“Brian”, construction guru and possible flirt, breezed into town last week and loaned or possibly gave me another book. I say that he may have given it to me, because when I tried to return the last two books he loaned me, he insisted I keep them. This is a guy who reads as much as, if not more than, Fakename and spends his spare time hanging around used bookstores. He informed me that there are two really good establishments of that ilk right here in Tallahassee, and proceeded to give me directions to both. While I listened politely, I informed him at the end that I didn’t need to know, since I get all my books from the library. Whereupon he pronounced that I am even cheaper than he is. Aw shucks, Brian. No need to get all flowery with the compliments.
The new (used) book is Essays of E.B. White. I can’t say I was exactly thrilled. I hate short stories, and an essay to me sounds like a short story, only worse. But again, I politely accepted and began to read it, since I feel I owe it to the loaner/giver to at least give it my best shot. Prior to beginning the book, here is everything I knew about E.B. White: he wrote Charlotte’s Web. Which I didn’t even read. I did see the 2006 movie remake which was excellent beyond words and starred the ubiquitous Dakota Fanning, who is fabulous and deserves every bit of the overexposure she gets.
(Side note: “Brian” argues that Stuart Little, which E.B. White also wrote is a far better book and that it made a great movie. He refuses, on principle, to see the movie of Charlotte’s Web, since he claims there is no way to do the book justice in a movie. Au contraire, Brian. As soon as our relationship progresses to that level, I plan to tie you up, force your eyelids open with toothpicks, and make you watch the movie. )
Where was I? Oh yes, a book. So since my only familiarity with E.B. White was seeing the movie, I had no idea that he was an absolute literary giant of his time. He wrote his first article for The New Yorker in 1925 and became an editor and contributor, apparently until his death in 1985. Source: the ever dubious Wikipedia.
So I began to read the book, and I was hooked from the first paragraph of his Foreward, which I hereby reproduce without permission: “The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest….Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” In the second paragraph, he continues: “A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence.” Why did this grab me so? Substitute “blog” for “essay” and “blogger” for “essayists”. See what I mean? We are all “essayists” now; the only difference between us and E.B. White is that few of us, if any, possess White’s insight, gentle humor, and skill with language. Reading him you realize he’s a guy you wish you had had the opportunity to meet in person. Alas, we are 24 years too late.
The book is divided into essays by setting: The Farm, The Planet, The City, Florida, Memories, Diversions and Obsessions, and finally Books, Men, And Writing. All are essays he wrote between 1934 and 1977, when the book was published. I’ve finished The Farm and am now on the last essay in The Planet. In this essay, “Unity” he writes of being sick in bed with three Democrats and the ghost, more or less, of his cantankerous faux and long-dead Dachshund Fred. One of the Democrats is Harry Truman, who despite winning re-election in 1948, whined about his ill-treatment by the “Republican-controlled press”. Is that funny or what? The more things change…
But my favorite so far is “The Geese”, the last entry in The Farm, written in 1971, when White himself was 71 years old. To condense, White has an old gander who gets his ass kicked by a younger gander, and slinks off into the pasture to nurse his wounds so to speak. White writes: “When he reached the pasture bars, he hesitated, then painfully squatted and eased himself under the bottom bar and into the pasture, where he sat down on the cropped sward in the bright sun. I felt very deeply his sorrow and his defeat. As things go in the animal kingdom, he is about my age, and when he lowered himself to creep under the bar, I could feel in my own bones his pain at bending down so far.” At the end, the old gander returns to the pen, where he watches through the gate as the young gander cavorts with the older gander’s (former) wife and the goslings he fathered. White ends with, “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day.”
The pleasure I feel when I read White’s words is almost physical. He makes me smile, or laugh out loud in some cases, or else I’m brought to tears. This is one of the only books I’ve ever read that I would re-read. I hope I get to keep it.