Wednesday, February 5, 2014

E.B. White on reading

Michael Sims
I am not quite finished with E.B. White, about whom I have written in a couple of recent posts. The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims, in addition to the comments by White about writing that I wrote about last week, contains some of his observations about reading. Here are two I would like to reflect upon.

1. "He (White) once described Walden as the only book he 'owned,' that others merely lived with him," Sims writes.

Others of us might put it a little differently. Some of us might say that we own some books, while certain other books own us. Others of us might say that most of our books are just temporary visitors, while others are permanent residents. Or we might say that some books are our friends, while others merely acquaintances.

However we think about it, all books are created equal, but some books, to paraphrase George Orwell, are more equal than others. Certain books speak to us in a way that others do not. Rebecca Mead has a new book called My Life in Middlemarch about her lifelong fascination with the George Eliot novel. There are probably many books in Mead's personal library. Middlemarch is the one she owns, the one that owns her, the one that's a permanent resident or, if you prefer, the one that is her best friend.

Most serious readers have books like that, likely books we found magical in our youth and that remain so years, even decades, later. I know I do.

2. White once described his feelings about visiting a bookstore as "the terrible excitement of so great a concentration of books in one place under one roof, each book wanting the completion of being read."

That partial sentence contains three ideas worth a comment:

The terrible excitement: Some people feel excitement when entering a clothing store, an electronics store, a casino, a ballpark, whatever. For book lovers, that excitement comes in bookstores and, perhaps, libraries. We probably even feel it when surrounded by our own home library.

So great a concentration of books in one place: Here's one reason for that excitement. Small bookstores can be wonderful, especially when they hold books you can't find everywhere else, but there's something compelling about large bookstores, those places where you can't possibly see everything in one visit. Like the stars in the night sky, all these books overwhelm us and leave us with a sense of awe.

Each book wanting the completion of being read: I like this idea, that no book can really be completed until it is read, and not just read by somebody else but by you. Each of us completes the writing of a book by reading it. Writers, like singers, dancers or actors, need their audience for completion.

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