I’m one (perhaps the last one) of those genetically mutated humans who thrives on cellulose and ink to the exclusion of all other food. When Papa died in ’90, I bought a huge collection of books at the Ossing estate sale and had them moved into the old home that Papa left me, out on Elm Street next to the cemetery where he now rests. It was magnificent — books jammed floor to ceiling in every room, in the basement, in the attic, even spilling out to fill my attached garage.
Eating those books these many years has been a wonderful, satisfying experience; but now my world is coming to an end.
But, let me go back to the beginning.
Old Sam Ossing had been a medical doctor who accumulated a very large professional library. However, he loved to relax with humorous books of all kinds, being especially fond of cartoon collections. Sam boasted that he had a copy of nearly every humorous book printed in the last forty years; many of them rare, expensive, long out-of-print editions. He also had an extensive collection of Sunday comics pages.
His wife, Salindra, was a computer engineer turned artist. She liked to relax with lighter reading — romance novels, westerns and science fiction. In their latter years both of them became seriously interested in the occult and alternative, natural lifestyles. Their extensive book collection reflected both their professional interests and their leisure-time tastes.
I began with some of the older books from their collection, many from their college days. Eating the words first, then the paper, then the bindings is my preference. The books last longer that way and digestion is reasonably easy. I like to begin a dining session with a few pages from romance fiction, science fiction or westerns. The words are light and frothy and flow easily off the paper and I can chew them easily, like any good appetizer. Medical and engineering textbook pages make a good main course. The words are generally longer and more complicated. Sentence structure is complex and the writing is often turgid. Words flow more slowly, the ink dissolves less quickly, and the books are more “chewy,” making for a leisurely, relaxing main course. A few pages from Dr. Ossing’s humorous books — especially the cartoon collections, and Mrs. Ossing’s illustrated art books serve as an excellent dessert.
When one eats books, one learns to appreciate the different forms of the bookmaker’s art. Many older books, and especially Sunday comics, were printed on high-acid paper that has yellowed and turned brittle over the years. Depending somewhat on the subject, the old paper and ink make an interesting taste contrast to the more modern books printed on acid-free paper.
Books printed on high gloss paper have a more elegant taste, plus the colored inks impart earthy and fragrant overtones. Pleasing the proboscis is as important as pleasing the palate. I especially love books with ink that imparts overtones of cinnamon and cardamom, even though the high gloss paper is a bit more difficult to chew and digest. And what’s not to love about books with superior leather or faux leather bindings? Eating those is akin to sipping a fine brandy after a sumptuous meal — pure enjoyment and fine living.
There is no doubt about it. Old books that were printed by the thousands on fine lithographic printing presses using high-quality paper and expensive printer’s ink taste better. Ink from a printing press ink fountain is superior in every way to ink from cartridges. The taste, texture and feel on the tongue of printer’s ink just cannot be duplicated in an ink cartridge. Books printed in later years, such as on-demand books, printed on laser printers or ink jet printers, are acceptable; but they provide a definitely inferior dining experience. However, when supplies run low, sacrifices must be made.
Last week, I finished the last of my books — Webster’s Second Unabridged Dictionary. Thick quarto in tan cloth binding. India paper edition, thumb-indexed. Color plates, B&W illustrations. What a feast for breakfast, lunch and dinner for weeks! I had considered saving the Encyclopedia Britannica for last, but Webster’s somehow held a fascination for me. Just think, after eating and absorbing all those millions of words for 50 years, I could eat a single 3194 page, multi-thousand word book! In numerous sessions, of course. I am a bibliophile of sorts, not a glutton.
It’s difficult setting foot out of the house when one has not done so for many years; however, one must eat to survive. I knew that the world would have changed since I last ventured out, but I wasn’t ready for this: NO PRINTED BOOKS!!
I discovered that every bookstore in the world is gone; the contents of every library in the world has been digitized; and every printed book, except for a very few behind bullet-proof glass in museums, has been recycled into toilet paper or long-buried in a landfill. Magazines, newspapers, advertising flyers — even office memos and computer printouts — all gone! Nothing left but e-books! Nothing!!
I attempted to survive by eating printed pizza boxes, but they just won’t suffice. Cardboard is not an acceptable substitute for paper; and I must have paper, ink and words — lots of them — to make a meal. There is little nutrition in pizza boxes, and the residual smell of used boxes is nauseating.
What can I do? I cannot eat electrons. Silicon chips are totally indigestible. I cannot lift ink off a smartphone or a computer tablet screen and savor the taste. Toilet paper will not do as a substitute for real paper. What kind of world has this become? Just like my beloved books, I am an anachronism. I’ve become tired and weak. Tonight I rest and tomorrow I must follow Papa to the grave.
Ronald M. Larsen is a retired electrical engineer who went over to the dark side (Marketing) right after college graduation and spent 50+ years writing technical manuals, marketing brochures and technical articles in the computer and automation industries. This is his second publication in Every Day Fiction. His work has also been published in Metaphorosis and numerous engineering magazines. He’s also worked as a farmhand, draftsman, cook, salesman, drafting instructor and property manager. Current residence is in the Florida panhandle, a proper distance from snow.