E-books Don't Smell

“The smell of a freshly printed book is the best smell in the world.”
Karl Lagerfeld

My iPad doesn’t smell and of course the e-books I read on the Kindle app don’t either. However my printed books do, a pleasure derived from my very first days of reading and one that I miss with those I read on an e-reader.

Printed books don’t smell the same either, a feature that broadens their pleasure. Age, paper, binding and cover contribute to these differences. It has been described this way:

The ink and chemicals used in the production of a book reacts with heat, moisture and light, causing the organic materials to break down. This is especially true for books with high acidity, like those made during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The books deep in the library stacks at the university where I went as an undergraduate smelled old, some a bit musty. The air circulation down there in those days was poor, it was hot, and dark. You had to switch a light on to find what you were looking for on the shelves.

That smell was quite different from those Bantam paperbacks I recall reading as a kid. Whenever I come across one of those paperbacks today, they still smell the very same way.

“When I open them,
most of the books have the smell
of an earlier time leaking out between the pages -
a special odor of the knowledge
and emotions that for ages
have been calmly resting between the covers.
Breathing it in,
I glance through a few pages before returning each book to its shelf.”

- Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore)

Strangely, after all of these years, I’ve not forgotten the peculiar blend of paper, leather, and dust that I inhaled each time I stepped foot in the little neighborhood library of my hometown.

It is hard to describe odors in general and even harder to describe the various smells of books. We don’t have words for the wide range of odors that come our way even though the sense of smell is one of our most primitive.

Yet, it has been estimated that humans can distinguish thousands of different odors—aromas, fragrances, and scents. Though we can make such distinctions, we can attach a name to only fraction. However we can conjure up countless associations to the distinctive smell of books—the book we read on a park bench in Flore ce, or the one we read on the floor at Powell’s, another deep in the stacks of what is now known as the Green Library, etc.

If you miss the smell of e-books as much as I do, you will be pleased to learn that through the wonders of technology, our problems have finally been solved. Thanks to Smell of Books, you can now chose to give your e-books a distinctive smell with their “revolutionary new aerosol e-book enhancer.”

But wait there is more. You can now choose between five, no less, distinctive aromas—classic musty, crunch bacon, eau de cat, new book, and finally their five star aroma, sense of scent of sensibility.

You can also relax secure in the knowledge that “Smell of Books™ is compatible with a wide range of e-readers and 100% DRM-compatible. Whether you read your e-books on a Kindle or an iPhone using Stanza, Smell of Books™ will bring back that real book smell you miss so much.”



“The amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.”
Nora Ephron

The death of Nora Ephron shocked me. How could someone so alive leave us? Yes, I felt it as a personal loss. For a brief moment in my life she was my friend. I recall our time together clearly. Permit me to recount it.

My first job was in a bookstore. The store was called Martindale’s after dear old Mr. Martindale, who along with his store in West Los Angeles is long gone. I must have been in Junior High at the time and so could not have been more than fourteen. Nora was slightly younger.

It wasn’t “your ordinary first job.” To this day I can remember the smell of the new books and the distinctive scent they created in that relatively small space. Even then I somehow knew the books, or thought I did, knew their titles, and authors. I could tell people what they were about and, without much of effort, get them to buy the book, and then one or two others along the way. I have utterly no idea how I was able to do any of that, especially at that time in my life.

It was the young girl who worked along with me that made that summer so unforgettable. Her name was Nora, the clever, sprightly Nora, well known for her literary and cinematic wit. I fell madly in love with her that summer at Martindale’s. Those who know her may be aware she is slightly cross-eyed. What young man could resist that?

But Nora could talk. She was clever, funny and bright. She was the first person I could ever really talk to. There have only been one or two others, many years later. As I recall it now, Nora and I spent the entire time bantering and jesting with one another. It is a mystery how we managed to get anything done or sell any books, or remember to give the proper change to those well-healed customers.

I am sure she has no recollection of me or our “brief encounter” at Martindale’s bookstore or probably even working there. But every time I hear about her or see one of her films, I remember the summer of my very first job. Books, magazines, paperbacks, and the beautiful cross-eyed girl who talked with me.

I never thought much about it at the time; after all, I was scarcely a teenager. All I knew was that I was crazy about Nora, but that was about it. I went back to school after that summer and only many years later, when Nora became well known, did I recall out time together and only recently have I begun to appreciate its significance.

