In the nautical tradition from which aviation emerged, I call my airplane “she.” She’s a rather beautiful ship, I think—sleek and sexy, with long wings and I could go on but the metaphor becomes too suggestive and I have already taken it too far.
Boys often call their toys “she” for a reason. There is an erotic quality to the relationship men have with their airplanes, cars, drill presses, and for geeks like me, even their books. Sure, I don’t call my Encyclopedia of Philosophy “she,” opting instead for the neutral “it,” but in all candor, I will confess that books for me have long had a sensual, if not erotic, connection.
I don’t know exactly how or when it started. I had once heard that you could often tell a book is going to be a good read by the effort that went into its binding, the selection of the paper and cover, and even the type style. The way it worked, I heard, was that publishers will invest more money and design effort in books they have confidence in, but I don’t know if any of that is true.
What I do know is that when I encounter a book, I will touch it, caress the cover and flip through the pages, gently feeling the nap of the paper. If the paper has ragged edges, it is going to be a special book indeed. I will admit here and now that occasionally, if no one is looking, I might bring the pages up to my nose as though I were smelling a rose. By smelling a book, you can tell if it has been inappropriately stored (it shouldn’t have a musty smell), and if the ink is fresh off the press. Just as cigarette makers spike their tobacco with addictive stuff, I wonder if printers spike their ink to make it somewhat intoxicating. Wine connoisseurs, I am told, can tell a lot about wine by its bouquet, although the only thing I know about wine is that I love the word terroir. Paper also has a bouquet, and if you’re good enough at it, you might be able to read its terroir as well. Central New Jersey, the lake district no doubt, 1986, a good ink year indeed.
While it may be true that you can’t tell a book by its cover, you can tell a cover by its cover, for a book without its cover is like emerging from a shower on a cold day with no towels or robe nearby, or to remain aviation-focused, like flying an airplane with its cowling missing. It probably can be done, but for several reasons it’s probably not a good idea. The cover won’t reveal the soul of a book, but a nice cover can sometimes be a clue to what’s inside.
When I say that boys have an erotic connection to their toys, I mean that quite literally, in the sense that “eros” renders in English simply as love. “Eros” as a god is right up there– some say the child of Chaos, from whom the universe emerged. Yes, in some mythologies, we go right from Chaos to Eros, in order to bring some sense into the world.
I think about love a lot, for reasons I won’t go into here, and sometimes when I think about love I think about it as connection. We love that which we desire to be connected to, or connect to that which we desire. But nowadays we often associate eroticism with sexuality, stemming from the Freudian notion of libido. Libido is simply the life-force, the energy that contains both sexual and aggressive impulses, the impulses that drive survival.
That is why, I believe, boys often call their favorite toys by female pronouns. They want to get close to them, connect with them, driving, as they do, their life-source, toward and away from their mothers—the female who, very literally, was their original life-source.
Unfortunately, I don’t know enough women who are pilots to know whether they call their toys by male or female pronouns. But if I did, I am not sure what I would make of it. Could it be simply that they were co-opted into a male tradition? Could it be that women in general are socialized to be more gender fluid? Whatever the explanation, for those of us who care about such things as gendered pronouns, it might be interesting to know. For the rest of us, well, I apologize for bringing it up.