Phil Hugo: A sensory exploration of books

By Phil Hugo - Guest Columnist

I’m flipping through a book my wife, Karen, gave me for my birthday: “Taste — My Life Through Food” — by Stanley Tucci. It’s about his life and love affair with food, among other things.

You may know Tucci by way of his work on stage and screen and his series on CNN, “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.” The project is a region-by-region history of the foods of that country and the people who raise, make and consume the cheese, meats, tomatoes, pasta and desserts for which the country is famous.

I’ve never been to Italy, but the series and book make me want to visit the place.

One of the first things I do with a book, be it fresh out of the bookstore or a new one I’ve requested staff at the Lima Public Library to order for the collection, is a quick sensory exploration of the book. By that, I mean using four of my five senses.

I’ve never licked or tried to chew on a book, especially if it is one about food, to see how it might tickle my tastebuds. It doesn’t matter how tempting the photograph of a strawberry biscuit sheet cake may look. Call it savoring the flavor of the book vicariously.

My literary tastes lean to non-fiction, covering diverse subjects. In the area of fiction, my choices have been works by the late Jim Harrison: Interesting storylines and characters with settings in the out of doors, the latter appealing to the naturalist in me.

Important as the content and characters of a book are, I am also interested in the character — the physicality of a book, the idea that you can judge a book by its cover and other aspects of its makeup.

Visually the cover of Tucci’s book is appealing: raised letters in glossy black and gold, the dust jacket consisting of white and orange, demarcated by a tactile line between the two colors and a black and white photo of Stanley. It’s a cover that grabs my attention.

The tactility of a book also applies to the paper, which serves as a bed for the words. The vertical edges of pages can be smooth or rough cut. Of heavy weight or spare, e.g. the thin paper that makes up the body of my late father-in-law Elmer Jantzi’s well-used leather-bound Bible — pages worn, torn and well used by the hands of a man who loved books.

The body of an aged book is not unlike the aging body of its owner.

Have you ever picked up books to see what they smell like? I do. The aroma of a book can reflect the ink, glue in the binding and the paper that is used. New books have a freshness, a certain “je ne sais quoi” about them. Now, if they could incorporate a scratch-and-sniff feature in cookbooks, wouldn’t that be swell?

Aside from the manufactured smell of books, there is an environmental or age aspect that contributes to the odor of certain volumes. I have a book on entomology that I used when I was in college back in the ’60s. In spite of its presence on the shelves in our study and not in a musty basement, it has a medium-aged nose to it, and it’s not from the stink bugs that are described therein.

What do you sense when you take time to listen to the sounds a book makes when we have it in our hands? The sound a finger causes as we move it to the corner of a page, separating it from its resting place, then sliding the digit down the page to complete the process. What about the sound of a creaking binding — aka the spine of a book?

A final thought on the audible effects of books when we use them for work or pleasure: The explosive noise a book makes when we slam it shut or throw it to the floor in a fit of anger or frustration. Pick a reason. Do that with an electronic device and see what happens.

These days, many people download books onto an electronic device. I suppose there are advantages, such as portability, cost, not losing a library book, etc. But when Karen is reading a book on her phone in my presence, the text may be the same, but the character, the physicality I’ve been talking about is lacking. For me, there is something special about holding a book that adds to the joy of reading.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find Tucci’s book and give one of his recipes a go. Oh, and while I’m doing that, perhaps you will take the opportunity to get acquainted with the character of a book in your collection.

By Phil Hugo

Guest Columnist

Phil Hugo lives in Lima. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.

Phil Hugo lives in Lima. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.

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