Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On E.B White

I've had a copy of Essays of E.B. White on my shelf for years, product of a foray into some secondhand bookstore or a gift (the price tag was clipped) from someone I don't remember. The other night, a week into a cold that turned into bronchitis and four days spent mostly in bed, I took it down.

Of course, I'd read Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little to my son. The Elements of Style, which White revised and edited from a book self-published by one of his college English teachers, has bee on my writing desk for years.
Yet, though I'd known White wrote for the New Yorker for some 60 years and was aware of his reputation as an essayist, somehow I'd managed never to read any of them.

It's enough to say that over the last few says I've been making up for lost time. The picture of White on the dustjacket shows a man with thinning white hair and a sparse mustache. Though he stands outside in the snow, he wears only a tweed jacket. He looks straight at the camera, honest, inquisitive, straightforward.

Which sums up his essays. They're leisurely paced without being boring, erudite, witty, and charming, entertaining without being frivolous. One of the strengths of his prose is its authority, something too many of today's writers confuse with snarkiness. White is never that, though from time to time, he allows himself a sentence like, "And if the surf hath lost its savor, wherewith shall we be surfeited?," on why he quit going to a certain Florida beach after the sand dunes were leveled.

I know nothing about how White actually wrote, whether he used pen, pencil, or typewriter. Something about the prose makes me think he used a typewriter, an old portable manual typewriter of the kind foreign correspondents used to carry in the movies. The prose has the thought-out rhythms of the pre-computer age, each word burnished and its place in the sentence ruminated upon before the fingers touched the keys to deliver the finality of black ink on white paper.

It's always dangerous to speculate about what writers were like, but White seems a decent man in his picture, an impression sustained by "Bedfellows," the essay I finished before bed last night. In it, White remembers Fred, a long-gone dachshund, and muses on two articles and a book by three Democratic politicians. "I take Democrats to bed with me for lack of a dachshund," he explains, "although as a matter of fact on occasions like this I am almost certain to be visited by the ghost of Fred, my dash-hound everlasting, dead these many years."

"Bedfellows" was written in 1956, but it could have been written yesterday. White skeptically reports Truman's complaints that the "Republican-controlled press" was hostile to his 1948 candidacy, lied about the facts, and refused to report on his campaign. He muses about Cold War "loyalty-security procedures," and he balefully contemplates a statement by then-president Eisenhower (there's also a Republican in the bed) that "most Americans are motivated . . . by religious faith" because of the implication that "religious faith is a condition . . . of the democratic life."

"This," White concludes, "is just wrong," continuing, "I distrust the slightest hint of a standard for political rectitude, knowing that it will open the way for persons in authority to set arbitrary standards of human behavior."

Like George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," this is one of those essays I'd like to send to certain persons in authority.

So Many Books. . .

For years I worked as an editor for the book section of a newspaper. . . back in the good old days when newspapers had book sections. There were many things to like about the job--the chance to meet and talk to famous writers; the camaraderie of spending the day with other people who thought books were important--but perhaps the best perk was getting to take home as many books as I wanted.

It was also the worst thing about working for the section. Years since committing my last crime against literature (i.e., writing my last book review), I find myself with hundreds--perhaps even thousands--of books I've never read. I'll probably never read most of them: So many books, so little time, as we used to say, contemplating the tens of thousands that arrived each year from publishers.

To make matters worse, I used to go to at least two or three used book sales a year, in addition to regularly frequenting any number of secondhand book stores. I don't go to many book sales anymore, finding it too disheartening to contemplate the volume of product by purveyors of assembly-line fiction--"writers" like Stephen King, David Baldacci, and James North Patterson.

There's something depressing about the stacks of BSOs (book-shaped objects), which everyone couldn't wait to get a few months before and then discovered there was no point keeping. There ought to be a law requiring a deposit when you buy BSOs; that way, there'd be incentive to return them to the store after you'd done using them.

Nowadays, I go to a book sale every other year. Last year, I tried the one run by the McLean chapter of the American Association of University Women. It was good enough to make me consider returning to my old habits, only this year with a shopping cart if I buy as many books and records as I did last year.

I'd also like a barcode reader, like the one I've seen people with at other sales. That way I could avoid getting copies of books I already have. For years, I could never remember whether I owned The Journals of Andre Gide, so whenever I ran across a set at a sale, I'd buy them. By the time I realized I was never going to read them, I owned three or four sets.

Friday, May 14, 2010

New Wheels

So, after we got back from a five-day bicycle trip in Arizona, I promised myself I'd get a new bike to replace or supplement the bottom-of-the-line Trek 820 mountain bike I've been riding since last spring.

The Trek was supposed to be my wife's, one of the premiums she could choose from as a reward for working 10 years for the same company. But, she's already got two bikes--a really nice Jamis road bike she rides 20 or so miles to work, and a folding model she won in a contest--so she let me have the Trek.

I rode it almost every Sunday last summer with my son when we went out on an unpaved trail a few miles from our house. I even put a rack on it and used it to run errands to the grocery store and to get to and from the Metro.

The first quarter-mile or so on the street or paved trail was always torture. The Trek has a steel frame and fat mountain bike tires and it must weigh at least 35 pounds. Until I get going, I feel every pound!

Over the past two weeks, I visited six bike stores and rode different bikes made by Trek, Marin, Jamis, and Cannondale. I liked a Cannondale, though it was the wrong size. The Jamis was the right size, but didn't feel quite right. And while the Trek and Marin were adequate, each was missing something I couldn't quite articulate, though I could feel its absence.

I'd all but decided to go with the Jamis when I found a store that had a Cannondale Quick CX Ultra in the right size.

It was love at first ride.

The folks at the bike shop didn't have one they could sell me off the floor, but they're having one shipped from their other store, and installing a new handlebar stem, new grips, and a trip computer.

I'll take the subway to the bike shop when it's ready on Tuesday, then ride it home through Arlington and on the Custis and W&OD trails.

I can't wait.