Day 56: World Book Day

This morning I learned from my sister-in-law that today is World Book Day! [1] So today, in that spirit, I bring you a tale of how books can help us in moments of need.

On Tuesday when I was walking from the parking lot to my office, I passed a woman who was sitting on a wall sobbing. I walked past her and then paused for a split-second while I considered whether or not I should turn around and ask her whether she was all right. I decided not to; although I am generally something of a busybody when it comes to people crying, I’ve recently myself been in the situation of crying and not wanting strangers to notice, and so I projected that desire onto her. She didn’t look hurt; she looked upset, and I rationalized that there was probably nothing I could do to make her feel better.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I was walking to class to hear my co-teacher lecture on Washington Irving. I felt lucky to have the job that I do; to live in sunny LA; and not to be the woman crying on the wall. I did not remotely feel like crying. It seemed unfathomable, on such a beautiful day, that anyone would feel like crying. I noticed this feeling, this absence of sadness, and felt not only pleased but, I’ll admit it, a little smug: look at me strolling jauntily to lecture! Am I sitting on a wall wallowing in misery? No, not I!

What a difference a day makes! Yesterday, I could not stop crying, particularly, for some reason, while I was driving, which I decided was possibly hazardous, and much less picturesque than sobbing softly on a low brick wall. I had to go to campus for a meeting with a student in the morning and then hold office hours in the afternoon. I pinched myself hard as I walked from the parking lot to meet the student, and managed to mostly stop the tears. But the afternoon was a different story. I had gone off campus for lunch and, as I drove back to campus, the sobs came in great heaving bursts. I wore my sunglasses to hide my face as I walked back to my office, entering the building at the back basement entrance and heading straight to the bathroom.

After splashing my face with cold water, vigorously rubbing it with a paper towel, blowing my nose, and with a generous measure of willing suspension of disbelief, I convinced myself that I looked office-hours-ready. I went to my office, wedged the door open, and settled at my desk. But, bloody hell, no matter how hard I pinched myself, the tears kept streaming. And these weren’t elegant tears. They weren’t like Madame Tourvel’s tears (think Michelle Pfeiffer) in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. “I had the advantage of gazing at leisure upon that charming face, still more embellished by the powerful attraction of tears,” rhapsodizes Valmont. He would not have said that had he been gazing upon my visage, which was simply wet all over from my ineffectual wiping of my eyes and nose with the back of my hand, which achieved only the more even distribution of snot and tears over my entire face.

Here is where I faced a dilemma. And I know this probably will seem fabricated, but this really was my thought process. I didn’t want to leave my office to go get some tissues for several reasons: because I am lazy; because I didn’t want any colleagues to see my face; and because I was already feeling guilty that I had started my office hours late and felt I should now stay glued to my desk chair. But my nose was dripping with snot and there was nothing remotely tissue-like in my office. So what did I do? I used my T-shirt to wipe my face (my “I heart phenomenology” T-shirt, as it happens), reasoning that it would be more disgusting to a student if I had snot all over my face than if I had a few odd wet patches on my T-shirt.

But, frankly, the T-shirt just wasn’t up to the job. Did I now go in search of tissues? No. Instead, having recourse to the trusty principle, WWRCD? (What Would Robinson Crusoe Do?) I determined, on the contrary, to locate something already within my office that could serve a nose-wiper.

So this is the part, you see, where I am inspired by literature. It would make a much much better story if what I decided to do next was actually use one of the books in my office as a nose wiper; it would be a nicely literal-minded twist on the idea of books aiding us in times of need. Take the Norton Anthology of English Literature (or the Norton Anthology of American Literature; I’m not prejudiced). I have several copies of both, because I’m always teaching survey courses and Norton sends me new editions every time they come out with one. Obviously, then, I don’t need the oldest versions. And, as some of you will be aware, the Norton anthologies have extremely thin, I would even say, tissue like pages. [2]

It would have been fun to ponder which pages should be sacrificed. It probably would have cheered me up! Obviously, “The Deserted Village” would have been the first to go. (What would have been your pick?)

