Old Books, New Books, and Guys Read

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January 16, 2017 by libroshombre


Most booklovers enjoy the fragrance of old books, and many also like the odor of new books. A local reference librarian recently turned me on to FrostbeardStudio.com, who vend candles with book-related aromas. Their “Old Books” sampler includes candles smelling of “Old Books – Sweet and papery,” “Bookstore – Cozy and rich,” “Oxford Library – Masculine and woodsy,” and “Book Cellar – Earthy and musty.” I recommend avoiding that last one. However, their “New Paperback – Paper and ink” sounds promising.

Decay’s the cause of old book smells. With age and the breaking down of books’ cellulose and lignin (the polymer that binds plants’ cellulose fibers together) comes an off-gassing of various chemical compounds, including toluene and ethyl benzene (which smell sweet), benzaldehyde and fufural (almond-like), 2-ethyl hexanol (floral) and vanillin (vanilla). No wonder we adore the smell of a well-kept used bookshop. But for new books it’s murkier.

Both new and old book odors are concisely addressed by CompoundChem.com, an excellent site run by Andy Brunning, a British chemist interested in popularizing chemical compounds in our daily lives. “As far as the smell of new books goes,” Brunning wrote, “it’s actually quite difficult to pinpoint specific compounds … First, there seems to be a scarcity of scientific research that’s been carried out on the subject … Secondly, the variation in the chemicals used to manufacture books also means that it’s an aroma that will vary from book to book.” And “there are literally hundreds of compounds involved,” mostly the adhesives used in modern bindings and the chemicals used in “sizing” paper, that fills pores in surfaces of raw paper and fabric so that they’re smooth to allow the printing of words and designs.

Nonetheless, the new books Santa just brought smell wonderfully fresh and inviting. As a lifelong fan of the New Yorker I was delighted to find he delivered “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen,” by Mary Norris, who for thirty-plus years has been correcting that mag’s writers’ grammatical missteps. With essays titled “Spelling Is For Weirdos,” “Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick?,” and “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie,” as Garrison Keillor commented, “This is as entertaining as grammar can be. Very very. Read it and savor it.”

            “Kitchen Hacks: How Clever Cooks Get Things Done” by the editors of America’s Test Kitchen,” makes for marvelous browsing. From using stale potato chips for lighting your barbecue and using tall candles to dispelling the gasses from freshly sliced onions to pouring boiling water over the propane tank to feel the cool level of the remaining gas.

Curious about how vicious people can be? Consult “The Perfect Heresy: the Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars,” by Stephen O’Shea, owned by me and our library. I never knew that the fourth crusade undertaken by European knighthood was against Christian Cathars in southern France, rather than the Muslims in the Holy Land. The Cathars believed all the world except the human soul, was the Creation of Satan, including the Catholic Church. The consequences were quick and cruel, including the destruction of dozens of cities, and a million people killed, mostly Catholics murdered by Catholics, and the invention of the Inquisition in all its horror.

No Hill family Christmas is complete without some good comics. First came volume 14 of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant: 1963-64. Another delight was a biography of Krazy Kat creator George Herriman. I also received Jason Shiga’s “Demon.” Shiga came to Fairbanks several years ago at no charge to appear at local schools and the annual Guys Read party at Noel Wien Library. “Meanwhile,” Shiga’s unusual choose-your-own-adventure book was the most popular of the eighty-plus titles of Guys Read books donated to local school libraries. Guys Read starts again January 23, and volunteer readers are needed to donate a couple of lunchtimes over two weeks. Learn more at Noel Wien Library this week where we’ll be offering orientations to the books and the program between Noon and 2 PM Monday through Saturday, or call 479-4344.

New books or old, I’m with Matthew Prior who wrote, “For some in ancient books delight;/ Others prefer what moderns write:/ Now I should be extremely loth/ To not be thought expert in both.”



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