The Scent of Old Books: How Do You Describe It?

“The smell of books intrigues and inspires,” Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlic write in their research article, Smell of Heritage: a Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours. They contend that smells, such as the scent of historic paper, are part of our cultural heritage and worthy of conservation and inclusion in museums. As they explain, citing guidelines by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England: “the smells of a place are considered of value because they affect our experience of it. For this reason, they should be taken into account when defining the character of a historic area.”

To explore the identification and documentation of historic smells, the researchers studied the odor of old books, looking for ways to communicate how it smells. The sample book was Les Chardons du Baragan, published in 1928 and purchased from a second-hand bookstore in London. Study participants smelled an extract of this book as one of eight unidentified odors, which included “chocolate,” “coal fire,” “old inn,” “fish market,” “dirty linen,” “coffee,” and “HP sauce.”

Participants described the historic book smell in a variety of ways. The word “chocolate” was the most prevalent description. The next most common descriptions were “coffee,” “old,” “wood,” and “burnt.”

Meanwhile, participants chose the following words to describe the smell of Wren Library at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a historic library: woody, smoky, earthy, vanilla, musty, sweet, almond, pungent, medicinal, floral, fruity, green, rancid, bread, citrus, sour, and creamy.

The authors of the study connected this information to a chemical evaluation of the historic paper odor and created a odor wheel so that “untrained noses could identify an aroma from the description and gain information about the chemical causing the odour.”

I, with my “untrained nose,” have always loved the smell of old books, especially the earthy fragrance that permeated my undergraduate library. I described this aroma in my new adult novel, Two Lovely Berries (2014), like this:

I spent much of my time at Yale, probably too much of it, in Sterling Memorial Library, a grand building in need of no ivy, where the stacks led to well-hidden reading rooms that were empty enough for me to think or daydream without interruption. A faint musty scent hung in the air, the smell of tradition and scholarship; I wore it like a perfume.

Fond memories of that “faint musty scent” at the same alma mater aren’t the only similarities between Nora Daly’s fictional life and my real one, but it’s all I’m willing to admit.  😉

Sterling Memorial Library in New Haven, CT

*Cecilia Bembibre & Matija Strlic, Smell of Heritage: A Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours, Heritage Science (2017) (linked above).

**See also, The Quest to Better Describe the Scent of Old Books (

A Family Secret

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs begins “on a sizzling summer morning in the late 1930s” with the real-life account of a young girl watching the Bud Billiken Parade, a celebration honoring the black children of Chicago’s South Side. Hobbs writes:

The young girl could not have known that this would be her last time hearing the marching bands and the cheering crowds… She looked white, as did both of her parents. At the insistence of her mother, she would move far away from Chicago’s South Side to Los Angeles to live the rest of her life as a white woman apart from her family. It was not her choice. She pleaded with her mother; she did not want to leave her family, her friends, and the only life she had ever known. But her mother was determined and the matter was decided.

It’s a heartbreaking loss for this child and for her family, and it makes me wonder if my own ancestors had similar experiences. In Uncovering Our Roots: Why Does Family History Matter?, I discussed my predominantly Sri Lankan and Irish background, but said:

I wonder sometimes whether it would matter if I suddenly learned, possibly through a DNA test, that we hail from a different area of the world, perhaps through a later migration from Africa, East Asia, or Eastern Europe?

As it turns out, a later DNA test revealed my family’s African ancestry. It’s likely that my great-grandfather, born in 1897 and described by relatives who knew him as having a “perpetual tan,” came from a mixed-race, African American family at a time when the “one-drop” rule assigned racial identity for legal purposes. I don’t know what he knew of his background or what he thought about it. He married a white woman and had children, including my grandmother, whom everyone assumed was white.

So far, the closest I’ve come to understanding what my great-grandfather might have experienced as a racially ambiguous man is through Hobbs’s book. A Chosen Exile highlights the complicated nature of racial identity, underscores the absurdity of racial categorization, and challenges the common presumption that passing as white was an unequivocally beneficial experience. She writes: “Indeed, it is my contention that the core issue of passing is not becoming what you pass for, but losing what you pass away from.”

