Tag Archives: commonplace books

The Victim of Progress No One is Talking About

23 Apr

No, I am not talking about our brains, our ability to do math or concentrate on tasks that take longer than 30 seconds to accomplish or thoughts that require more than 140 characters to explain. I am talking about smells, pleasant or not, that are gradually disappearing as technology weasels itself into our lives to make them better, smoother, easier, less smelly but more sterile than ever. And as it does, it is also erasing some of the childhood memories.

I am writing random things down these days, and last week I just realized that I have compiled a list of smells that are disappearing. These were different smells – home cooking, bookstores and iron, but their archenemy, or reason they do not exist anymore is more or less the same—progress.

AC vs. Roasted Peppers 1:0

chushkopekMy home cooking observation requires a bit of background. Growing up in a Bulgarian city meant that the smell of summer was not the smell of sand and beaches, of wild flowers and summer rain. The smell of summer was roasted red peppers, fried meatballs, fresh garlic, onion, dill and parsley being chopped, minced and otherwise manipulated to elicit the maximum amount of flavor and smell. You would walk in a neighborhood and smell what everyone is cooking for dinner. That was because everyone would cook on their balconies, instead of their kitchens. Why would we do that, especially if the temperature could easily pass 100F? Simple — we just did not have air conditioning. Cooking outside was hot, but at least it did not heat up our bedrooms. It also livened up a lot the rather monolithic apartment blocks as neighbors chatted while waiting for whatever they were cooking to thicken, crisp up or boil over.

I went back to Bulgaria last year for a high school reunion in late June. Leaving a still soggy Seattle, I was looking forward to the heat and the smell of summer as I remembered it. Alas, that smell is gone. Instead, every apartment has an AC unit on it. Windows are closed. Nothing wafts from balconies when you walk by a building, no chatty neighbors gossiping about their day, work, friends, other neighbors. You just hear and feel the dripping of the ACs.

The old “just books” bookstore

Another lost smell is that of the bookstore. Granted, bookstores in general are endangered species, but even the ones that remain do not smell the same—of new or dusty books, of paper that is getting brittle with time. They smell either of coffee (because is there a bookstore without a snacking station anymore?), of magazines which have perfume-y scent from all the inserts in them, or the book smell is diluted from all the toys, music, Nooks and non literary gifts that occupy more and more of the bookstore’s inventory list. I did not realize that the smell is missing until, on a trip to Prague, I walked by a small bookstore. It was not an antique or used books bookstore – it was a regular no frills, no Starbucks dusty and comforting smell of things to read.

Iron – the smell you hate, until it’s gone

Have you ever touched a metal handrail and then, accidentally, discovering the discomforting smell of iron with hints of old blood on your hands? Or have you ridden an old train, and the smell of metal permeating your hair, your clothes and leaving a metal taste in your mouth? I hated it and still do, but I am also a bit sad, that I do not sniff this anymore. Am I missing the iron or the long vacations that the train took me to or the creepy iron cage elevator door that made me wonder if I would make it to the top floor?

Proust and Childhood Memories

It is not surprising that these smells mean so much to me. Scientists call this the Proust phenomenon – or the ability of odors to trigger really powerful childhood memories. But what about the smells that I have forgotten and that have disappeared? Are they locking other sweet memories? How can I recover them if the world has changed so much since I was a kid?

And what would be the smells that would open my kids’ memories 20-30 years from know? Kindles, iPhones and Facebook do not smell. Perhaps it will be the smell of airportis and pop tarts.

If only we could make Google Nose happen!

P.S. Dare to guess what the photo is? 

 

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Note Taking, or Rediscovering the Wheel

3 Apr

I like reading and I read quite a lot. But I am not good at remembering and this deficiency is only made worse by the constant distraction (self-inflicted or not) of online content, social media, apps, push notifications, email and so on. So recently, I started making a concerted effort to take notes of things. The incentive for that was the failed book club – I realized that to be able to comment on what I read, I need to write my thoughts down. Otherwise, I remembered the plot, but all the other more insightful (or simply a bit less obvious) observations went “poof” in a matter of minutes. When I started to write things down, I also thought about them more. Instead of just moving on, I paused to reflect and describe what I felt. And then I started taking similar notes at work, around the house, while taking the kids swimming…

685px-Commonplace_book_mid_17th_centuryI read Where Good Ideas Come From and had an epiphany (or what its author would call serendipity) – I was reinventing the commonplace book. I had never heard of the commonplace book. When I was getting my fill of 19th and 20th century literature and science, I was still in Bulgaria, so the term must have been translated to a “diary” or just plain notebook. But what a fascinating idea. Have a notebook to write things down. Not a digital to-do app, a mind-map tool or an email, but an actual notebook.

What’s my point? I am not sure. What I know is that if I did not have my newly created “commonplace” book, I would probably have already forgotten things like:

  • David Sedaris’ brilliant New Yorker essay on going through the hassle of immigration bureaucracy, let alone this vivid and hilarious:  “The picture in my stolen one [passport] was not half bad. But in the new one I looked like a penis with an old man’s face drawn on on it.”
  • My own reflections on how crowdsourcing resembles the creation of folk art. Grimm’s tales are just the recorded version of a story, to which everyone contributed, changed the plot, the ending, or the name of the prince.
  • How LinkedIn editorial attempts and posts like “5 tips to succeed” and “10 things to avoid” remind me of Dear Abby advice columns for people who are looking for a job or marketers (who else goes to LinkedIn?)

This may sound like rediscovering the wheel. But I bet for the people that actually had forgotten about it, rediscovering the wheel was huge. Bigger than sliced bread. What is sliced bread? Write it down less you forget.

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