This is how I will always remember her. Not for her films or books, although they were no different than she was. But our time together at Martindale's, when we were just kids.


On a Morning Walk

The area around Florence is still my favorite: there is something special about the Tuscan light. Barack Obama, Corriere della Sera 7/8/10

Each morning I go on a long walk along the Arno. It is then that I find the light at its best. I walk across the river on one bridge and back across another. All told there are six bridges across the Arno in Florence.

At the Ponte Alle Grazie: Originally built in 1227, the Ponte Alle Grazie is the oldest of the bridges crossing the Arno and the longest. In 1944, it was, destroyed by the Nazis in retreat from the advancing Allied army. It was rebuilt in 1953.

A shady park along the River, a welcome spot on the hot sunny days. I go there to read on a bench in the afternoon.

Constructed in 1345 on the narrowest point of the river, the legendary Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge to have survived the invasion of German troops in 1944—said to be on orders from Hitler. Today there are shops along each side occupied by jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers.

The buildings along the banks of the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio. The range of bright colors on the buildings in Italy are unique of my experience and they are at their best in the bright morning light.

A treat in a café at the end of the walk.


The Right Question

“She communicates largely by asking questions, not personal questions about his life or past history but questions about his opinions on topics ranging from the weather to the state of the world.” Paul Auster

Some people are questioners and others are not. To my knowledge the source of these differences has not been investigated. Leon Neyfakb writes about one teachers examination of this issue in his Boston Globe article, “Are We Asking the Right Questions?” I might title it “Are We Asking Questions At All?”

His article begins by describing a teenage classroom situation where the students have been reading Camus’ The Plague. The teacher asks them to generate as many questions about the novel as possible. Not to worry about answers, but simply the questions. Dan Rothstein, co-founder of the Right Question Institute in Cambridge is observing all this in the back of the classroom

Rothstein believes current the current educational curriculum has neglected to teach young children how to ask good questions. He says, “learning how to ask questions should be considered as critical as learning how to read, write, and do basic math.”

His Institute has a Blog, programs in education, health care, training programs in voter engagement and something the Institute refers to as Microdemocracy which it describes as “individuals using essential democratic skills to participate in decisions make in their ordinary encounters with public institutions.” One assumes that learning how to ask good questions is an essential part of all these programs.

Rothstein and his colleague Luz Santana have recently published their manifesto-of-sorts, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. It makes two simple arguments:

All students should and can learn to formulate their own questions
All educators can easily teach the skill as part of their regular practice

What is a right question? It is hard to tell from either Neyfakb’s article or the material on the Institute’s website. It is suggested that choosing the right question involves a trade-off between clarity and depth. But what distinguishes a right from a wrong trade-off?

In response to an invitation to write the Institute should we wish to know more, I wrote to seek clarification of what, in fact, a “right question” is. The Institute gives itself that name. Surely it means something. Is it simply a good question? Why not then, The Good Question Institute? I’ve never had a reply.

While asking questions is critically important, one never knows what the right one is until you obtain an answer. For example, if your question solves an important problem, moves the issue forward, leads to further questions that bring you closer to a solution, etc. then it is the right one for that time.

Whether you can change an unquestioning person into a questioning one remains on open question. Starting with teenagers is surely worth the effort, but I think individuals at any age could benefit from such instruction.

It is asking questions, showing curiosity, and inquiring genuinely that is important to me and to Rothstein. He has put his conviction into action. I praise him for that.


A Florentine Tradition

In contrast to the Dickensian grime, smoke, and smog, to all the noise and confusion that characterized the modern city, there was the peaceful sunlit Florence of the Renaissance—a simpler, purer, more harmonious “magic city” of art and music, learning and piety, strength and beauty. Walter Kaiser

I went out for a long afternoon walk on my first day in Florence. In no time at all the sound of trumpets and rolling drums greeted me. The rhythmic beat came from a group of Florentines dressed in the traditional Renaissance costume of their neighborhood. In turn, they were followed by groups of men from other neighborhoods dressed in their distinctive costumes.

The parade went on for a good half hour as the marchers moved slowly down the crowded street from one end of town to the other. The ancient tradition lives on. This is the way it has always been in Florence.

The main event takes place in piazza in front of Santa Croce Cathedral, where the large, rectangular area has been heavily sanded and ringed with bleachers. It is there that the legendary Calcio Strorico takes place, as it has in various piazzas of Florence for over five centuries.

It is a brutal event involving soccer, rugby, and fierce fighting between the teams from each of the neighborhoods. A commentator put it this way: “Equal parts show and sport, the festivities surrounding this ruthless competition incorporate Renaissance folk traditions and garb.”

Tradition aside, it became so brutal recently that it was banned last year. They will try again this year.


Summer Sojourn

Marks in the Margin is going on a summer break for a while. Postings, if any, will be intermittent.

In the meantime, you are welcome to browse the archives. Know that your comments are always appreciated

As usual at this time of the year I wish you much good reading.


A Graduation Letter

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. Anatole France

In a interview in the Times (5/27/12), the president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, was asked, Is there any book you wish all incoming freshmen at Harvard would read? She said it would be Kathryn Schultz’s recent book, Being Wrong, suggesting it “advocates doubt as a skill and praises error as the foundation of wisdom.”

I thought for a long time about this question. Would book would I recommend to incoming students to any college? It was a good question, even though the interviewer limits it to one.

This fall my grandson will be entering the freshman class at Penn. Along with a letter, I am giving him Ann Patchett’s What Now? It’s not because I think all freshmen at Penn or any other college should read it, but that the questions it poses are relevant to anyone at any time in their life.

However, in a way, What Now? is not unlike Schultz’s Being Wrong. Both stress the importance of remaining skeptical, being open to alternatives, and contrary information, whether in the form of factual evidence or personal experience. It is also a short book and like so many other freshmen these days, he doesn’t read a great deal outside of class.

He is a very fine soccer player who the Penn soccer coach invited him to enroll at Penn. And so in my letter I began by quoting legendary soccer star Romario who said recently, “The tendency of everyone is to evolve.”

I put side-by-side two photos one of me, when I graduated from high school in 1954 and one of him. I asked him to look at me now and wrote: Do I bear any resemblance to that graduating senior in 1954? I said, think how you look now. Imagine what you’ll look like or be thinking about in fifty years or so.

I wrote about how change rules our life, change in appearance, change in ideas, change in what you regard as important. We evolve as a result of the colossal number of events and experiences we have in our life, to say nothing of the aging process itself. I admitted I have no idea how I was able to do the things I did even twenty, thirty of more years ago or if any of it actually happened, let alone to me.

I told him what it was like when I entered college what a momentous experience is was for me, how it that changed my life forever. I hoped that he would be similarly affected by his days ahead at Penn. Wistfully I wrote, “I envy you so much now. How I wish I could do it all over again. You will have to do it for me.”

Like every graduation speaker, I passed along a word of advice by urging him to make the most of his days at Penn. “You’ll never have a chance to repeat them. Take them where it leads you, even if it is far from where you begin.”

I said there was much wisdom in Patchett’s suggestion, “Identify your heart’s truest desire and don’t change that for anything.”

And I concluded by writing, “Know, however, that your “truest desire” today many not be the one you’ll have tomorrow. So whatever your plans are, be open to changing them. That’s what I did and, for that, I remain forever grateful.”


The Girl Who Fell From The Sky

What they were about to do defied all knowledge, all common sense, and yet she felt only a great rush of excitement.

Anne-Marie Walters was one of the thirty-nine women agents of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) who were sent into occupied France during World War II. These agents worked with various groups of the French Resistance providing intelligence, sabotaging German facilities and trains and assisting downed Allied airmen to return to England.

Their work was fraught with danger. Twelve of the 39 were captured and murdered by the Germans, one died of meningitis, while the remainder survived the war. Anne-Marie was one and wrote about her experiences in Moondrop to Gascony. Her friendship with the mother of the British writer, Simon Mawer led to his interest in the women who served in the SOE. Walters is the subject of Mawer’s The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (published in the US as Trapeze).

Part fiction, part fact, Mawrer’s novel is an account of what it was like to serve as an agent in Nazi occupied France. The activities of the men and women of the Resistance is both inspiring social history and one that never ceases to command my respect knowing that these individuals worked day and night, usually alone, under the constant threat of capture and its terrifying consequences.