Many racially ambiguous people chose not to pass as white. As Hobbs explains:

[T]he lion’s share of evidence points to light-skinned African Americans who made the decision to identify as black and who worked tirelessly to build and sustain free black communities.

Others, however, chose to pass (or were forced to) in order to gain the social and economic privileges associated with whiteness. Depending on the era in which it was achieved, benefits of passing included escaping slavery, traveling freely, attending elite schools, and acquiring jobs reserved for white people.

But those benefits came at a steep price, as the experience of that young girl from Chicago so painfully illustrates.

By passing as white, individuals lost their black identities, their families, their communities, and their cultures. Their ancestry became a secret handed down through the generations. A DNA test or genealogical research may uncover the truth, as it did for my family, but a test result is a poor substitute for lost heritage.

When Wisdom Isn’t Timeless

To satisfy the nostalgia that arrives annually with my birthday, I revisited Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly, a 1966 coming-of-age novel that won the Newbery Medal in 1967. I read it for the first time in the early 1990s, when I was in the fifth grade. I stumbled across it in my school library on one of the lower shelves by the window facing a vegetable patch. I loved that vista, and I loved this book. It reminded me of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, another sentimental and gracefully-written story featuring a strong-willed young woman navigating the challenges of growing up.

Up a Road Slowly was Hunt’s second novel, published two years after her first, when she was almost sixty. The novel’s Aunt Cordelia is similarly mature, a woman who uses the lessons she’s learned in her life to guide her young niece, Julie Trelling.

When I first picked up this novel, I was only a few years older than little Julie was when she moved in with her Aunt, and much of Aunt Cordelia’s advice applied to me too. Julie is a child who makes mistakes, a child who can be cruel sometimes, a child who is learning. In other words, she’s a typical kid who shouldn’t be defined by the follies and missteps of childhood. As Aunt Cordelia explains to her, “You’re neither cruel nor mean; basically, you are a very good child. You’re just young.”

It’s a point I appreciate even more now that I’m a parent guiding my own children to adulthood. They will make mistakes, just like I did (and still do).

However, like virtually all classics, aspects of this novel are problematic, something I see more clearly now than I did when I was eleven. It’s a book from a time when people, even relatively enlightened ones, willfully ignored or actively suppressed society’s complexity and diversity. Reflecting this oppressive world, Up a Road Slowly makes no mention of racial, ethnic, or religious diversity. It is also hetero- and cisnormative, terms coined many years after the novel first appeared on the shelves. As a result, this book quietly promotes messages that cannot go unchecked, messages that could be especially painful for children who do not identify with these so-called norms.

For example, Aunt Cordelia, commenting upon a child she once taught, says, “Now that one was bound for trouble from the first. She was boy crazy before she was quite aware that there were two sexes.” She also says, “A woman is never completely developed until she has loved a man.”

Plus, while Julie is a young girl who embraces the freedom of blue jeans (instead of dresses) and questions her older sister’s behind-the-scenes research supporting the work of a man, she largely accepts that it’s “a man’s world.” She does her best to follow her Uncle Haskell’s advice to “learn how to play the game gracefully.”

I wasn’t so impressionable at age eleven to adopt Up a Road Slowly’s old-fashioned world view, and today, I am a public interest lawyer devoted to changing the discriminatory rules of “the game” through litigation, education, and public policy. I wish I could say Aunt Cordelia and Uncle Haskell wouldn’t recognize their norms in our society anymore, but that’s certainly not the case. It will be someday, though. I wouldn’t do the work that I do if I weren’t an optimist at heart.

Hope In The Dark: It Isn’t Easy To Take Away People’s Health Care

As I braced myself for the inauguration of the Trump Era, the first book I read in 2017 was Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. With each attempt by the GOP to strip Americans of our rights — including by passing HR 985 to protect civil rights violators* — I return to Solnit’s book to remember why I shouldn’t feel as helpless as I do.

Her book encourages me to look at our present moment with fresh eyes, searching for glimmers of hope. As she writes in Chapter 1:

There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital but by dreams of freedom, of justice, and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of. We adjust to changes without measuring them; we forget how much the culture has changed.

