Books: 49 posts

Books and libraries

What Does The Scent of Books Reveal?

My Proustian madeleine is a piece of furniture. One of the first things I do when I arrive at our house in Poltava is to pry open the stubborn glass doors of the old bookcase and take a deep inhale. Even before I knew how to read, I loved smelling the leather bound volumes standing in neat rows on its shelves, so it’s true that my love of reading and my interest in aromas developed in tandem. Inside, the bookcase smells of vetiver roots, vanilla and sesame biscuits.

I’m not being whimsical with my descriptions, however. A ground breaking project by researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage explored odor descriptions as they relate to the chemical composition of books and created a “historic book odor wheel” to link the scents with the aromatics present in decaying paper. It’s amazing to see how many aroma-molecules books and perfumes have in common, from limonene (zesty, lemon-line odor) to hexanal (freshly cut grass) and vanillin (sweet, vanilla).

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Reading Nikolai Gogol in 2017

I celebrated Nikolai Gogol’s birthday on March 31st by picking up a volume of Dead Souls. The last time I read it in its entirety was during my school days, and many scenes were so vivid in my memory that picking up the novel again felt less like re-discovering than wandering through a familiar landscape. Gogol, the Russian and Ukrainian dramatist, playwright and novelist, is unrivaled for his sharp satire and colorful language, but what struck me this time is how relevant his observations were to our present day affairs. Today everyone is re-reading Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’d like to make a case for adding Dead Souls to the list.

Let’s start with one of my favorite quotes in the book. “Absolute nonsense happens in the world. Sometimes there is no plausibility at all.” Yes, a similar thought in different formulations has been coursing through my head a lot lately. Or, “You can’t imagine how stupid the whole world has grown nowadays. The things these scribblers write!” What would be Gogol’s take on our world of “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and “fake news”?

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“I’m Dying of Love for You” : The Letters of Isabella von Parma

I returned from my recent trip to Vienna bring back not only an obsession with Johann Georg Pinsel, but also with Isabella von Parma (1741-1763), who lived at the same time as the mysterious 18th century sculptor. Isabella was one of the most remarkable personalities of the 18th century, admired for her achievements in art, music, and philosophy. The reason I became fascinated with her, however, was an excerpt from a letter she wrote to her sister-in-law, Marie Christine of Austria. “I am told that the day begins with God. I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her incessantly.”

I am once again struck by the narrow lenses through which we see women in history. In many books Isabella is repeatedly described as “mad,” “tragic,” or “odd.” People search for the roots of her melancholy moods in the family tree and discuss at length the mental problems of her father and her mother’s cold attitude. What about the fact that princesses in the 18th century were little more than breeding mares, and Isabella had half a dozen miscarriages during her short marriage to Joseph II of Austria? The couple was under enormous pressure to produce a male offspring to the Hapsburgs.

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Illuminate Our Night Into a Day

Come through the convent doors: illumine our night into a day,
Scent with perfume the assembly of the holy men.
If a preacher tells you to forsake loving, give him a cup of wine and tell him to refresh his mind.

Hafez

Whenever I feel depressed about the current state of affairs–quite often lately, uncertain about the right course of action, or if I simply need a brush with something beautiful and profound, I turn to Hafez. It may seem strange to seek advice in the writings of a 14th poet from Shiraz, but Hafez’s work is so rich and multifaceted that it invariably gives me a new perspective. He too lived through a period of political upheavals and anxiety, and as Goethe said, “In his poetry Hafez has inscribed undeniable truth indelibly.”

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Divine Pleasures

From 1750 to 1850 India experienced one of its most turbulent and violent periods. Fissures in the Mughal Empire that had controlled most of the subcontinent since the early sixteenth century allowed competing states to take control. Written down as history, it sounds like yet another shuffling of rulers and borders, but for the contemporaries it meant slaughter and starvation. When you keep in mind the scope of the calamities, the ethereal world of the art produced at the time comes as a surprise.

“Here lovers cling to each other in abandon, surrounded by a mosaic of cushions and bolsters; elephants run amok and dart under the arches scraping their sides; armies of monkeys and bears turn into a vast cloud as they advance upon Lanka; the universe comes into being before one’s eyes as matter begins to form from void; a tiger shot in a forest tumbles nineteen times over before it falls to the ground; a blind poet envisions baby Krishna waking up; princes stand on marble embankments feeding crocodiles;… boats ply on gentle waters while lovers escape to fragrant arbours. There is so much to see here, and savour, as painters play around with time and keep manipulating space at will.”

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