Odd Find Rattles Reader

Readers expect to find tales, not tails, in books. This story is about the latter.

A Carnegie Mellon University Libraries patron discovered a bagged, flattened snake in a copy of Brenda Shaughnessy’s "The Octopus Museum."

Samuel L. Jackson would not be pleased.

Kate Neilsen, a professor of English at Villanova University, found the unexpected bookworm. The snake made headlines after her husband tweeted about the discovery.

"So, um...weird question: is this your snake?- My wife checked out a book of poetry from @CMULibraries and it came with a snake in a bag," tweeted Joey Neilsen, a physics professor at Villanova.

University Libraries retweeted his note with the comment, "Maybe it was a hisstory book? (please don’t put snakes in books)."

Maybe it was a hissstory book? ¯\_(?)_/¯
(please don’t put snakes in books) https://t.co/hISAJ1muIQ

- CMU Libraries (@CMULibraries) February 3, 2021

The snake and the book are heading back to Pittsburgh. Amy Perrier, access services manager for University Libraries said they are searching for the snake’s owner, but because the book was previously loaned through an interlibrary loan servce called E-ZBorrow, it might be difficult to find the person.

"I’m excited to get it back, and I would love to find out who the owner was," Perrier said. "Otherwise we’ll find someplace for it in the library. Maybe even make it our mascot."

A flattened snake is one of the most unusual items she’s heard of being found in a book.

"Usually what we see are random bookmarks, pressed flowers, photographs, cards, postcards or bills. Once a colleague of mine at the University of Pittsburgh found a quesadilla in a book," Perrier said.

The snake, which looks fairly small, was likely not meant to be used as a bookmark. Perrier said people often put items in books to protect them during transport.

"I’ve worked in libraries for 30 years. This is definitely the strangest thing I’ve seen. But now that I’ve seen this, I could retire. I’m glad the borrower wasn’t upset about it," she said.

But other people were. Jessica Pressman, an English professor at San Diego State University, tweeted "Dear god, this is now a new nightmare for me. I wish I could unsee....."

Dear god, this is now a new nightmare for me. I wish I could unsee.....

- Jessica Pressman (@jesspres) February 3, 2021

CMU Associate Professor of Psychology David Rakison studies the behavior of infants. He said the most common animal phobias among children and adults are snakes and spiders.

"Humans’ visceral reaction to a snake is learned - likely from observing a parent’s response during childhood - but the ability to learn it so quickly may have its origins in mammalian evolution when such threats were prevalent and recurrent," Rakison said. "In other words, because snakes preyed on primates there would have been strong selection pressures to detect snakes quickly and to learn the appropriate response to them: flee, freeze or fight."

Others found the online exchange hisssterical, including the author of "The Octopus Museum."

"This is one of the top 3 coolest things that’s ever happened for me, thank you!" Shaughnessy said.

This is one of the top 3 coolest things that’s ever happened for me, thank you!

- Brenda Shaughnessy (@brendashaughnes) February 10, 2021

Shaughnessy’s book is a series of poems where octopuses become overlords to civilization and create a museum about humanity after humans have destroyed the environment. In the book, snakes are referenced in a poem called "Bakamonotako."

It reads, "But, after I returned home, I felt a little relief, a snake in the middle of its shedding, knowing there was still this cylinder of self left unsheddable."

As the mystery of the snake in the library book uncoils, another adage comes to mind. Emily Dickinson wrote, "There is no frigate like a book."

Perhaps, in this case, it applies too literally.

A small snake was recently found in a loaned library book. Image courtesy of Kate and Joey Neilsen

This is not the first time snakes have been in the news at CMU. Howie Choset’s snake-like robots creep through rubble or pipes and climb objects like poles or Jimmy Fallon’s leg. The multi-jointed robots have applications in urban search and rescue , nuclear power plant inspection and surgery.

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