We can’t return to the past, not completely, and even Republican leadership in the House seems to understand that fact to some small degree. The Republicans’ American Health Care Act — also known as Trumpcare thanks to Donald Trump’s enthusiastic support for the plan — keeps a few features of Obamacare, a plan they claimed in their 2016 Platform was “invalid in its entirety” (PDF). For example, the current version of Trumpcare continues to bar health insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. It also maintains Medicaid expansion for a limited time.

Of course, Trumpcare isn’t Obamacare (here’s a good analysis of the differences via The Atlantic). It’s a far worse deal for the American people that will ultimately cause millions of Americans to lose insurance coverage. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office published a report on March 13th (PDF) indicating that:

[In] 2018, 14 million people would be uninsured under [Trumpcare] than under [Obamacare]… [and] the increase in the number of uninsured people relative to the number under current law would rise to 21 million in 2020 and then to 24 million in 2020 [as a result of changes in Medicaid enrollment].

After this report, some Republican lawmakers have backed away from Trumpcare. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman from Florida, tweeted:

The concept of Americans losing health coverage somehow seems “un-American” now, with 60% of Americans saying the government should be responsible for ensuring health care coverage. Government-supported access to affordable health insurance is a victory that has been “consolidated into [our] culture’s sense of how things should be,” to borrow a phrase from Solnit.

GOP leadership will do as much damage as they can to our access to affordable health care, but they can’t simply turn back the clock, not without fearing calls, protests, and ultimately retribution in the ballot box. That gives me hope.


*HR 985 passed the House on March 9, 2017 (220 yeas to 201 nays). Fourteen Republicans voted with all of the Democrats against the bill. It wasn’t enough to stop it. Now, the bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Fair access to the justice system should not be a partisan issue. I hope our Senate Republicans will stand up for what’s right by defeating HR 985.

Why Is Arkansas Rep. Kim Hendren So Afraid of Howard Zinn’s Books? #BookBanning

Zinn coverArkansas State Representative Kim Hendren thinks Howard Zinn’s books are so dangerous that he’s introduced state legislation to prohibit public and charter school children from reading them.* Zinn’s most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, presents a view of history that focuses on the experiences of marginalized groups that mainstream history has forgotten or mischaracterized.

I don’t know the basis of Hendren’s problem with Zinn’s books, though I have my suspicion that it’s rooted in racism and sexism. Why else would a legislator target only Zinn’s books, which try to focus the spotlight on the experiences of people of color, the working class, and women? Some people have criticized Zinn’s book as “biased,” but really, what history book isn’t skewed in some way? As Zinn writes in the Afterword of A People’s History:

I know that a historian (or a journalist, or anyone telling a story) was forced to choose, out of an infinite number of facts, what to present, what to omit. And that decision inevitably would reflect, whether consciously or not, the interests of the historian.

Zinn’s method is no different from what any historian does. He’s just more honest about it than most.

Hendren is free to disagree with Zinn’s perspective of history, but he wants to do more than that. He wants to ban it. He wants to make sure that children in his state are only exposed to a limited, politically-approved version of history because, I presume, he believes new or “different” ideas will infect the impressionable minds of Arkansas’s youth.

Well, as I said in Please Stop Parenting My Children:

All I can say to folks like that is this: exposure to many different ideas doesn’t brainwash people. It’s the exposure to only one idea or belief system that does. If the mere exposure to new ideas is enough for those old beliefs to crumble, then its proponents should stop to consider why their beliefs aren’t more persuasive. In my opinion, an idea that can’t withstand a fair debate isn’t an idea worth passing onto the next generation.

If Hendren’s colleagues actually pass this short-sighted piece of legislation, they will probably find the law challenged in court under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (and other laws) — assuming Paul Ryan’s and Mitch McConnell’s Congress and Donald Trump don’t make civil rights lawsuits impossible by then (I’m serious about that; see Lawmakers Want to Take Away Your Right to a Fair Trial).

*Here’s a link to Hendren’s legislation, HB 1834 (2017):

Zahrah the Windseeker: For Those of Us Who Don’t Fit In #ReadDiverse2017 #DiverseBookBloggers



Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu begins with these words:

When I was born, my mother took one look at me and laughed.

