Category: books

Charlotte’ Web Day

I am reading Charlotte’s Web, the classic E. B. White children’s novel, to my kids for about the 10th time. I don’t know if it is the 10th time or not. After about four readings I lost track. Let’s just say it is as familiar to me now as any book I have ever read.

I mention this book today because tomorrow, September 7, is a significant day in the story. It is the day when Wilbur wins his medal, when he cajoles and bargains with Templeton to save Charlotte’s egg sac, and he leaves Charlotte alone, at the Fair, where she will die.

The book is 60 years old, the best-selling children’s book of all time (according to Wikipedia), and though I have now read it more times than I can keep track of, I do not tire of it. Garth Williams’ illustrations still amuse and enlighten. White’s prose still sparkles. I still cry at the end, which my children did not understand the first few times but they do now. Malcolm swears off bacon for a few weeks after each reading.

So I hereby declare September 7 to be Charlotte’s Web Day.

Here are some quotes I love.

“I was just thinking,” said the spider, “that people are very gullible.”
“What does ‘gullible’ mean?”
“Easy to fool,” said Charlotte.
“That’s a mercy,” replied Wilbur, and he lay down in the shade of his fence and went fast asleep.
“Have you heard about the words that appeared in the spider’s web?” asked Mrs. Arable nervously.
“Yes,” replied the doctor.
“Well, do you understand it?” asked Mrs. Arable.
“Understand what?”
“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”
“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year–the days when summer is changing into fall–the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
“We can’t tell what may happen at the Fair Grounds. Somebody’s got to go along who knows how to write.”
— Charlotte

As my friend Eric likes to quote:

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

Here’s to you, Charlotte.

Ziggurat

Not a book but a short story in the latest issue of the New Yorker.

I usually like the fiction pieces in the NY but this particular story, in its surrealism, seemed to tell me a truth I already knew but had forgotten. I immediately sat down to google Stephen O’Connor (the author) to find out more. He sounds like a compelling person.

The religious nature of the story continues a recent trend in NY fiction. Last week’s story was also very compelling, a kind of Flannery O’Connor-esque morality tale. O’Connor. There’s another trend. I expect next week’s fiction piece to have an O’Connor connection as well.

Speaking of New Yorker threads, has anyone else noticed the subtle vocabulary threads in each issue, where a single uncommon word might appear in multiple pieces in the issue? The editors must enjoy finding those connections in their submissions.

Sensual Orthodoxy

I just looked over the history of the books section of this blog and find it fairly representative that most of the entries date from 2005, around the time I was in library school and my first child was a baby. Since that time I’ve become busy as a parent and breadwinner and have found my time for book-reading greatly diminished. Or perhaps my appetite for reading and writing here is diminished.

Instead, I’ve become an avid New Yorker reader, thanks to the gift from my wife of a multi-year subscription. As my friend Russell said to me yesterday, it’s amazing that they can publish an issue every week, with such depth and breadth of quality writing. I laugh, cry, ponder and hmmmm my way through each issue and am grateful for its regularity.

But I am returning to books, and I’ll be ruminating and reviewing here a bit as I stretch out into a summer of reading.

My friend Debbie is a writer and pastor. She published her first book of sermons about five years ago, and though I’ve had my signed copy on the shelf in my office since then, I’ve been slow to pick it up. That’s no reflection on the quality of the writing or thinking in the book; it’s more a reflection of the fact that I had already heard many of the sermons delivered from the pulpit and around the time the book came out, I was ready to take a break from church and theology and religion. (Why I was ready to take a break would fill many pages, but I’m not inclined to write it down.)

But the last six months or so I have felt more hopeful, despite the woe in the world, and revisiting Debbie’s excellent sermons seemed timely. I am glad I did. I’m about four pieces in so far, and already have heard things I don’t remember hearing the first time. Good writing is like that.

Of course, I approached the book with obvious biases. I knew I was going to like the sermons, since I like Debbie. I can hear her voice very clearly in my head as I read. The cadence, the tempo, the flurry of images. Very Debbie. Sort of a jazz aesthetic in her prose, the furious little runs of notes that culminate in an opening unto something new. Like poetry, sermons are written to be spoken aloud. I’m glad I have Debbie’s voice in my head so I can hear them as they were meant to be heard.

One of the things I’ve been enjoying is looking at the dates of each sermon and trying to remember who and where I was at the time. Take the one I just read, “A Potentially Gruesome Metaphor,” from February, 2001. I was out of town that winter, so I hadn’t heard this one before. I know the story well (Luke 5:1-11) where Jesus gets on Simon’s boat to preach, then tells him to throw over his nets into the deep and the size of the catch nearly capsizes the boat. The passage ends with Jesus saying that he will make the fishermen fishers of men. Like I said, I know the story well, but I found I didn’t know the text well. A good sermon opens up the cracks in the text. Debbie riffs for awhile on the fishing theme, on the monotone evangelical hijacking of the fishers of men image, and then she goes somewhere I didn’t expect. Which I like. “Put out into the deep and put down your nets for a catch,” says Jesus. And then when the fish come in in overwhelming abundance, Simon’s reaction seems, even for Simon, way overboard. “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man.” Like Dostoyevsky’s opening in Notes from Underground: “I am a sick man…I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man.” I am a sinful man.

Debbie then connects the deep with the unconscious in a nod to postmodern psychoanalysis and sheds some light on Simon’s reaction, then offers her listener the chance to empathize:

Jesus in the same boat as you, next to you, sitting on your fish: what’s been hauled up from the absolute darkest scariest place anyone ever imagined, knee deep in sardines, catfish on his lap, traces of the depths (your depths), the smell of fish on his hands. You’re both on the verge of being buried by this unbelievably large catch….But Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.”

Debbie prayed at my wedding. The other officiant at my wedding was Doug Frank. Doug said to me once, there are only two things in life: fear and trust. Everything comes back to which of those two things you are living out of.

I think about what Doug told me just about every day. Now I have Debbie’s wonderful image of fish-laden Jesus as well. Trust. Do not be afraid. Sure, the present circumstances stink, but do not be afraid.

Target Market

More fun spam from Amazon’s usually accurate marketing machine. Quoted here verbatim:

We’ve noticed that customers who have purchased or rated “MySQL and Perl for the Web (Landmark)” by Paul DuBois have also purchased “Designer Dogs: Portraits and Profiles of Popular New Crossbreeds” by Caroline Coile.

If accurate, I don’t know what that says about the kind of people who buy MySQL/Perl books. Or dog books. I don’t own a dog. Perhaps relatedly, I no longer use MySQL either.

Amazon

So if you have ever purchased anything via amazon.com you’ve likely gotten a targeted marketing email sometime later, based on the supposed demographic your purchase represents. Fair enough.

Interesting how their algorithm must work: I got an advert for home schooling based on the fact that I bought a book about parenting. The logic must be: anyone who cares enough to read up about good parenting practice will also be interested in home schooling their kid(s). Given the social trends, I guess that makes sense. Parents who abandon the public school system do so (at the very least) because they are actively trying to provide a decent education for their offspring.

But in this case, the target demographic missed me wide.