The Chemistry of Books


■ Plato once said, “Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” Books have always been a huge part of our world’s history and culture, and while it is nearly impossible to calculate how many books are printed in our world today; we could probably assume there are millions, if not more. We all read books at some point, or every day, in our lives whether it’s reading Shakespeare for your school’s English class or reading the Harry Potter series for fun in one sitting. 

From a young age and reading Dr. Seuss to adulthood and reading the latest top bestseller on New York Times’ Bestseller List, reading books is inevitable. I enjoy reading and chemistry, so I wanted to combine the two in order to figure out the chemical makeup of books.  

Composition of Books

Pages: made with paper and ink.

Covers: made with all or some of the following­ cardboard, cloth, paper, and ink.

Binding: made with glue or steel staples.

Overall List of Items Used in Books:
Main Chemicals, Compounds, or Components:

Paper’s main ingredient is plant material. In all plant material you can find cellulose. Cellulose’s formula is (C6H10O5)n. (n= repeating units. Each unit is glucose rotated 180 degrees the opposite direction of the last glucose unit)

● Cellulose is a substance that primarily makes up a plant's cell walls. Therefore since it is made by most plants, it is considered to be the most abundant organic compound on Earth.  
 Cellulose can be used to make paper, film, explosives, and plastics. Cellulose is also a major source of needed fiber in human diets. 
● Cellulose is usually described by chemists and biologists as a complex carbohydrate.  Carbohydrates are organic compounds made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that function as sources of energy for living things. Plants are able to make their own carbohydrates that they use for energy and to build their cell walls. 
● Cellulose is an organic compound which consists of a linear chain made up from 'several hundred to over ten thousand β(1→4) linked D­glucose units or simply put it is made of repeated units of the monomer glucose.

The main ingredient in ink is carbon which is used as colorant in ink. It’s chemical formula is C.

● It’s one of the most common colorants.
● Carbon is an element.
● It is one of the world’s oldest known colorants used in dyes and pigments for writing and printing purposes.
● 70% of all carbon black is used in black ink.

Chemistry's Role 

The end product of the book is man ­made. There are no real chemical processes in the production of it, but everything that is in the book from the paper to the ink to the glue has had a chemical process or many chemical processes to help create the material that makes up that book. 


● Main component is cellulose, a very abundant organic compound.
● Modern paper (made from wood pulp) undergoes many physical and chemical changes throughout the paper making process. (ex. bleaching and/or dyeing)


● Main ingredient in black ink is made with the colorant carbon, which is an element.
● Water is usually used as a solvent in the ink making process. Water is a compound with the chemical formula H2O.

Steel Staples:

● Main component is steel, which is an alloy made up of iron, carbon, and other elements.
● Steel is made through the process of chemically combining molten iron with oxygen, carbon, and other various metals.


● Cloth can be made from natural fibers or man­made ones. Some natural fibers are cotton, wool, and silk. Some man­made fibers include nylon and polyester.
● Man­made fibers are usually polymers which are substances that have molecular structures that are made up of a large number of units, that are similar, that are bonded together. 


● Cardboard is usually a more durable and stiffer form of paper, which is made of cellulose.
● Cardboard being made of recycled materials have been on the rise in order to be more environmentally friendly. The recycled materials are mainly old cardboard and paper, which are generally made up of the organic compound cellulose, that have undergone physical and sometimes chemical changes in order to become cardboard.


● Glue is an adhesive primarily made up of polymers, synthetic ingredients, and/or organic compounds from plants or animals.
● Extra strong glues usually contains cyanoacrylate, whose chemical formula is C6H7NO2. Background Research

History of Books and their Production

Throughout history, books have changed dramatically in their appearance and size in order to keep up with the technologies of that time in which they were produced and the demand for information. The first known book like forms were the clay tablets from Mesopotamia and the papyrus rolls from Ancient  Egypt. Both forms can date back to  3000 B.C. Around 1300 B.C., books made of wood and bamboo bound together by cords emerged from China. Modern book production came shortly after the invention of the printing press made by Johann Gutenberg of Germany around 1456 A.D. The first book printed by Gutenberg was the Bible (written in Latin). 

