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JKS

Inside a Dog

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."

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Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures
Mary Ruefle

Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web - E.B. White, Garth Williams, Rosemary Wells Ah, a classic we've read here two times already is about to get a third run through. Tried to start Ella Enchanted, but somehow, that was not going on.

My review from some time ago:

There are a number of gaps in my childhood reading — things I wish I’d read when I was younger (or things I wish had been read to me, like Shel Silverstein, for instance). One of the best things about being a parent is catching up on these things and rectifying those mistakes for your own children. The first time I ever read Where the Wild Things Are (late last year) will stay with me for a long, long time because it is very, very good, the best thing Maurice Sendak has ever done. I should also have liked to have been introduced to Roald Dahl and Kurt Vonnegut at a much younger age.

The same can be said for Charlotte’s Web, which I got around to reading (or “reading” as my wife would have it) for the very first time just recently. As the middle book of the three children’s books White wrote, it is perhaps his best known and his best book. With the release of the film Stuart Little (bearing only some slight resemblance to the book; the sequel is far more faithful to White) that might change some. After all, how many kids want to watch an old modest cartoon pig from 1973 when they can watch a flashy live-action, talking mouse from 1999?

I didn’t know until afterwards that I’d read the books out of order and should have started with Stuart Little to get the full effect of White’s development as an author. His development as a children’s author is surprisingly dramatic. The first book has its charms and is wry and clever, yet its formlessness and rather aimless plot seems made up as White went along. The book ends and you wonder if that is all there is.

By comparison, Charlotte’s Web and his last children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan have a narrative wholeness and rounded completeness that makes the two of them more satisfying. In order to manage that, White found each book to be rather longer than the previous one. Stuart clocks in at 131 pages, Charlotte at 184, and Trumpet at 210. Had he continued writing children’s books, White might very well have come to Harry Potter sized epics in the end.

For anyone who grew up on a different planet, Charlotte’s Web tells the story of a little pig named Wilbur who befriends a spider named Charlotte. Eventually, Wilbur gets clued in that the farmer will one day slaughter and eat him, and to prevent this untimely end Charlotte spins webs with phrases in them like “Some Pig!” Even I knew that.

For a child reader, I suspect it is the friendship and the fun of farm animal interaction that might charm. As an adult, you see the keen eye for observation White brings to his story. Once you get past the miracle in the web, the behavior of the animals is sketched as animals do indeed act. The goose’s sort of hyperactive honking about, the rather dirty hoarding of the rat, the cows’ lowing indifference to everything. The brief scene in the beginning when Wilbur first escapes from his pen at Homer L. Zuckerman’s farm could almost be seen demonstrating the proper way to retrieve stray pigs.

As the goose honks out orders “Don’t just stand there, Wilbur! Dodge about, dodge about!…Skip around, run toward me, slip in and out, in and out, in and out! Make for the woods! Twist and turn!” and the hired man Lurvy dives for the errant pig, Mr. Zuckerman shows up, calmly “holding a pail of warm slops…. The smell was delicious warm milk, potato skins, wheat middlings, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and a popover left from Zuckerman’s breakfast.

“‘Pig, pig!’ said Mr. Zuckerman in a kind voice, and began walking slowly toward the barnyard, looking about him innocently, as if he didn’t know that a little white pig was following along behind him.”

White presents animal life on the farm matter-of-factly, and when the book was published (1952) it’s a fair bet that many more children were better acquainted with where their food comes from than nowadays. The notion of Wilbur as an entrée later on is seen as unfair but commonplace. Each of the three books tackles a specific aspect of growing up, and it falls to Charlotte’s Web to tackle the thorniest issue of them all, that of death. While the book begins with Wilbur’s temporary reprieve, and the rest of the book moves toward that notion as a more permanent institution, we simultaneously move toward acceptance of death as well. The lifespan of a spider isn’t a long one, only a year, and it is through this much smaller agency of mortality that White presents the idea in an acceptable miniature.

From what I thought I knew about E.B. White prior to listening to these books I rather expected a high, somewhat mousy voice, an earlier David Sedaris. Instead, White has a rather hard voice, East Coast flinty and nasal. He doesn’t go in much for individualized characteristics in his reading, and after over a year of nearly daily listening to audiobooks by professionals his style is a bit jarring. I quickly got used to it, though, and by book’s end it had taken on the reassuring prosaic quality of your gentleman farmer — which is undoubtedly what White was.