“Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy.”
“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Carl Sagan memorably marveled in the 11th episode of Cosmos. But in our day and age where we can no longer be sure what a book even is and the future of the book swells with uncertainty, what has become of that singular magic? Count on E. B. White — extraordinary essayist, heartfelt dog-lover, celebrator of New York, tireless champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — to sweep us into his time machine of timeless insight and take us straight to the heart of the issue. The Annotated Charlotte’s Web (public library) — which also gave us White’s rare illustrated manuscripts of his children’s classic — includes a short essay titled “The Future of Reading,” which White penned in 1951 and which touches on so much of what we grapple with today, half a century and a digital revolution later. It was originally published in the New Yorker and was eventually included in the 1954 collection of White’s essays, The Second Tree from the Corner.
In schools and colleges, in these audio-visual days, doubt has been raised as to the future of reading — whether the printed word is on its last legs. One college president has remarked that in fifty years “only five per cent of the people will be reading.” For this, of course, one must be prepared. But how prepare? To us it would seem that even if only one person out of a hundred and fifty million should continue as a reader, he would be the one worth saving, the nucleus around which to found a university. We think this not impossible person, this Last Reader, might very well stand in the same relation to the community as the queen bee to the colony of bees, and that the others would quite properly dedicate themselves wholly to his welfare, serving special food and building special accommodations. From his nuptial, or intellectual, flight would come the new race of men, linked perfectly with the long past by the unbroken chain of the intellect, to carry on the community. But it is more likely that our modern hive of bees, substituting a coaxial cable for spinal fluid, will try to perpetuate the rave through audio-visual devices, which ask no discipline of the mind and which are already giving the room the languor of an opium parlor.
How reminiscent this is of Virginia Woolf’s 1926 meditation on the moving image, in which she pondered the audiovisual mesmerism of cinema: “The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think.” White sees reading as the antidote to this mental resignation, likening the mutuality of its ecstasy to that of sex — something he knows a thing or two about:
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 by any other form of communication.
He concludes by urging for the conservation of reading, both in education and in culture at large:
It would be just as well, we think, if educators clung to this great phenomenon and did not get sidetracked, for although books and reading may at times have played too large a part in the educational process, that is not what is happening today. Indeed, there is very little true reading, and not nearly as much writing as one would suppose from the towering piles of pulpwood in the dooryards of our paper mills. Readers and writers are scarce, as are publishers and reporters. The reports we get nowadays are those of men who have not gone to the scene of the accident, which is always farther inside one’s own head than it is convenient to penetrate without galoshes.
The Annotated Charlotte’s Web contains several more of White’s unpublished short essays on reading and writing, which alone render it a treasure. Complement it with White on the role and responsibility of the writer, then revisit this living history of books.