“Go, litel book,” Chaucer writes at the end of Troilus and Criseyde, and sends his work off into the world in hopes that it will be read, understood, and well-received, will communicate his intentions and be forgiven his failures. This is a common trope in medieval writing, expressing both the particular Western European convention that works of literature need to educate and instruct even as they entertain, and addressing what might be a universal authorial anxiety that, once our words are loose in the world, we have no more control over them. They belong, once they leave our hands, to the reader.
I got curious about where A LESSON IN MANNERS has traveled by now, roughly 18 months after publication. So I strolled over to WorldCat to do the nerd’s version of Googling yourself, which is using WorldCat to see which libraries have your book. I was pleasantly surprised by the number: 14.
Fourteen libraries have my book, and only three of those were copies I donated. (Which seems somewhat miserly of me now—surely I could share a bit more widely?) Muscatine Community College and Musser Public Library have copies; so do Bettendorf and Moline. The University of Iowa libraries, gratifyingly, catalogued the copy I gave them.
The South Central library system of Wisconsin has my book, which I suspect is where the copy migrated that I donated to my hometown library, Macmillan, in advance of an author program there. All the better; now my book can travel all over south central Wisconsin at the command of a button. Maybe when I’m very famous, my hometown will want that copy back to keep.
The other entries were more wondrous. Valdosta University has a copy (perhaps donated by my Valdosta-based publisher, or doing their part to support the local literary arts). So does the University of Georgia (possibly a purchase request by my friend who is a professor there?). Johns Hopkins has a copy. Well! The University of Cincinnati has a copy; so does the University of California at Riverside. Better and better! Columbia University has my book; the New York Public Library has my book.
The New York Public Library has my book! I’m starting to feel very plumped up about myself. No, 14 is not a huge number, but these are very respectable places. My little book has made its way all the way to New York City.
Then, in conversation, a fellow medieval scholar who lives and teaches in Istanbul mentioned she read my book of medieval scholarship, MONSTROUS WOMEN IN MIDDLE ENGLISH ROMANCE, through the British Library. Did my head swell up then! The British Library has my book? The British Library has my book! (Repeats to herself in fake British accent.)
How wonderful. My book lives in the same library system as the manuscript upon which much of my Melusine scholarship is based. This is MS Royal 18 B.ii, and I am the proud owner of an electronic copy of this manuscript, which the Library issued to me for a reasonable fee.
Then I thought to look up the book in WorldCat, and imagine my astonishment when I saw this number: 673 holdings for all 8 editions.
673 holdings! (Has mild heart attack.) Eight editions! How did we get to 8 editions? How did we get to 673 holdings? Did my publisher send out 670 free review copies?
I compared listings to a somewhat similar book I read for my recent article on Melusine, forthcoming in a book of essays from Brill. 124 listings. A more recent book, but from a more established and bigger academic press. I looked back at a book I read and learned much from during the days of writing my dissertation. That was published in 2003 and has 724 holdings.
I looked at the libraries. Swaths of local academic libraries have my book, among them many, many community colleges. The book has made its way to all corners of the U.S. (HOW did that happen? Did my publisher hold a fire sale?)
But I was more staggered by the number of international listings. My book is in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Nigeria. My book is in China. My book is in Singapore and Hong Kong. My book is in the Virgin Islands. My book is all over Australia. It is at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek. It is in the American University in Armenia and the Open University of Cyprus. There are a ton of copies in Turkey. Somehow, not just these regional or national but international libraries have determined that among the resources they want to make available to their students is my tiny, silly, monstrous little book.
I am overwhelmed, honored, and worried about this. Somehow, as far as library holdings go, MONSTROUS WOMEN elbowed its purple way onto the shelf next to the works of prominent scholars whose work I am inspired by and deeply admire. I wonder how my monstrous women could have such chutzpah. I am astonished and a bit panicked. The book isn’t any good! There are so many errors in it! I was such a young scholar then—I could do so much better now! (Could I?)
On the other hand, I did the best I could at the time. I had an excellent, top-notch dissertation advisory committee who approved the book as a contribution to my field. The Edwin Mellen Press awarded my book the D. Simon Evans Dissertation Prize for Medieval Studies, which is how they happened to publish it. Several of the contributors to the upcoming Brill volume referenced my work, which made me squirm when I edited their chapters. (They read my book! Oh, what must they think of me?) While with fiction, the greatest charge and onus is to delight and instruct, the sincerest form of flattery in scholarship is to appear in somebody else’s footnote.
While I’m not sure the book deserves such a global presence, and can’t help being flattered that it does, I have also been reminded by this that my imposter syndrome is still running on full throttle. So be it. Imposter syndrome can be a huge motivator. It prompts me to dig deeper, work harder, hold myself to the highest standards. I’ll probably never really feel like I deserve any of the honors that have been heaped upon me; those are simply the acts of generosity of readers, and to be recognized, needed, cherished, or connected to by readers is awe-inspiring, gratifying, and deeply, deeply humbling.
My fall lessons so far have been all about humility. This is just another to teach me to be quiet, listen hard, and do the best work I can telling the truth as I see it. I hope I remember that.
But also, in the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep and I’m worried about why am I here/what am I doing/why do I think I need to be a writer when there are so many real ills in the world that need solving, I might sneak online to WorldCat and look at whisper to myself in the still reaches of the night, “The American Farm School in Thessaloniki has my book.” And that’s something.