Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reading: In Love with an Old Book - E.B. White's One Man's Meat

Once in a while we read a classic in my Advanced Memoir Workshop, and this June the group chose E.B. White's One Man's Meat. The book proved hard to get from the library (misplaced, borrowed, or in transit), and when I looked earlier this year, amazon only had a large-print edition which I know I cannot read, so I decided to buy it used. After all, it's an old book, so it would be fitting to have slightly yellowed pages.

I am delighted with this old book! First of all, the physical book is just so apt. I ended up with a former library book and what seems like an original edition from 1944. It's got the library stamps here and there, even the old card catalog slip sleeve in the back cover. The cover is bound in black cloth, and the spine was embossed in gold but is now hardly legible. For some reason I feel cool reading this book, especially when I take it along to read while waiting for a doctor's appointment. It is simply different.

Even more though, I am delighted with its content. That E.B. White, the author of Charlotte's Web, one of the most celebrated American children's books, would be a great writer is, of course, no surprise. One Man's Meat is a collection of his monthly pieces published in Harper's Magazine from 1938 - 1943. That his observations on life as a coastal farmer in Maine, having moved there from New York City, would include some comedy, is no surprise either. He ends up, for instance, with dozens of eggs to dispose of every week, simply because he bought too many chicks on the advice that most of them wouldn't make it to adulthood, and then they all grow into super productive hens.

It is surprising, however, how strangely up-to-date and relevant to our times his thoughts can be. Right in the very first essay "Removal," written in July 1938, he talks about how "television is going to be the test of the modern world." He goes on:

"Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound 'effects' are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye's range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote."

Tell me, does this not read like an assessment of the age of the Internet and the iPhone?


  1. "Television . . . will advertise the Elsewhere." Perfect description. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Writers are always and forever in touch with the primary and the near rather than the secondary and remote. That's what's in our minds all day, every day. Others would be blessed were they to be imprisoned as we are. That's going to be my new Facebook status today.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Some people are wise beyond their times. :)

  4. Wise people transcend time. Great post!

  5. One of my favorites! There are so many good things in it. Like when he makes fun of himself, a lot, for farming, for walking around carrying a napkin in the barnyard and imitating young roosters learning to crow . . .

  6. vvdenman - we're advertising the Elswhere even more these days, aren't we?

    Diane - nice insight, yes!

    Kelly - indeed they are.

    Julie Hedlund - indeed!

    richardgilbert - yes, that rooster scene is hilarious!