Still from Mary Pickford’s 1911 film Their First Misunderstanding.
I’m a crier by nature, but as I have aged, my reasons for tearing up have become more elusive, even to me. Where once I could predict a crying spell, like spotting an East Texas thunderstorm moving across the landscape, now they arrive fast and sharp, like hail in New England on a March day. More and more frequently, I find myself wiping away tears while asking with plaintive frustration, “Wait, why am I crying right now?”
I had one of those spells this morning while I holding a very old book in the rare books room of the Health Sciences Library at the University of Pittsburgh. Our group of visiting scholars had been warned not to lick or cough or sneeze on the old books, a warning that I had impressed on my soul, as I do with all advice from all librarians. Thus, the arrival of unexpected tears—one moment I was paging carefully through the book, scanning, not terribly attentive, the next I was sobbing—mostly triggered my consternation at producing forbidden fluid.
“I didn’t know I was going to cry!” I wanted to yell, as I grabbed a tissue from the librarian’s desk, keeping my face averted from anything old. “I did not deliberately get bodily fluids on your books!”
Of course, no one was paying me the least bit of attention, intent as they all were on their own research in their own old books. The librarian didn’t notice me either, thankfully, as she passed around cloth gloves to scholars who wanted to touch very, very old books. So I wiped away my tears, resanitized my hands, and went back to the book I had been looking at to figure out what had made me cry.
It was a dead and delicate weight in my hands, slightly larger than a brick, the leather cover somewhere between “pliable” and “about to crack into dust at any moment.” The brown leather could have been cow or ostrich or human, for all I knew. It was stained by bodily fluids dating back to the French Revolution. I opened it again, holding it away from me.
I turned back to its title page: Anatomy of a Human Body, written by William J. Cheselden and published in 1750. I don’t work in the health sciences field and am not a scholar of the body or of medical texts. I have a body, but most days—while perhaps it ought—that fact does not move me to tears.
I vaguely remembered a signature across the title page. I find handwriting moving, especially dashed-off handwriting from people who have not hurried in two hundred years. Was that the trigger? I turned to the opening pages to see the original owner’s loopy signature: Finlay Miller. I felt gratitude that Finlay had taken good enough care of his book that it could be passed down, again and again, to end up in a beautiful room of old books at the school where I teach. But it wasn’t a very strong gratitude, I must say. It was more of an acknowledgment, the way my best friend says, “That’s very cool,” before changing the subject.
I moved on to the first pages of the book, looking for a meaningful city of publication or a touching dedication. Since my father’s death, any author thanking their parent, even perfunctorily at the end of the acknowledgements, can start my tears, but I found nothing. Honestly, I was beginning to worry. Had I transitioned from being a person who cries a lot to a person who cries unexpectedly to a person who cries for no reason at all?
I flipped another page, and began to read a note from the author to his readers: “This edition is a tenth part larger than the former; not increased by description but by observations upon the uses and mechanism of the parts, with operations and cases in surgery.”
My eyes prickled again, and I almost laughed. This cajoling note, urging readers to appreciate that the book was one-tenth larger than the prior editions, is what had gotten to me. I understood the need to convince readers to not just flip through but actually buy your book. Authors are not just artists, but also sales people, trying to convince readers that our products are pleasing, will help them learn, are worth their while. That note of persistence in the face of what must have seemed impossible—that somehow Cheselden could come up with the words that would convince some random man months in the future that he must indeed buy this book—was deeply familiar to me. I just hadn’t realized it was as old as the book I was holding.
I’ve wheedled the same way. While I ought to have been examining fascinating and rare books with my fellow scholars, I spent hours worrying over the book I was beginning to piece together. I worried whether I would ever write a book that anyone would want to buy or publish or even read in my lifetime. What would I say in my query letters, my book proposal, my preface to get people to not just pick up, but buy my book?
In Cheselden’s note, from four hundred years ago, I see myself, and the hustle of being a writer.
“The plates are more in number, larger, better designed and better executed that those which were in the former editions,” he wrote, “which has unavoidably enhanced the price of this [edition].” It’s worth more so it costs more, he cries. Please, please, buy this book!
His hustle worked: Finlay Miller bought his book, and wrote his name in it. Likely, others did, too. But it was this one, this copy, that had made it through so many years of avoiding flood and plague and fire and book burners, that had ended up in my negligent hands near my tears. I had found a compatriot. I hoped this book was the eighteenth-century equivalent of a best seller.
I closed the book gently and walked over to the librarian’s desk and sanitized my hands again, just in case. As I did so, I watched my colleagues lift and turn pages, billing and cooing over the old books like a flock of pigeons. How we all love these books. I teared up again, but this time, I knew why.
Shannon Reed is a visiting lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches in the creative writing program. Her work is frequently published in The New Yorker and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and she has written for Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Real Simple, The Washington Post, Slate, and many more. Her book of humor and memoir about her twenty-year teaching career, Why Did I Get a B? Harrowing and Humorous Truths About Teaching, is forthcoming from Atria Books in the fall of 2020.
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