In the event of a famine, could I survive by eating my books?
June 9, 2023 12:41 AM   Subscribe

In other words, does paper have any nutritional value? (I'm assuming no shortage of water in my famine scenario, by the way.)
posted by Paul Slade to Food & Drink (16 answers total)
No. Paper is mostly cellulose, a fiber that you cannot digest (we don't have the right enzymes, unlike ruminants), sometimes with additives like chalk. There's nothing in paper that contains calories that humans can access in any significant way. Paper is made from wood and you wouldn't expect to be able to survive on wood either.
posted by ssg at 1:02 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]

Paper isn't nourishing, but would fill you up, I suppose. In the past, books were bound using organic glues (flour paste, carpenter's glue etc.), so older books may have a little nutritional value, although if they were really old you would have to hope that they hadn't been treated with something like arsenic to prevent pest damage. There might be a little nourishment in a leather binding too.
posted by Fuchsoid at 1:40 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]

The inherent calories might be useful [save a brazier as well as your library] in rendering something else edible.
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:01 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]

In one of the seasons of "Alone", a contestant ate bark off a tree. I believe that it was supposed to provide some carbohydrates but was mostly cellulose. I believe that it made him very constipated and he had to tap out.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 2:10 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Some people consider mushrooms edible, and paper can be used to grow them. Make sure the inks are lead-free.

Termites eat cellulose, but they need a little help since I don't think they make their own cellulase - an enzyme that breaks down cellulose. Talk to your GP before hacking your gut bacteria?

Eating paper is a form of pica and is something you should tell your GP about.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:16 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Hmmm, I think there might be some limited value. Depends on your gut flora for one thing.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:40 AM on June 9

Not as good as food maybe, but books dohave other uses. The great Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, exiled by Stalin to Kazakhstan and lacking for many necessities including rolling papers for his cigarette habit, is rumored to have slowly used up all the pages of a manuscript for a now lost masterpiece of a book he was writing to roll his smokes.

Also books burn real good.
posted by spitbull at 4:59 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

In the past, books were bound using organic glues (flour paste, carpenter's glue etc.), so older books may have a little nutritional value, although if they were really old you would have to hope that they hadn't been treated with something like arsenic to prevent pest damage.

I've read old anecdotes of people separating out the glue and then using that for food. The paper pages themselves, and modern glues, would have no food value, though.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:42 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

Many of the old little New Testament Gideon bibles were used as rolling papers for various substances.

There is caloric content in there, but your best bet would be to use it as food for some other animal that can digest it and then eat that animal (or insect). There may be some chemistry that could turn it into human sustenance but I have no clue whatsoever that would be.

Maybe some sort of fermentation.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:00 AM on June 9

In the event of a famine, books compost well and will feed a garden; that’s how I disposed of @ 1/3 of my books after the Great Enfloodening, which still hurts. Get some books on gardening and self-sufficiency and stockpile rice and beans.
posted by theora55 at 6:24 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

If you had any leather-bound books, the leather would provide a little bit of nutrition (along with a plentiful helping of extremely toxic dyes, varnishes, and tanning chemicals); folks have been known to boil rawhide into broth during famine times. Your body can't access the nutritional content of paper, but if you had a ruminant animal, you could feed them the pages and drink their milk. Finally, if the books were occupied by insects like silverfish, you could snack on those for a little bit of protein.
posted by ourobouros at 8:09 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

If you have any very old books made using actual vellum or parchment, you could get a little out of that because they are made out of skin. But, like eating leather, it's not going to help that much. Boil your boots first.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:18 AM on June 9

No. And any non-famine hankerings for paper [pica, as xylophagia] points to iron-deficiency anemia, zinc deficiency, etc.
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:39 PM on June 9

Maybe if the book contains bambooo paper? . I guess that would be edible as bamboo is eaten in China. But not sure if the paper form would change that. Also, most paper is not made from bamboo, let alone books. But, just thought I'd mention.
posted by bearette at 6:34 PM on June 9

> I guess that would be edible as bamboo is eaten in China.

By pandas, yes.

People in Asia do eat the shoots of the bamboo plant, in much the same way people eat spruce tips or grape leaves, but do not generally eat lumber or grapevines.

Note that 151 grams of bamboo shoots has 4.5 g of sugar and 3.9 grams of protein. The bamboo itself is more useful as chopsticks than as an entrée.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:54 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

No. Pigs can eat paper and so can goats, but they have an extra stomach that makes them possible to digest it. You couldn't extract enough calories from paper to cover the calories you used processing it.

Eating books would probably be a little harder on your stomach than eating menstrual pads or paper towel because the paper used for printing is much more processed. You'd get additional chemicals you don't want to be eating, on top of the cellulose.

Worse yet, eating lots of cellulose can make you very sick - not just the constipation, but during the Povolzhye famine people who ate grass developed neurological problems. You would definitely have to eat a lot of it, since you probably already eat small amounts of cellulose all the time. You have to eat a lot of it to block your digestion or create the neurological problems however.

However small amounts of paper shouldn't do you much harm - the key is small amounts and sticking to food grade cellulose. Cat food and dog food is now often padded with cellulose - it's real cheap and bulks up the food nicely - and the side benefit is that eating a lot of cellulose with the meat by products means that the feces produced are a lot less strong smelling, not to mention the cat food itself.

If you sprinkle Parmesan cheese from a jar you bought at the grocery store on your food you are eating cellulose - they bulk up the cheese with it. There's probably not a high percentage of cellulose in there. The stated reason for it is to keep the cheese from forming accretions and hardening into lumps that you can't shake out of the jar. Back in the day you had to break up the Parmesan with the point of a steak knife, but the cellulose. I think I would prefer to still have to my Parmesan turn into hard lumps.

Cellulose is found naturally in many plant foods you eat - for example when you eat an orange the fibre-y bits that enclose the pulp into segments is made out of cellulose. Peanut skins is another plant matter that is made out of cellulose. If you want to try to eat cellulose during a famine, you would probably do better to look for unprocessed cellulose from the non-poisonous plants around you, than eating highly processed paper. But even then there wouldn't be much point. It would make you feel like you had eaten something, but there wouldn't be any calories in it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:17 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]

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