E.B. White was quite the clever fellow. Without him, that beloved wee style guide would be known as simply “Strunk,” which sounds like what happens if you drink too many shandies. Without E.B. White, we would have no Charlotte’s Web and the world would be a far drier-eyed place, which in turn would lead to hardened hearts and Republicans.
But E.B. White was also a superb essayist who wrote with precision and passion on countless topics. Here he is on reading:
Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy. As in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading – the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequalled in any other form of communication.
Whoa! Who knew E.B. White was so hot! I bet when he was writing for The New Yorker they had to mail out the issues with complimentary condoms (or as they called them back then, “subway transfers”).
Hot, yes, but so old-fashioned. Like sex, reading is no longer a private act between two concentrating adults. Reading has become something else to share with the voyeurs – and may or may not involve handcuffs.
A year ago, I created a Facebook photo album in which I posted images of the books I was currently reading, offering the occasional opinion and eliciting the opinions of others. It was like Goodreads for people who had never heard of Goodreads, and by “people” I mean “me.”
Of 42 books started, I finished all but three. (Sorry, Albert Brooks, I love your films but 2030 was like a single raisin sitting in a giant glass bowl – dry and obvious.) Of those unfinished three, I have relegated one to the bathroom where I will make it my duty to read it with regularity.
Thirteen were e-books, a format I have no quibble with other than making it difficult to flip back a few pages to remind yourself who snuffed the stewardess in Sausalito. (Spoiler: it was Sue!)
My Kindle also doesn’t show the author or title on the “page,” so there were times when I forgot who or what I was reading – although I might have been strunk at the time.
And covers. E-books are doing to cover art what CDs did to LPs, not just shrinking them but reducing their cultural impact. I felt my little Facebook album was a way of celebrating literary design.
The intimate act of reading became a sort of exhibitionism, exposing my tastes, unzipping my preferences and flashing my fetish for novels about sad, middle-aged men.
On the other, I felt a twinge of lowbrow shame for reading something as popular as Gone Girl, even though it turned out to be twisted, delicious fun.
Revealing my reading even affected the timing of my books. Over the summer, I purchased a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace, who I had been wanting to read for some time. But then Foster Wallace was in the news due to an ongoing feud with Bret Easton Ellis, a feud that taught me two things: a) authors can have feuds even when they’re dead, and b) thrice-named authors can be great big jerks. I ended up avoiding the collection for a few weeks because I didn’t want to seem like a media-driven trendoid. I did eventually read it, to which all I can say is: look at me, I’m reading David Foster Wallace!
Are there some books I’m simply not going to read because I don’t want people to know? Would I dare declare I’m reading Fifty Shades of Grey? Of course not! I’ll just sneak-read the copy that’s being furtively passed from house to house in this town like a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever in the hallways of Holy Clearasil Junior High circa 1979.
Perhaps the worst symptom of this exercise in licentious literacy, as with most things in these over-sharing times, is the self-delusion that anyone really cares.
To put an end to all this self-conscious second-guessing, I’ve decided to shut down my photo album. It’s time to bring intimacy back to my reading and focus on what books are really for: pleasuring myself.
Do you like to watch? The 2012-13 Reading Peep Show is over here.