The novel begins by introducing Marian Sutro whose mother was French and father English; Marian speaks both languages fluently. As a result, she comes to the attention of an SOE recruiter, is sent to Scotland for training where she learns espionage, surveillance, wireless operation, and how to survive behind enemy lines. The training is grueling.

Always assume the worst, one of the instructors warned them: a pessimist makes the best agent.

She is parachuted into France, becomes Alice for a while, and begins work with the resistance. Eventually she is asked to go to Nazi infested Paris where there is no safety. Her task is to deliver an important letter to a French atomic scientist, once her teen-age infatuation.

The letter is from a professor in England. To read the letter, he is given a key. Alice tells him he can open up a minuscule compartment and take out a microdot. A microscope is required to read the embedded letter. Clever! It is persuasive, describing the work of German scientists to develop an atomic bomb.

Alice arranges his escape to England, finds herself unable to join him on the pick-up plane, manages to elude her followers, and returns to the relative safety of the countryside.

Does she return to England to join her former lover, remain in France to carry on with her resistance work, or fall prey to Nazi captors? These questions will not be answered here. Mawer’s account is captivating, fast paced, full of surprise, ingenuity, and suspense.

Once in a while I read such a thriller. I read The Girl Who Fell From The Sky because it is a story about the French Resistance, one of those events where I ask myself once again how I would behave if I were placed in a similar situation. Would I be able to display such courage? It is as simple and unknowable as that.

What are you going to decide? Because you’ve got to make a choice. That’s one of positive thing that this war has brought: we have to choose.


The Missing Shade of Blue

Suppose there that a person…to have become perfectly well acquainted with colours of all kind, excepting one particular shade of blue…Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him…Now I ask, whether it is possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses.
David Hume

We are in Edinburgh. Edgar Logan, a young man from Paris, arrives to translate the essays of David Hume. “…most of my life has been spent in books, reading other people’s stories, living vicariously through characters that don’t exist.”

Early on he meets the, bitter, physically crumbling, soon-to-be-dismissed-philosophy professor, Harry Sanderson and his enigmatic wife, Carrie. “Up until then I lacked the talent for friendship. Later I would sometimes wonder what it was about the Sandersons that made the difference, what it was the sucked me in…”

This is how Jennie Erdal begins her novel, The Missing Shade of Blue. It engrossed me from the first page. Several threads are interlaced throughout her tale.

On David Hume: Hume had not set out with the intention of being an unbeliever. Rather he had followed the arguments for religion and them wanting. He was a man primarily interested in explaining our place in the world so that we might live better lives; and the art of living well, he soon discovered did not sit happily with clinging on to illusions.

On philosophy: The unexamined life is much despised. According to Socrates, it is not worth living. But actually, the examined life can get you into all sorts of trouble.

On painting: At that point the language to interpret a painting was simply not available to me. Later Carrie would tell me this was an advantage. My eyes were innocent like those of a child, though to me they were simply crude and ignorant.

On vicarious experience: Nearly all of my experience of life—the highs and lows, the hopes and disappointments, the chaotic entanglements—everything that matters in fact—all of this has been mediated through the written word. With the result that novels have given me the sense—the illusion perhaps—of a connection with others, with the texture of real lives.

On marriage: My close reading of fiction had taught me that nearly all marriages occupied strange territory. But it was more vivid and startling to see it with you own eyes.

On happiness: …happiness often reveals itself as counterpoint. It is edged about with things that are opposite to it.

On novels: …a good novel was like a small miracle…fiction allowed us to live lives of other than our own….And every so often, I said, something emerged from a novel that could only be called truth—there was no other name for it. Which has a paradoxical ring to it, since of course, fiction is made up, full of lies.

These are but a fraction of the passages I noted in The Missing Shade of Blue. Is there a story along with Erdal’s philosophical ruminations? Yes, but on my reading, it plays a minor role. There is the tragic deterioration of a once fine philosopher and an emerging relationship between the Edgar, the translator and Carrie, the painter.

A Philosophical Adventure is the subtitle of The Missing Shade of Blue. That it is, the kind of book I am forever searching for. I found it one of those “small miracles.” For a philosopher, it will be a fictional treat. For a translator or painter, it is an endless debate. For any reader, it is a rich dialogue on Hume, happiness, friendship, language, and should you be the least bit interested, fly-fishing.


