There aren’t many books I’d call perfect, but Charlotte’s Web tops this elite list. I just finished reading it aloud for oh, I don’t know–the third time, maybe, this time to a very interested six year old and a squirrely three year old. No matter the audience, the story never gets old; in fact, I’d say that there are so many nuances about it that I am only now old enough to appreciate: the changing of the seasons, the fleetingness of childhood, the nature of friendship and loss.
What I really want to say about it, though, is this: E.B. White’s descriptions are beautiful, as in take-my-breath-away when I read them again after not having read them in a while. I just want to share a few of them here. This, from chapter two:
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell–as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.
The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood open to the breeze. The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in. And the whole thing was owned by Fern’s uncle, Homer L. Zuckerman.
This makes me want a barn like this, doesn’t it you? Reading an description like this, I take note of the diction and rhythm, the lists and imagery. Again, perfection. It makes me want to pay attention to every sentence. It makes me want to ferret out my copy of Strunk and White and actually read it for once.
Reading this description from chapter ten makes me long for a childhood I only had a glimpse of while playing with older cousins in my papaw’s barn, sliding down stacked bales of hay:
Mr. Zuckerman had the best swing in the county. It was a single long piece of heavy rope tied to the beam over the north doorway. At the bottom end of the rope was a fat knot to sit on. It was arranged so that you could swing without being pushed. You climbed a ladder to the hayloft. Then, holding the rope, you stood at the edge and looked down, and were scared and dizzy. Then you straddled the knot, so that it acted as a seat. Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope. Then you would drop down, down, down out of the sky and come sailing back into the barn almost into the hayloft, then sail out again (not quite so far this time), then in again (not quite so high), then out again, then in again, then out, then in; and then you’d jump off and fall down and let somebody else try it.
I’m terribly afraid of heights and just a big chicken to boot, but that description makes me want to swing on the Zuckerman swing.
Today’s reading of the last couple of chapters of Charlotte’s Web was well-timed, for a group of my friends did something incredibly kind for my family today. It occurred to me how these kindnesses, even small or anonymous ones, really do matter–they add up to something really beautiful. What a testimony to the power of friendship!
The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.
Ah, the poignancy of this story. I hope I never read it with jaded eyes. I’m glad I have at least one more chance to read it aloud.
Related posts at Hope Is the Word:
- My review of The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims
- “He’s appealing to your stomach, Wilbur!”
- Charlotte’s Web audiobook
**My copy of the book is one I received as a gift from my cousin on November 21, 1983, while I was in the hospital with a broken leg. What a treasure!