That warning has shifted from ubiquitous to superfluous over the past twenty-five years. If you don’t know that smoking can damage your lungs, endanger your child’s birth weight, increase blood pressure, cause cancer and do just about everything but empty your bank account and taunt you with calls from Barbados, you haven’t been paying attention.Sometimes we get personal reminders of the danger. Anyone who saw Charlie Grant in the last couple of years of his life couldn’t help but have the hazards of smoking impressed upon them. But, those are the physical risks. As I’ve written, nearly everyone knows about the health issues.
It’s the other stuff that can blindside people.
Smoking isn’t just dangerous to you; it’s dangerous to your possessions. The most obvious example of this is the direct cause of smoking: fire. Smoke doesn’t come without an ember, and those embers can cause fires. This is, thankfully, uncommon (except in wastebaskets during slapstick comedies) but it does happen and even a tiny fire can quickly grow into a large and destructive one. Fires start due to faulty wiring or a lightning strike, and they also start because of carelessness or simple accidents with cigarettes.
That’s a rarity, but I think it’s appropriate to bring it up, because if it weren’t for a fire that started in his garden most of Hugh B. Cave’s original pulp magazines and his huge library of pulp-era correspondence would still exist. Just because something doesn’t commonly happen doesn’t mean it can’t.
Far, far more common is smoke damage. That occurs over time, and often the smoker doesn’t even realize it’s happening. This happens when a person smokes in a room containing books; the worse the air circulation and the more smoking is done in the room, the greater the damage will be. Considering how many authors are smokers, and how many of them have rare books (even if it’s simply in the form of contributor’s copies of their own work) in their homes, this is something that should be considered, but rarely is.
Smoke contains a number of microscopic elements, ranging from tar to acidic chemicals, and those elements deposit upon any nearby material. They are held aloft because of their small size and the currents of hot air, only to fall as the air cools to surrounding temperatures. The acids cause discoloration and embrittlement of paper. This is why the edges of books in a smoker’s home often show those signs. Moreover, the texture of pages isn’t as smooth as they seem to the casual touch; at a magnified level pages are typically very rough, with dozens of peaks, crags, overhangs and valleys per square inch. At a microscopic level it’s even worse; paper is shown to be constructed primarily of cellulose, which far more resembles a jumble of interlocking pick-up sticks than a cohesive, solid surface. This provides locations for the small particulate to lodge, there to continue to damage the surrounding paper even if the book is carefully brushed clean. Professional cleaning can remove some of the damage from a one-time, massive exposure to smoke. Long-term exposure is often beyond the capability of even professionals to repair.
There’s a curve to the effect due to paper quality as well. At the lowest end, with wood-pulp paper, smoke is extremely damaging; it’s less so for typical mass-produced paper, and then very damaging for the higher paper grades. This is because of the nature of paper itself. Mass-produced paper is typically ground into a very fine paste and treated with a variety of chemicals; the other styles either allow for far less grinding (in the case of pulp) or incorporate whole woven fibers to improve the paper’s functionality. The problem associated with this is that plants are constructed of cells, and when the dead cells are allowed to retain their identity within the paper (rather than being flushed clean, leaving only the cellulose behind) they can further trap ultrafine particulate.
This isn’t too important… until you try to sell your books. That’s when people learn about the lower prices they can expect for books that carry a scent of smoke. A strong smoke scent typically drops the value of a book between 1/4 to 3/4. That can mean getting $50 for what would normally be a $200 book.
So, what’s the answer to smoke damage?
The most obvious: don’t smoke. If that advice is lost (and it will be on many people; if you’re willing to risk your organs you’re probably willing to risk book damage) then do the next best things. Make sure the seals are good on the room(s) where your books are kept and don’t smoke within that room. Failing that, keep the room with your books well-ventilated… and not with recirculated air unless you have an abnormally good HEPA filter. A simple open window, while still not ideal, is still head and shoulders above an improperly ventilated room.