“She’s… dada,” said the doctor, looking surprised.

“I can see that,” my mother replied with a smile.

Zahrah has dadalocks, clumps of hair inside of which grow “skinny, light green vine[s].” It’s an unusual, misunderstood trait in Zahra’s kingdom. Many people think it’s associated with strange powers. To avoid prejudice, Zahrah could cut her dadalocks; instead, she grows them down her back. Her hair is heavy, but as her mother has taught her, “it forces me to hold my head up higher.”

Nevertheless, Zahrah is self-conscious. She knows that she different from other children. As she explains:

In Kirki, where fear of the unknown was strong and where so much of the past had been pushed aside and forgotten, my dada hair was like a big red badge on my forehead that said, “I don’t fit in and never will.

Zahrah the Windseeker is a middle grade novel for children who sometimes feel like they don’t fit in. It’s for children who haven’t yet learned how to embrace the unique qualities that make them special. It’s also for adults, because, quite frankly, no one is too old for a gentle reminder to appreciate themselves.

Zahrah the Windseeker is an engaging fantasy novel featuring the friendship between Zahrah and a boy named Dari, who suffers a medical emergency after he and Zahrah venture into the dangerous jungle. Zahra can save him, but only if she learns to harness her powers. To do that, Zahrah must learn to accept herself and push beyond her boundaries. She cannot fear the unknown.

This is another important lesson for my twins, who are shy and rarely take risks. Meanwhile, my youngest, an extroverted, reckless child, needs the opposite lesson. Following Zahrah’s example, she would probably think it’s just fine to explore the woods by herself. But she’s only five and won’t be reading this book anytime soon. When she does, hopefully after she’s learned how to assess risks more appropriately, I hope she’ll enjoy this novel as much as her sisters did.

Here are their thoughts:

Samira: Zahrah the Windseeker is about a girl who must save her friend. I liked it because Misty the Gorilla takes care of Zahrah when she’s sick (though I probably shouldn’t have told you that). There is nothing I did not like about this book. Go read it!

Maram: Zahrah the Windseeker is about a girl named Zahrah and her friend Dari. Dari gets sick, and Zahrah needs to save him. My favorite character is the speckled pink frog that can be annoying but is also wise. Wise people are annoying sometimes. There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about this book, but I wanted to know more about where the town is located and how it got there. I wanted to know more about its relationship to Earth.

I read Zahrah the Windseeker because my daughters recommended it to me (after Akilah from The Englishist recommended it for them). It was a worthwhile read.

Broadening Our Worldview: Sri Lankan Literature


On February 4th, Sri Lanka celebrated 69 years of independence from the British Empire. Sri Lanka is my mother’s homeland, but I grew up in the United States, where many people are incapable of finding Sri Lanka on the globe. The fact that Americans know so little about the world is sad. This ignorance explains, at least in part, why a large percentage (though not a majority) of American voters felt comfortable electing a xenophobic man for President (and xenophobia is only one of a long list of hateful traits this man exhibits proudly).

If more Americans made an effort to learn about the rest of the world, the United States would be a better country than it is right now. Not everyone has the resources to travel, but books are a wonderful way to broaden our worldview. I think that is particularly true of books for younger readers, who aren’t so entrenched in their views already.

To learn more about Sri Lanka, check out Cinderzena’s list of Sri Lankan literature (and bloggers!). As she explains:

I decided to create a list of some of the best, spell binding and intriguing Lankan literature written in English. Of course there are so many more wonderful masterpieces in both Sinhala and Tamil (which are both official languages of the country) but translations of them are also widely available. I tried my best to chose from a wide range of genres including translations.

Cinderzena was kind enough to include Anusha of Prospect Corner, the middle grade novel I wrote with my twins. We are Sri Lankan-American (I am half Sri Lankan; my Dad’s side is predominantly Irish with a mix of Sioux, African, and Basque). The novel was a way of exploring our identity as we grapple with what remains of our Sri Lankan heritage while we live thousands of miles away from our mother country.


anusha-front-cover-smallerTo learn more about Anusha of Prospect Corner, find it on: