David Benioff's 2008 historical fiction novel City of Thieves follows two youths during the siege of Leningrad in 1942.

In one scene, the narrator explains how the starving inhabitants of the city resort to eating, among other things, bars made from boiled down book-binding glue:

The boy sold what people called library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars you could wrap in paper. The stuff tasted like wax, but there was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive, and the city's books were disappearing like the pigeons.


The book doesn't claim to be a true story but the overall framing is historically authentic; I'm wondering whether this particular detail is possibly true. For what it's worth, the author of the blog post linked above says she couldn't find any evidence for the phenomenon.

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    Sieged or occupied? Siege was, in some ways, harder than occupation.
    – Zeus
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 6:04
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    Sorry you're right, 'besieged' would be the better word Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 7:35
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    If the glue was casein based or even starch based, it's potentially edible, and it sounds plausible. Do not try to do this with modern book glues, they're quite toxic.
    – user28434
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 10:35
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    Binding glue taste like bones not wax. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 11:56
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    At one time I worked in a bookbindery and among other glues we had something called animal glue. It had to be melted down to use, and heating it gave off a sweet smell. Though I never ate it, I can imagine someone doing so and associating it with candy. It reminded me somewhat of caramel in its appearance & smell.
    – xdhmoore
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 3:21

1 Answer 1


I think the author did derive this from a real description of "candy." However, I find no support for the novel's depiction of Leningrad's books being decimated by people eating the bindings. The real "sweet dirt" or "candy" was sugar-infused dirt mixed with various types of glues available in households of the time. Judging by the description quoted below, it seems the glue was obtained from the jars in which it had been sold, not by stripping it from books, which would have been a lot of effort for only a small amount of one of the ingredients in the "candy."

Joiner's glue became standard fare for many. Like the wallpaper and library pastes used before the introduction of synthetic adhesives, joiner’s glue was based on animal proteins such as casein from milk, blood, and fish residues. Thus it contained proteinaceous material that provided some nutritional value. From a chance acquaintance on the street, Olga Grechina learned how to prepare an aspic from joiner’s glue. The glue was soaked for twenty-four hours, then boiled for quite a long time, during which it gave off a terrible odor of burnt horns and hooves. Then the glue was allowed to cool and thicken. A bit of vinegar or mustard, if available, made it palatable. Nearly all of the siege survivors express nostalgia for the “sweet earth” they consumed—soil from the site of the Badaev warehouse fire in which 2,500 tons of sugar melted onto the ground. … This “sweet earth” could be heated until the sugar melted, then strained through several layers of muslin. Or it could be mixed with library paste to make a kind of gummy confection. “This was ‘candy’ or ‘jelly’ or ‘custard,’ whatever the imaginative housewife decided to call it.”

Goldstein, Darra. "Women under Siege: Leningrad 1941-1942." From Betty Crocker to feminist food studies: Critical perspectives on women and food (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005): 143-60.

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    The emphasized 'sweet earth' thing is hardly relevant to the question, but the first half regarding the joiner's glue is. Yes, people ate 'jelly' made out of joiner's glue (and any natural glue, but joiner's glue was the most common and available in edible quantities). People from sieged Leningrad left a large number of diaries, and many talk about eating glue as if it was commonplace.
    – Zeus
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 3:13
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    @Zeus: Exactly. I've heard stories about wallpaper glue, but not about book bindings. By the way, there were well-known selfless acts, too, like local zoo workers feeding animals in the zoo instead of eating them. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 13:45
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    I wasn't able to find any of the sources discussed in these comments so I do welcome people to write other answers if they can find a specific source for the "library candy" story.
    – Avery
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 18:44
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    Gummy bears are mostly made of bone jelly. It's a good candy material. Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 23:45

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