Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. Have you read it? If so, did you read it as a child or as an adult? In the foreword of the 60th anniversary edition, author Kate DiCamillo confesses she didn’t read it until she was 31 years old. The cover of the book scared her. But then “I was strong-armed into it by a writing teacher who held the book up as a miracle of storytelling. This teacher intoned the opening line of the book (Where’s Papa going with that ax?”) often and with passionate conviction. According to her, anyone who wanted to write must read Charlotte’s Web.”
DiCamillo quotes E.B. White: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”
She tells us about the things he loved–barns and pastures, dumps and fairgrounds, ponds and kitchens, pigs and sheep and geese and spiders and rain and monkey wrenches and Ferris wheels and people and seasons. And more.
You might say he even loved the New York Life Insurance Building–and the beauty in the building of it. He wrote about its rising for The New Yorker’s “The Talk of the Town” section in the March 17, 1928 issue. He titled the piece “The Ascension.” There is beauty in his first words. (My husband works in compliance for New York Life. That’s how I discovered this. Also, I’ve been begging to go see the building. I may have in the past, but I’ve forgotten.) The second Madison Square Garden was torn down to make room for it–615 feet high and 40 stories, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972.
From E.B. White:
“The memory of old Madison Square Garden still haunts the Square, but a very tangible and very beautiful building has arisen on the spot to dispel it. One of the stirring adventures of this windy Spring is to approach the still unfinished New York Life Insurance Building across the park, with the blue sky of morning for a backdrop. At first the tower, still a dark web [my bold–get it?] of steel, seems predominant, with the supporting structure gleaming white, rising tier by tier majestically. Then as you get nearer, the tower becomes lost to view behind the vast ramparts, which swim dizzily forward out of white clouds, and put you in your place.”
And then he writes.
“. . . we were inducted into an elevator made of a packing box, and hoisted twenty-three stories. The rest of the distance to the spidery [again, my bold] tower was covered afoot . . . To emerge, at last, on the hurricane deck, five hundred feet above reality . . .with the canvas guards of the scaffolding bellying like sails in the breeze–this was a dream and a delight.”
It’s a short, fun read if you can access it.
Every word of Charlotte’s Web, DiCamillo asserts, bears E.B. White’s belief that we will face “small and large glories and tragedies,” but if we love the world and keep our eyes open to its wonders, it will all be okay.
This is not a for-kids-only book. If you haven’t read it, this is the time to rush, rush, rush. Stop everything, and read it now.
First Words from Charlotte’s Web – Chapter 1
Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”
Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern’s sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father.
“Please don’t kill it!” she sobbed. “It’s unfair.”
Mr. Arable stopped walking.
“Fern,” he said gently, “you will have to learn to control yourself.”
“Control myself?” yelled Fern. “This is a matter of life and death, and you talk about controlling myself.” Tears ran down her cheeks and she took hold of the ax and tried to pull it out of her father’s hand.
“Fern,” said Mr. Arable. “I know more about raising a litter of pigs than you do. A weakling makes trouble. Now run along!”
Later in Chapter 9, after Wilbur tries to build a web and fails, Charlotte says, “You can’t spin a web, Wilbur, and I advise you to put the idea out of your mind. You lack two things needed for spinning a web . . . You lack spinnerets, and you lack know-how.”
She goes on to say, “Not many creatures can spin webs. Even men aren’t as good at it as spiders, although the think they’re pretty good, and they’ll try anything. Did you ever hear of the Queensborough Bridge?”
” . . . do you know how long it took men to build it? Eight whole years . . . I can make a web in a single evening.”
Wilbur asks what people catch on the bridge, and Charlotte says, “They don’t catch anything. They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there there is something better on the other side. If they’d hang head-down at the top of the thing and wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no–with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute . . . I stay put and wait for what comes.”
Are you a writer?
Have you read Charlotte’s Web?
What is your favorite line(s) from the book?