Whenever I inhale the pages of a book one of my kids stares at me with guarded interest.
"Don't you just love the smell?" I ask, sniffing in deeply as I press the book over my face like an oxygen mask.
Each one of them has tried it, agreeing with me tentatively.
I often wonder, as I do my best to instill a love of reading in my children, if their lives will be shaped as distinctly by books as mine has been.
My first memory of books is surrounded by the haze of early youth. I am sitting on my mother's lap and she is reading a Curious George story to me. The man in the yellow hat is friendly and I smile at his bright, sunny color. I am cozy and warm. The world around me does not exist. It is only me and my mother cradled by the olive green couch beneath us, as we join a little monkey and his friend on their adventure.
Kindergarden is the year I learn how to read. I am standing next to Mrs. Stuchio by the brown shiny table, sounding out Pig in a Jig. Her pride in my accomplishment excites me, but not as much as the knowledge that I can now pick up a book and read the words on my own.
By first grade, I have figured out that escaping to my room with a book is my favorite thing to do. Next to my bed is my white formica night table. The open shelves on the bottom hold my book collection. I spend hours arranging the titles and making sure the spines line up just so. When I am satisfied, I pick up a favorite--maybe B is for Betsy or Sheila the Great-- get comfortable on my bed, and get lost in the story.
For my seventh birthday, my grandparents buy me a hardcover copy of She Was Nice to Mice. I stroke the silky white book jacket and open up to the back flap, where there are pictures of the 12-year-old author and 13-year-old illustrator. I pick up the book every day and turn to those photographs, fascinated by how young these professionals are. I begin to write my own books on colored construction paper.
As my elementary school years pass, the outside world is buffered by my inner world of literature. I am terrified by the air-raid drills we have at school. On those days, as I cover my head with my hands and push it against the hard concrete walls of the hallway, listening to the loud sirens, I think of walking down the streets of New York's lower East Side with the girls in One of A Kind Family; picking berries with the Ingalls family; playing detective with Harriet the Spy; commiserating with any of Judy Blume's characters; or learning about life from Trixie Belden.
For Chanukah in 1978, my father's cousin gives me a copy of Zlateh the Goat and other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. On nights when my parents are fighting, I lock myself in my room and read the short stories over and over again. I am walking in the snow storm with Aaron and his pet goat. We find shelter in a haystack as the snow comes down hard. After three days, we make it back to the village and our family rejoices.
During junior high school my books are like shiny pieces of candy. They wait for me in my room while I attend school dances, boy-girl parties, and sleepovers that I pretend to enjoy. I am asked out by a boy I barely know, who holds my hand and kisses me awkwardly before dropping me off at my Earth science classroom. I only relax during English class, as Mrs. Ayers reads The Cask of Amontillado aloud in a deliciously dramatic voice.
In high school, I cut Language Arts class often to drive to the pizza place with my friends. Some of them laugh about how we will write our term papers without reading the book. I secretly wish I was back in the classroom, listening to what the teacher has to say about Camus' The Stranger.
It is not until college, where I live in an apartment by myself, that I am free to be alone for hours, devouring Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Byron's Don Juan, Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, and so many more. I intern for a small book publisher in D.C. and read manuscript submissions from aspiring writers.
In graduate school I continue my formal study of literature, thrilled to analyze Shakespeare, discover Caribbean authors like Jamaica Kincaid, and learn the best ways to teach books to high school students.
It is not until my school years are over, and I end my teaching career to raise a family that I realize how passionately books have shaped who I have become. Now, when I breathe in the sharp, distinct smell of a book's pages, memories of my life enter my body, mixing with the smells of foreign kitchens, grassy fields, deserted alleyways, 16th century farms, and all the other magical places my mind has travelled to. They are the smells of literature: as real to me as any scent that awakens my senses in the present.