But, anyway, that’s not what I did. Instead, while rifling through my desk drawers, I came across the swimming stuff I had stashed for when I used to go the pool on campus, which I haven’t done for more than a year. Unfortunately there wasn’t a towel because they provide towels at the pool. But there was a swim-shirt that I would wear on top of my swimsuit to protect my upper body from the sun. It was perfect nose-blowing material.

Yes, I did ponder for a moment as to whether using my swim-shirt as a hanky was simply too disgusting, but I decided that it was actually impressively resourceful, in a Robinson-Crusoe-like manner. And I thought, further, that Robinson Crusoe would understand. He has his crises, his moments when he thinks, bloody hell, what am I doing? What’s it all for? Will I always be alone on this bloody island? And then, as he says, he weeps “like a child. Sometimes it would take me in the middle of my work, and I would immediately sit down and sigh, and look upon the ground for an hour or two together; and this was still worse to me, for if I could burst out into tears, or vent myself by words, it would go off, and the grief, having exhausted itself, would abate.”

And I’ll bet his tears were the ugly, red-nosed, puffy-eyed kind, not the Michelle-Pfeiffer-as-Madame-Tourvel-bright-eyed-glistening-cheeks variety.

So, I cried like Robinson Crusoe yesterday, and wiped my nose with my swim shirt. And today, here, I’m venting myself with words: and he’s right, you know, because already I can feel the grief abating.

And that, in conclusion, is how Daniel Defoe has come to my aid, and why I am celebrating World Book Day as well as Purim today.


[1] In honor of World Book Day, my niece (nearly 1) is going to nursery school in costume as Horton from Horton Hears a Who! My sister-in-law sent a picture of her in her costume, which was, obviously, ridiculously adorable. I showed the picture to the flopsy-duckits and asked them what they would be if they were dressing up for World Book Day. The elder said Big Nate or Sorrel from Dragonrider. The younger said a dinosaur or a fried egg. The elder said a better choice for her would be Ada Lovelace. I questioned her relevance to “World Book Day.” “Biography!” exclaimed the elder. He further suggested that my costume should be William Shakespeare. The younger disagreed. “If I were you,” she ventured, “I would go as Haman. He wanted to kill all the Jews,” she added. As the younger’s suggestion indicated, it is also Purim today and, in fact, the younger did go in costume to preschool today, in celebration of the holiday. I snapped a great picture of her and her classmates an hour ago: in the middle, the younger, in her home-made fried egg costume, is flanked by two firefighters, a ballerina, a duckling, and an elephant.

[2] This is one of those footnotes that may make it seem as if I grew up in the nineteenth century. I think one of the reasons I never went to the toilet at primary school was because of the toilet paper: it was, essentially, tracing paper. It was, that is to say, not soft, but a paper that crunched when it was folded. Pages from the Norton Anthology would actually have been softer. Was toilet paper only like this in inner-London state schools in the eighties? Was it like this at your school? Is it still like this?


3 thoughts on “Day 56: World Book Day

  1. Miss Honey says:

    First to go? I’d start near the front with Beowulf. Several pages, so useful if the runny nose is persistent. Yes on the scratchy toilet paper–also prevalent in NYC public elementary schools of the 80s, along with bathroom tile in a nauseating shade of aqua. This librarian did not know that today is World Book Day, but a literary-themed costume was recommended to me this morning by my own dear younger, who apparently sees me as ideally suited for the role of the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

  2. Ooh, Miss Honey, I feel like I could play this game forever! It so happens that I have a copy of the Romantic period volume of the Norton right beside me because I was teaching “Ode on a Grecian Urn” this morning. That poem is completely safe. In fact, I’m gonna say that all of Keats is completely safe. But Shelley? I have to say, I would be tempted to put Prometheus Unbound to more practical use (I now await the wrath of Eric to fall upon me). Also, Wordsworth is in danger. Do we really need all those excerpts from The Prelude? Do we really need all those alternate versions?

  3. It so happens that today the Norton sitting beside me is the American Lit volume 1820-1865, which I am perusing because I rashly declared to my co-teacher on Tuesday that, sure, I could teach “The Custom-House” next week. Anyway, so, flipping through the Table of Contents, I inevitably started to think: which would be the first to go? And I’m afraid that the answer was clear and unequivocal. It has to be Walden. Right?

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