What’s That Smell?

Sometimes, what gets me curious about a book is not the content of its ideas, but the characteristics taken on by a previous owner. Yesterday, I received a much-anticipated copy of Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving in the mail. It was all I could do not to rip open the package in the elevator, and I’m glad I didn’t; when I finally, and in very civilized fashion, used a pair of scissors to do the job, what hit me first was not the appearance of my new-to-me book, but a sour blast of stale cigarettes. I’ve read through the first chapter and then some, and I’ve felt compelled to do so next to an open window, and maybe to leave it next to said aperture overnight. But the odor is so deeply ingrained into the paper, I’m pretty sure it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. I’m uncertain what the half-life of cigarette aroma is, but I’m confident I’ll be in the grave long before the fragrance of tar and nicotine has evaporated from this particular volume of Fromm.

And I can’t help wondering: who was this past owner, holed up in an apparently sealed room, puffing away while engaged in learning about the theory and practice of love? Was it a frustrated old bachelor, wondering why no one would join him in his intellectual pursuits, finger pads permanently tinged a sick yellow from decades of indulging in a bad habit? Did his (because by now, this character is stuck as male in my mind) face resemble the xanthous-toothed monster public service spots have led us to believe all smokers will one day become, crying out for help in a lonely voice wheezy from fighting emphysema? Or did he defy all the odds, and remain a handsome devil to the end?

I was once wandering through my go-to bookstore, when I pulled a volume off the shelf, and was creeped out to find my own notes in the margins. I’d sold it back not that long ago, and was horrified to think this faceless me had left herself vulnerable to the sniggers of better or cocky readers, should they take the time to decipher my crabbed scrawl. Not horrified enough, note, to buy the thing back and destroy it– but left curiously disturbed that I’d sent out a piece of me into (eventually) someone else’s hands. I have to wonder if the smoker linked to me by the musings of a somewhat old-fashioned psychologist ever thought about whether or not he was doing the same, with his odoriferous cast-offs. Maybe his sense of smell had grown so numbed he never even noticed the scent trail he left behind. Still– it’ll be hard for me to stop wondering about him and his relationship to my new purchase– at least until I’ve found a way to air it out, and air it out good.

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