The Comfort and Chill: E.B. White and the iPad
I brought my E. B. White books home today, a tidy little stack that is now nestled on the shelf next to my in-home office. Writings from The New Yorker, One Man’s Meat, his Collected Letters, a biography and, of course, The Elements of Style. The books had been at my downtown business office where they were a comfort as I built a respectable little consulting business based on words and ideas.
Though my corporate and government clients never knew it, White’s style and pithy advice served me well in writing ad copy, corporate mantras, client newsletters and annual reports. While editing the gawdawful constructs of committees, one does well to remember White’s advice to “choose a suitable design and hold to it” or, simply, “omit needless words.”
In a recent conversation with a friend, I mentioned White’s influence and my friend was surprised to learn that White had written anything other than Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. So it is with authors, with people, with life. We become known by one characteristic. In a busy and complex world, we all turn the flesh and blood realities of those we know into cardboard characters.
Over a decade ago, I was a freelance columnist in the local paper and to this day many around town still think of me as ‘a newspaper man.’ My neighbour two doors down probably sees me walking down the street in the morning and thinks, ‘there goes Daniel, off to his job at The Advocate.’ I watch others’ comings and goings with the same simple ignorance.
E.B. White was the kind of person, the kind of writer, who watched life with a quiet, attentive and steady eye. He then selected from those observations with care and crafted them into coherent and charming articles and essays.
I am thinking of White as I observe the media speculation and fevered anticipation about the Apple iPad. The new electronic slate will no doubt change the way we read. And that will compel writers to change the way they write. Techie blogs are salivating over the anticipated ability to read an article where everything is hyperlinked – your account of a flight to see Aunt Mabel pops up with Mabel’s childhood photos, a DaVinci drawing “Design for a Flying Machine,” leading off to the Sistine Chapel and video showing how Renaissance painters added bees wax to oil paints.
You see where I am going – it is a long way away from Aunt Mabel.
This is the technological imperative at work. White wrote regular pieces for The New Yorker, benefitting from an era when the contemplative style of a literary magazine was meaningful and enjoyed broad appeal. His penchant for keenly crafted tales (non-fiction tales, mostly, but tales nonetheless) fit the linear text of the medium. People read his pieces, savoured them, came back (I have to believe) to read them again, on the weekend, perhaps puffing on a pipe and sipping some brandy.
The new iPad writing will be stimulating, liberating, exciting and complex. Writers will have to think and work in multiple media simultaneously. It will in many ways be an intellectual step beyond more linear literature. Deconstructed composition, beyond the tyranny of authorial authority.
And you know what I am going to say next. It will also be a bit unfortunate because as with all changes it will leave some very, very good things neglected at the side of the road.
The writer will, absolutely, lose influence and control over the work. Not all influence and not all control. But a great deal of the beauty in “Once More to the Lake” or “A Week in November” is in walking along with a master guide. Like a walk down a path with a birder, perhaps at his or her shoulder or half a step behind, looking where she looks, hearing what he hears. Learning to hear the delightful descending trill of the Canyon Wren, which you had never before noticed. And at the end of walk realizing how gently, how firmly, how lovingly that guide brought you through the bush.
That’s what E.B. White did in his essays. I like to have them on my shelf. I like to reach over and touch them, to crack a book and let it lead me.
This is, of course, a form of nostalgia. White himself wrote great nostalgia but it was nostalgia with a hard and real edge. He saw that we go soft around the edges when we look back, that doing so warms us, but that we always return to a colder reality. When we pause to look back we experience momentary comfort but also, to quote the last words of his best known essay, “…the chill of death.”