A book and its cover
Some of the essays were incredibly straightforward and relevant today. Written 70 years ago, the points they make about our automobile society, the changes in regional language from one state to another (New York to Maine, in White's case) or even his insanely stressful "to do" list, called "Memorandum" are all still relevant. His clear competence as a professional--both as a writer and his adaptation to life on a farm were all well-worth reflecting on because he combined two things I often think are well-suited to one another. (The professor keeps steering us towards buying houses "in town" because he thinks I'd acquire an awful lot of sheep, llamas, goats, etc. in a hurry if I had a house in the country. My imagined garden and orchard would also be enormous. It's enough to scare a person into buying houses near lots of bus routes, I suspect.)
White's essay, "Memorandum" reminded me of my most scattered, stressed-out "to do" list and how much there is always left to get done at the end. I read that one before bed and you can bet I didn't sleep much afterwards!
I also felt stimulated by this book in a way that I haven't been lately. I admit that I've lately been guilty of reading lightweight British mysteries and other novels that pass the time without too much thought required. In part, I figured I was giving myself a brain break while my body works overtime. In part, I was just being lazy during a time when I do have plenty of time to read..and think. Reading these essays required me to do research as I went along, reading more about E.B. White, his life, his family members and his times.
I was reminded, this past summer, by the heavyweight books that our resident student took on as her leisure time reading. I too read depressing/intellectual/inspiring/well-written/classics (etc) for fun when I was 20, and she did too. Recently when I spoke to her on the phone, I heard from her that her favorite book of the summer was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.
Really? I asked her. Did you buy that here or bring it with you from home? Or did you borrow it from our shelves?
Oh, she said, I borrowed it....
and I laughed, because the copy she'd read was perfect for a knitter. I'd read it so many times (at about her age) that the spine was perfectly cracked, the book lay flat, and any knitter could read it slowly, while knitting, over and over again. It was also one of my favorites at that time of life. These days, I don't push myself as often to read books about big ideas, and I should.
Reflecting on these essays made me ponder a few things.
1) Some writers are lifelong companions. Charlotte's Web was one of my favorite books as a kid. My mother studied that book in her children's literature class in college. My father cried as he read it to me, and I've read it over and over. I'm still distraught that I seem to have misplaced my mother's copy of The Elements of Style. In any case, I bought another, as it is a reference book I can't teach writing without...and well, you get my point.
2) While I write lots of different things, I think at heart I am most fond of the essay. The problem with this is that being an essayist is no longer so profitable. I think the closest I come to getting to write essays all the time is on the blog--and I don't earn anything here. I've thought over that one long and hard and have yet to find good solutions to that. I'm hoping that some day I'll make the big time with an essay I sell, but so far, at $100 or less for most of the ones I sell, I'll have to stick to other kinds of writing to make my way in the world.
3) I am still very fond of books. That is, actual books rather than electronic ones. I don't have an e-reader of any kind and have debated long and hard over whether I need one. The gadgetry of it is tempting but they are quite pricey for someone who reads as much as I do. Usually, I conclude it's safer NOT to have one when I spill tea at breakfast while reading, or when I notice one of the dogs sidling up and licking a book on the coffee table. Neither would be ideal for an e-reader, I'd imagine.
However, it would also keep me from learning about the history of the actual book in my hands. (Check out the photos to see these details) My copy of One Man's Meat was purchased in 1963 for the Owensboro, Kentucky High School Library. I found this book to be fairly sophisticated, so while I am sure that somebody enjoyed it while it spent 35 years there, I was surprised to see it spent so long in a high school library! I might have read it in high school but I'm not sure what I would have gotten out of it at that time...
It was discarded in November of 1998 (a few months after the professor and I got married). It next turned up at a Bowling Green, Kentucky public library book sale sometime between 2003 and 2009, since I must have bought it sometime in there. I suspect I bought it sometime in the range of 2007-2009 but hadn't yet gotten to reading it. I moved it to Canada with me...and finally enjoyed its well-cracked spine and soft paper over the past few months.
That's just a few thoughts on this wonderful essay collection. I'm sure I'll think back on it over and over again over the coming months or years. I may have to read it again. If I teach a writing class where it's relevant, I might have to use one of these essays--each one is a gem from which I (and my students) could learn a great deal.
If you're a reader and you like essays, do check it out. It's well worth it!