his tiny cabin and think what it would be like to live here. I hoe beans in his bean-field or walk in the crusty snow to town. Enjoying the smell of wood smoke, I share Indian (corn) meal bread baked on an open fire outside the cabin. How in the world can Henry's old book cast so powerful a spell?

A similar thing happened once sitting next to a campfire with Sigurd Olson.
"We touched a match to the kindling, and soon the smells of early morning, the damp smells of wet rocks and duff, were joined by the richness of coffee and frying bacon. We sat close, for the air was chilly, and ate our breakfast with an eye to the east and the mouth of the river." — Sigurd Olson, 1956
It was a little over a year ago when I first read this passage. I was in our bookstore break room, preparing for my work day by drinking a cup of tea and trying to relax with a few minutes of reading. I was reading "The Loons of Lac La Croix," in The Singing Wilderness, by Sigurd Olson. I was in a windowless room made of concrete and steel, and I would remain indoors for the rest of the day. For just a few minutes, though, I was transported to the canoe country of the great north woods.

Suddenly, as if by spell, I was surrounded by huge boulders and tall pines on the edge of a lake. Campfire smoke blended with the smells of rich, damp earth. My cold fingers were warmed by the quick, bright flames, and I could taste and smell the fresh bacon and coffee. And then, just as suddenly, my time was up. I had to douse the fire and report for work.

The spell was not completely broken by the punch of the time-clock, however. Throughout the rest of the day I remained refreshed and rejuvenated from my time in the morning woods. I marvel at the magic of books.

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