Of the five senses, smell is the one most closely associated with memory. Neuroscience tells us that this is likely because of brain anatomy. Scents pulled in through the nasal cavity are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which begins in the nose and continues along the floor of the brain, where it passes directly through the amygdala and the hippocampus. These two areas of the brain are strongly associated with emotion and memory.
This could be why smelling certain aromas can instantly trigger vivid complex memories. The scent of burning leaves on an autumn day could trigger the replay of an old mental movie of a homecoming game. Or, if you’re like me, the musty stank reek of an old book could transport you instantly to your grandma’s wood-paneled linoleum-tiled rumpus room.
Oh, where are my manners? Let me introduce myself. My name is Abigail Isaacoff, and as my name and the self-portrait I have provided for this blog both suggest, I am your new resident librarian of kitsch reading.
I consider myself a partially reformed Luddite technophobe. I didn’t have a cell phone until 2014, both because I was living under a rock and also I was afraid of dangerous radiation penetrating my skull (yes, my tinfoil hat was professionally fitted, thanks for asking). Long after the rest of decent society was ingesting the majority of their print media through one disgusting little portable screen or another, I was still carrying around real tattered tree-birthed paperbacks.
It was a mark of pride, perhaps a partially affected eccentricity. But who amongst you can resist the visceral sensual pleasures of an old novel? Huffing the aforementioned musty odor of the pages, then feasting your eyes on the tantalizingly extinct fonts and lurid cover imagery. Who doesn’t prefer the feeling of placing a bookmark or dog-earing a page over powering down a screen? Where is the sense of accomplishment in that?
Until recently, I was stuck in an obsessive-compulsive reading loop, reading the same material by the same author over and over for years. It was some horror author, Stephen something with K. No not Kozeniewski, obviously the first one that comes to mind for everyone. Fortunately this guy has produced a tremendous amount of material, so I had a lot to re-read before repeating, but how many times can one re-read “The Langoliers” before feeling like they, too, are stuck in the stale dead world of the recent past which is just waiting to be devoured by Bronson Pinchot-summoned throbbing ball monsters? Whoops, spoiler alert.
My grandmother’s house is probably where my love of retro kitsch was born. Though Audrey Cowan herself is an elegant and stylish woman, her home in suburban Philadelphia was something of a garishly decked-out time capsule well into the early years of the 21st century. The beautiful pink tile bathroom with its pink tub and toilet, the zebra shag rug and matching zebra bedspread in my uncle’s bedroom, and the wallpaper. OH the wallpaper. Yellow and silver foil geometric was in one bathroom, something like a Monet watercolor on acid in another, and in the kitchen, an abstract grid plaid in blue and green and yellow and white. I didn’t realize how audacious it all was until a friend came over with me in high school and immediately burst into uncontrollable laughter in that kitchen. When I asked her what was so funny, her answer was “Who the hell puts wallpaper on the ceiling?!”
The pièce de résistance was the finished basement. Nobody in the family has ever called it a rumpus room, but look at the picture I included of it with my dad and daughter sitting on the scratchy plaid couches - what else are you going to call a room like that? My strongest memory of that room from my childhood is the reading material - the musty, seemingly ancient books and magazines lining the walls.
I poured over World Book Encyclopedias from the sixties full of exotic wonders and geography that was obsolete even in the early nineties. There was a similarly dated stack of National Geographic magazines from the seventies, including one with an article on fig wasps that I found so weird and fascinating that I brought it in for some elementary school current events assignment. I’m sure I got credit even though the article was the antithesis of current. The book shelves lining the wall next to the stairs were full of old novels. As a child I afforded them only a cursory glance as I descended the stairs to rummage through grandpa’s cool mirrored minibar replete with the figurines of generals and the wooden shoe from Holland that he brought back from WWII then staple my thumb to his desk.
Now that my grandpa has passed on, my grandma has been bringing the house up to date decor-wise, sadly for me. Gone is all that glorious wallpaper, save for a square of that abstract plaid that I framed and hung in my own kitchen for culinary inspiration. My grandma has been giving things away as well in an effort to de-clutter. On a rare recent visit home, I found a large stack of the novels that had been lining the basement walls and was immediately entranced. I asked to take one or two back to New Orleans with me, and she said, take as many as you want. Thus ended my Stephen-based rut.
And so, I offer to you, readers, the chance to travel back in time with me once a month. I will take you on a tour of these old beauties, sharing the stories within and exploring the context of the periods from whence they were birthed. I will share with you the feast for the eyes that is the cover art. I only regret that you can’t join me in stealing a transportative sniff from their yellowed pages.
See you in October with my first review!