In the year 1640 A.D., Stephen Day printed the first book in North America, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Due to the printing, press book production became much easier and therefore, books became available in larger quantities. By the 1800s, the demand for books could not be met quickly enough, so printers developed larger presses to accommodate larger sheets of paper. These improvements allowed printers to produce more books at a much faster rate. Other inventions such as the invention of the papermaking machine, the cylinder press, and the linotype aided the printing press and the book making process throughout the mid to late 1800s. During the twentieth century important advances, such as the invention of the offset printing press and computerized typesetting, have made bookmaking easier than ever. The creation of the paperback book, which was introduced in the 1940s, made books more accessible to the public. 

Even with the inventions of the computer, television, and electronic reader, all of which have had a negative effect on hardcover and paperback books, books remain the primary source of knowledge throughout most of the world to this day.

How Books are Made

Bookbinding today is highly mechanized. A machine called the guillotine chops excess paper off of a stack of several pages. After trimming the stack of pages they’re moved into a machine called the folder where perforations are cut into where the pages will be folded. The folder then folds each sheet into book size and puts the pages in the right order. A unit of pages folded in the correct order is created and it’s called a signature; a book is made up of several signatures. The cover is put on the signatures for binding. There are many ways to bind a book however binding books using glue or staples is usually the most popular method today. Perfect binding is where the machines glue the pages together. Wire stitch binding is where the books are bound by staples. After the cover and the pages are binded a machine trims the other three side, completing the book.

Where Books are Made

Books are made in printing presses all over the world, many of which are in the United States.

How We Read Books and the Chemical Reactions Involved

Light reflects off of the page you are reading and enters the eye. The first thing the light touches when it enters the eye is a layer of tears that is in charge of keeping the eye lubricated. The tears are made up of water, mucin, lipids, lysozyme, lactoferrin, lipocalin, lacritin, immunoglobulins, glucose, urea, sodium, and potassium. Behind the layer of tears is the cornea which brings the light into focus. Behind the cornea is more moisturizing tears called aqueous humor. The aqueous humor fluid is made up of 99.9% water and the remaining 0.1% is made up of sugars, vitamins, proteins and other nutrients. After light passes through the aqueous humor it passes through the eye’s pupil which will contract or dilate, to limit or increase the amount of light let through the eye. The light then travels through the lens of the eye, which focuses the light. Once focused the light travels through another moisture in the eye known as the vitreous humor. The light then reaches its final destination in the eye, the photoreceptors in the retina. The focused light is projected onto the retinas flat, smooth surface located on the back of the eye.

Signals sent from the photoreceptors travel along nerve fibers to the optic nerve. The optic nerve then sends the signals to the visual center in the back of the brain. By reading words our brain recognizes they stimulate different areas in the brain. Words such as lavender, cinnamon, and perfume, not only trigger a response from the language processing parts of the brain, but they also trigger responses from the parts of the brain responsible for processing smells. Words describing motion triggers reactions from the motor cortex and words that describe textures (ex. leathery, velvety, rough) gets a response from the brain’s sensory cortex. When we read the brain doesn’t make a strong distinction between experiences we read about and experiences we have actually experienced. That is why when we read about motions, sensory words that describe smells, textures, or sounds, they seem so real, because our brain will be triggered in the areas of our brain that process those smells, textures, etc. in real life. All of these are caused in part by the brain’s memory and brain signals. The average human brain has about 100 billion neurons (or nerve cells) and even more neuroglia (or glial cells) which support and protect the neurons in the brain. A neuron is an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information by electrochemical signalling. So to summarize the process of reading: Light has been reflected from an object, has entered the eye, been focused, converted into electrochemical signals, delivered to the brain and interpreted or "seen" as an image. The brain then remembers certain words and that may trigger or awaken certain parts of the brain other than the language processing parts of our brains. All possible due to our eyes, neurons in our brains and eyes, and electrochemical signalling.


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About the Author
Caitlynn McGregor is a sophomore at McCook Central High School. She hopes to go to 
college majoring in biochemistry and later on to medical school to become a pediatric oncologist. She is in/on the Honor Roll, Newspaper Staff, Varsity XC Team, Band, Drum Major for Marching Band, Jazz Band, Choir, Vocal Jazz, Madrigal,  FCA, FFA, regular 4­H, horse 4­H, and a Student Council Region Representative and Reporter.