On My Mind

Page Turner
The New Yorker has come alive again. Not on the printed page, although at times there is a really fine short story or literary commentary, but on the Web in the form of a new blog called Page-Turner. It first appeared on May 15th, after the magazine’s former book blog, the Book Bench, had been languishing in the doldrums for months.

In introducing Page-Turner Sasha Weiss writes: “Walking the halls of The New Yorker, one hears conversations about books trailing out of office doors…Page-Turner is an elaboration of this ongoing conversation.”

Recently Salman Rushdie wrote on censorship, Giles Harvey on the Death of a Salesman, Richard Brody on Susan Sontag’s writings about cinema, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, interviews with the writers, Lorie Moore and Maile Maloy about their short stories, along with the daily list of Book News and the weekly posting by some of the staff on what they are currently reading.

Page-Turner has also inaugurated a series where writers are asked what book they have revisited most often. What a good question. Maile Melody who wrote the first response, said it is Salinger’s Nine Stories. What is yours?

A Better Person
At the gym I was listening to my first audiobook. It was read and written by Ann Patchett. And it is about her marriages and views on marriage, in general. Naturally, I was not aware she had quite so many lovers and more than one marriage.

She described a situation where she was talking to a friend about her disastrous first marriage and another person she loved deeply. She was pondering his frequent marriage proposals; they had been together for eleven years, no less.

Her friend asked her a a question you don’t often hear, a really good question, I thought. So did Ann Patchett. Her friend asked her does your new love make you a better person.

I stopped the tape there. I had to remember that question. It is a good one to think about it. I realized the question not only applies to your husband or your wife but to any person you know, any friend. Does the person make you a better one? And vice versa?

The other day I was reading the New Yorker on my iPad when I came across an advertisement for a book. I was informed that if I clicked on a link at the bottom of the ad, I could read an excerpt. I thought, how clever, perhaps the first time I had seen a hyperlink in an advertisement, at least in the digital version of the magazine.

I clicked on the link, skimmed a page praising the book, read several pages from the first chapter, and found the material not uninteresting. I was then informed I could click on another link to see a video of the author talking about the book. Fancy that, I thought.

Yet another link took me to a group of online bookstores where I could buy the printed version of the book. Finally, one more link took me to a comparable group of bookstores where I could purchase the e-book version. That was it. No more links. No more clicking. Back to the magazine, I went.

How remarkable all this was. Then I wondered if all of this could be done with a paper version of a book or magazine for that matter. Yes, I think I read about it somewhere. Then I wondered if any of this mattered. Did I learn a little about the book? Yes. Did I buy the book? No.

Besides, I don’t much care for hyperlinks in any text, paper or electronic. They do little else but distract me. My preference is clearly on the side of a footnote or set of references at the end, where I can be distracted when I want.


Engagement With The Text

The debate over the relative merits of reading electronic and printed books continues. It is not an idle one, as several issues are involved—comparative learning, retention, pleasure, cost, convenience, etc. Most commentators acknowledge a certain degree of uncertainty about the mater.

Not Tim Parks, who last year claimed that reading on the screen is superior to reading on paper. After describing the well-known benefits of e-books—purchase text instantly, pay less, save trees, and carry around countless volumes, etc.—Parks moves beyond these features to the nature of the reading experience itself.

“The e-book… would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, ... It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children’s books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.”

Who is Parks referring to? I am not sure he is speaking for anyone but himself. Can he present supporting argument and evidence for claiming a reader is more engaged with an e-book than its printed counterpart?

As for myself, no matter how often I read an e-book, I always feel something is missing. What is missing is the print-book’s ease of writing notes, marking passages, as well as all the physical features of the printed book itself that I have grown used to and quite frankly mean a lot to me.

Taken together the experience of reading a printed book brings me closer to the text, heightens my reading experiences, and deepens it if you will. I can turn back and forth between pages, not a feature that is easily carried out on an e-book, think further about the passages I mark, make further notes and I can do this any time I go back to the book on my shelf, which I do a lot and never do in an e-book

I realize some of these behaviors can be performed on an e-book but for me doing that barely approximates carrying them out on the printed page. No doubt I’m “old school,” too fixed in my ways to change a life long pattern reading. On the other hand, I am aware that many far younger readers, including students reading academic texts, find e-books an undesirable alternative to those clunky, heavy, extravagant printed texts.

A fellow blogger replied to comments about Parks’ article by suggesting a serious engagement with the text can happen with any format, not just an e-book. And then she added: “I think most readers don’t really care as long as they have a good book to read.” I reply, “But it does to me.”

While research on this topic is in its early stages, what little we know suggests that there are major differences in the reading experience as a function of its format—print, online, e-reader, audiotape. Measures of retention, reader satisfaction, and neural processing, etc. seem to vary with each of these modes of presentation.

At the very least, anyone asserting one format is superior to any other should acknowledge the potential relevance of these findings, even if they do not influence their preferences. In an interview on this topic, Anne Mangen, an investigator at the National Center for Reading Research & Education in Norway, hit the nail on the head:

“I would say that the current shift from paper to screen represents a vast literary shift, the implications of which—short-term and, in particular, long-term—we are not yet aware of.”


The Weather

The weather made her feel as if there was no point to life: whether you worked hard didn’t matter, whether you found someone to love didn’t matter, because even if you worked hard and found someone to love, a day like this would come, when a strange damp coolness seeped in through the windowpanes and seeped in through you, make you see that everything was meaningless. Brian Morton The Dylanist

June has arrived. Yet the cold and rainy weather continues around here. I cannot understand why it is so hard to remember the warm days of summer during these chilly, winter-like days.

I wonder if we could simply warm ourselves up by recalling those blistering days of August? We become sad by recalling times of distress. Why not warm by recalling those days by the pool in Tuscany?

To try I watch a film, Heaven, that takes place Italy. Italian is spoken in many of the scenes. Grim events occur in Milan and then the final third in Tuscany, in and around the hill town of Montepulciano.

It is the Tuscan countryside that always draws me back to the film--the dry rolling hills, the lone oaks on the hilltops, the long dirt roads to an old villa. It is warm, the light is clear, the colors vivid--yellow and orange--the mood is subdued and peaceful.

I recall a walk I took one morning when I was staying at a small medieval borgo in the heart of Tuscany. The sun was rising on yet another clear and warm day. There is nothing quite like the early morning light of a Tuscan morning. The path I took bisected two large fields of ripening grapes that led away from the borgo toward the main highway.

Small groves of olive trees were growing out in the fields and off in the distance I could see the bell tower of the village of Castelnuovo Bernardgna. It seemed too good to be true. Once again I felt so at one with the world. Not a person could be seen or heard.

My thermostat rises just a bit, even though the winds are blowing outside and the rain is pounding against the windows. I wonder if I will have to spend the rest of my life seeing films about Italy to get through the long winter around here. Probably.

I learn the DVD of Certified Copy arrived in the stores last week. I saw it in the theater and immediately plan to see it again since it also takes place during those warm summer days in Tuscany. It is also a brilliant film. Permit me an edited reposting.

In the New Yorker’s review, David Denby wrote that, “the movie celebrates marriage, which, after all, can be sustained only if it becomes a kind of narrative that a man and a woman create, develop, and vary as they go along.”

The film asks us to consider the difference between an original work of art and a copy? Can one put the same value on them? If not, why not? Does the distinction even matter? These questions become the central metaphor of the film.

It was written and directed by the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami. A woman, Juliette Binoche attends a lecture by an art historian, William Shimell. At the end of his presentation she goes to the podium to ask him a question, they converse for a while, and then she invites him to visit a nearby village in Tuscany with her.

Who could ask for more—an interesting question, two handsome actors, wandering through a Tuscan village? As they drive through the countryside, they continue to talk. The talk seems strange. It isn’t the sort of conversation you have with a stranger. You wonder if they might actually know one another after all, as she begins to flirt with him and then argue a bit. The owner of the café assumes they are married.

What is going on? What does Kiarostami mean by all this lofty discussion and incongruous talk? You begin to interpret their conversation differently. You return to the original question. Are they re-enacting their marriage, creating a copy of the real thing? Is there a difference between the two?

You think perhaps they are married after all; perhaps they no longer live together. What fun to catch on, or to think you catch on. You have that “I get it” feeling. Is it obvious to everyone? It wasn’t to every moviegoer I spoke to about the film.

I thought this was cinema at its best. It is also fiction at its best—an amusing story against a background of provocative questions, peopled by brainy individuals, wandering about the villages and countryside of Tuscany. Again, my thermostat rises just a bit.