And no, I don’t mean heavy folio volumes falling off balconies or bookshelves toppling over. But next time you hear some reactionary curmudgeon rhapsodizing over the smell of printed books, just reflect:  That smell could kill you.

At least if you’re like Britain’s Kirsty Ashman, whose plight was reported in the UK Daily Mail – not renowned for its scientific accuracy, by and large. “Opening a book could kill me,” the headline reads. And the same story has been picked up elsewhere by sources such as the New York Daily News, so it probably is reasonably kosher, as far as it goes.

Ms. Ashman found that books triggered the same allergic reactions she experienced from pollen and other sources, and that eventually the problem became so bad that it put her in hospital, and eventually forced her to quit university and abandon the ambition to become an English teacher. What’s more, the older the book, the worse the problem was. “Older, dustier books trigger my allergies so fewer, newer books definitely minimises the risks,” the Daily Mail quotes her as saying.

If it wasn’t enough to have publishers restricting access to books, now we have printed books themselves hampering someone’s quest for knowledge. Seriously, this probably says quite a bit about underfunding and under-resourcing at UK universities. Why couldn’t they have provided her with a proper supply of course books as ebooks? The technology’s been around for long enough after all, and academia is supposed to be in the lead in terms of materials available online. Of course, there’s always the chance that the universities could put their students in danger of cramping of the index finger and the other health risks that ereaders are notorious for, but I think that Ms. Ashman for one would have braved that.

Anyway, there’s a problem that your Kindle or tablet won’t give you. Unless you’re allergic to touchscreens. Don’t carp: It could be a real problem for some. But at least you won’t have to inhale it.


  1. As a former English major, I feel her pain.

    Because of allergy problems, I’ve had to give up all my old paper books with a few exceptions in a barrister bookcase and some paperbacks in plastic covered-containers. Nothing as severe as this poor woman, thank God.

    Paper disintegrates into chemicals and debris, and the books collect dust that is hard to remove.

    Library books are often so full of cigarette smoke that I have to open them and let them air before I read them.

    I only buy or check out paper books where the ebook isn’t available.

  2. I’ve just read your piece and I wanted to let you know that as usual the daily mail has failed to report a piece in a way which accurately reflects the true story.

    I don’t have an allergy to books, like they very wrongly reported. I have severe asthma, which is triggered by dust mites amongst other things such as pollens,(during the spring and summer I have to stay in the house when the count is high) moulds and various chemicals. I also develop different allergies at different times so I can be fine with things one day and not another.

    My asthma is also triggered strongly by viruses, during my time at uni I had two admissions to intensive care and three to high dependancy because I picked up a virus which turned into an infection.

    Because I’ve had so many severe attacks in the past, and infections have damaged my lungs I have damage to my lungs. This means my lung function is only about 50%. So I am always breathless and when allergens set me off I don’t have much in the way of reserves!

    I also have various other illnesses caused by the medication I am on for my asthma such as diabetes, brittle bones and a condition called steroid myopathy which causes my muscles to break down.

    I only left uni partially because my allergies were made worse by the environment. I didn’t use the library that much, cause of the dust, and used a kindle instead, but when I did need the library it did make me unwell. The main reasons I left were to do with the fact that I am dealing with multiple illnesses now, all of which made life hard, and the risk of me picking up a virus or infection was too high.

    My want to get a degree couldn’t overtake the importance of my health, and there were too many things which were outside of my control at such a large university.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail