This Is What Makes You Want to Hold A Physical Book

Before he died in 2009, the King of Pop Michael Jackson owned at least 10,000 books. No kidding. Ten thousand books. Why? How can one man possibly read 10,000 books in one lifetime? This was apart from newspapers and magazines, emails, SMS, song lyrics. Plus, Michael Jackson was no ordinary man.

Between playing sold out concerts all over the world, making number one albums, and contending with lawyers and the media, Michael must have had his hands literally full. Yet, they said he read a lot.

His lawyer, Bob Sanger, told L.A Weekly that, “You could see the books with his bookmarks in it, with notes and everything in it where he liked to sit and read.” One bookstore owner said Michael “loved the poetry section.” It figures. Michael was one of the greatest poets the world has ever seen. But what do you call someone who loved books so much?

Bibliophile. A person who loves to acquire books and also loves to read them. Bibliophile, from the word bibliophilia. Here are a few other famous bibliophiles:

Lol.

Amazon founder and world’s richest man Jeff Bezons — duh. Bill Gates. Babatunde Raji Fashola. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. Oprah Winfrey — she owns a world famous book club. Lebron James. Obafemi Awolowo. Harry Houdini. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Winston Churchill. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Where you have genuine articles, however, there must also be counterfeits. These are people with very good intentions but whose time or energy does not leave room to fulfil the intentions. They acquire tons and tons of books with the hope to read them but just never come around to reading those books, and accidentally, they create a collection. There is a word to describe this behaviour, too: Tsundoku.

The word “doku” is a Japanese word meaning “reading”, and “tsun”, which originates in “tsumu” meaning “to pile up”. Tsundoku isn’t a newly contrived word either.

Prof Andrew Gerstle who teaches pre-modern Japanese texts at the University of London, tells the BBC that the phrase ‘tsundoku sensei’ (probably referring to a teacher who acquires books but never reads them) appears in printed Japanese text from as far back as 1879.

Then there’s the Bibliomaniac. And that’s the noun used for a person who is crazy about buying books. She just buys, buys and buys. The biggest bibliomaniac to ever do it? Karl Lagerfeld. By the time the legendary Chanel creative director passed away in 2019, he had a library of more than 300,000 books in his house.

But one thing all bibliophiles, tsundoku-ists, and bibliomaniacs have in common is the attraction to printed books. While it has been said that some of us choose printed books over e-books, not only because of the soft, coarse, reassuring feel of paper against our fingers, but also because physical books let’s us better show off that we read, there might be something happening that we’re not even conscious of.

That thing is chemistry.

Dr Oliver Tearle, who has studied the science of the book-smell breaks it down this way: the smell of books, which can be intoxicating or even addicting, is what you get from the breakdown of chemical compounds within the book.

“What we’re smelling is the slow death of the book, albeit over a very long period of time, which also explains why, as a general rule, the older the book, the better the smell,” he writes in an article for the site Interesting Literature.

Books are made of ink, gum, and paper. And Paper, he says, contains cellulose and lignin, a polymer of aromatic alcohols. Old books also contain a number of other chemicals, such as benzaldehyde, vanillin, ethyl hexanaol, toluene, and ethyl benzene. Vanillin, of course, smells sweet.

By now, you probably can guess that there’s a name for this book-smell. And you’re right.

In 2014, Dr Tearle coined a word that has now become the standard for describing that scent that makes us want to grab a print book and sniff it.

What he came up with is a portmanteau of two Greek words; one for book and the other for smell. He called it Bibliosmia.


Cover: Bilphena Yahwon, writer.

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