How many senses are we supposed to have? It was five when I was little – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell – but since then, neurologists have added quite a few. There are also people who claim to sense an aura about you. In the NorthernReader experience, this is either (a) offensive and related to the long country walk through slurry that you have just completed, (b) emanating from an earnest-looking person you have met/been trapped with at a party whose own aura of being an obsessional bore you did not spot until it was too late, or (c) – when the exchange of money in return for aura-reading is proposed – fraudulent. The cheering news is that we rational types have no need of books about auras, or ley-lines, or conspiracy theories. But what books are there about the five senses?
I am told by my loving family that I spent the whole of a summer holiday reading aloud chunks of Victoria Finlay’s Colour to them. I prefer to think of this as sharing, and Colour is definitely a book worth sharing. I challenge you to read about where red comes from, for example, without interrupting the infinitely less interesting things your loved ones are doing to enrich their lives for a moment or two.
Reading is in itself a visual experience, and now is a good moment to celebrate the makers of books; the paper-makers, the ink-grinders, the font-designers and the whole glorious kit and caboodle of the hand press. If you have never seen one in action, seek one out and flock to it. I love Gwasg Gregynog in Powys and, in writing this week’s blog, have become mildly obsessed with finding hand presses and makers of paper. A local paper-maker, once called Warden Paper Mill, began making paper for books in 1763, but has produced only industrial wrappings for the last forty or so years. Simon Garfield’s Just My Type is sufficiently interesting about fonts to redeem the terrible pun. Any study of fonts and type-faces runs slap into the perennial problem of ghastly person/great artist in the form of Eric Gill. Gill’s private life, as these things are euphemistically known, would have brought a blush to the cheek of a marauding Goth (that’s the Germanic people who felled the Roman empire, not the whey-faced children who droop about in black). But he gave the world Perpetua and Gill Sans, which has been at various times the typeface of the BBC, the Church of England, the British Government and Penguin and Pelican Books.
How about sound? All reading resonates in the reader’s mind, and all poetry, especially, should be read aloud. The Sound Poets were experimental performance artists of the early twentieth century, linked to Dadaism and Surrealism. The most accessible and enjoyable is perhaps Edith Sitwell’s Façade (music by William Walton), which I’m sure you know. The most famous of a later generation of American poets exploring the abstract use of sound is Alan Ginsberg, whose Howl is, I confess, a taste I’ve never managed to acquire. Deaf heroes or heroines in fiction are few and far between, although rather cheeringly a superficial trawl through Google suggests that they are two-a-penny in romantic fiction. More lastingly, perhaps, we can add Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to this week’s bookshelf. Her profoundly deaf protagonist is called John Singer, one of the best examples I know of my contention that names in fiction are always significant (or, more pragmatically should you be a student, there’s always an essay in names. You can thank me later).
Smell? We must have Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, one of the most gloriously weird and disturbing novels to have been hatched in the late twentieth century. Sensuous and distasteful in almost equal measure, the book is a tour de force of celebration of a sense that might be thought to elude pinning down in words. Not that you would think that for long once you dipped into the marvellous Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s Perfume: The A-Z Guide. If you do not own this, you should. It is completely indispensable as well as fascinating, brilliantly written and, frequently, a hoot (especially about some of the nastier scents being offered for sale). I would seriously consider toting this one along to Kirsty’s desert island. Turin is a seriously interesting chap and I highly recommend Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, which may well start you campaigning for Turin to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Books that evoke taste? Too easy, you might be thinking: all those cookery books that fall into the category of Cookery Books to Read in Bed (so much more enjoyable than the instruction manuals). Best of the literary cooks, to my mind, are Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. I think I could endure much culinary deprivation if I could sit up in bed and read A Book of Mediterranean Food and Good Things. But what about Proust and his madeleines and linden tea? The most bewildering thing to many English readers of a certain age was why anyone would have any sort of involuntary memories worth recounting on sampling the rather nasty little turrets of desiccated coconut and glacé cherries that were sold in this country, for reasons that elude me, as madeleines. Sometimes food, like literature, simply does not translate very well. Fiction has the last laugh, though, as it steals its metaphors from the larder and the table. What is taste, after all – literary taste, ‘good’ taste – but a vivid metaphor describing how we select what feeds our minds and shapes our cultural contours? I think we should let Alexander Pope have the last word on taste, and add to our bookshelf his ‘Essay on Criticism’, which is not an essay but a poem, and in heroic couplets at that, and I hope you love it.
So we are left with touch. Paper, bindings, covers, keyboards and screens all send their messages to us through our skin as we pick up books, turn the pages, click the mouse and stroke the cool surface of our e-readers. And every writer who ever lived, prose or poetry, fact of fiction, sought to touch our minds and our hearts. Hurray to that: let them in.