Friday, July 29, 2011
The Second Tree from the Corner
This may have been the first grown-up book I ever read. I returned to it via the time machine of the Birth Year Reading Challenge, and I'm glad I did.
I'm not sure how old I was back then, but I distinctly remember recognizing that this book was not flavored with that "written with youth in mind" approach typical of juvenile fiction back in the day. (Not that I'm knocking that tone.) I may have chosen it because I was expecting another Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little from Mr. White. Perhaps the folks who put it in the Scholastic Reader catalog made the same mistake! In which case, we were all in for a surprise.
This book is dry and bracing, erudite and high-toned. It's clear why Mr. White was known for his contributions to The New Yorker. The humor is, by and large, the kind of low-humidity cleverness that you could miss completely if you don't manage to get in on the joke.
I remember closing the covers many moons ago and thinking, "Hm. What just happened here?" I could tell it was grown-up humor and over my head, "adult" not because of risque content but from being non-obvious.
This time I got it. There are some pleasures in growing older, and understanding these stories is one of them. Apparently my Lit Geek tendency has matured over time.
The author is the Mr. White of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style fame, and there's some of that tone here, too. He is certainly deft with his word choices and economy of expression, which is not to say he doesn't know how to pour it on when the occasion calls for it, both with words and wit. His subjects range from futuristic and nightmarish short stories to open letters of slicing, charming sarcasm to literary take-offs to lyrical, thoughtful sketches of country life. It's a lean and varied treasure trove.
I actually had trouble picking an excerpt, there being many good ones to choose from. I settled on the one I enjoyed the most, pure and simple. (I purposely disqualified another of my favorites, the Hemingway take-off, "Across the Street and into the Grill." You'll just have to read it yourself.)
From "A Classic Waits for Me" ("With apologies to Walt Whitman, plus a trial membership in the Classics Club"):
A classic waits for me, it contains all, nothing is lacking,
Yet all were lacking if taste were lacking, or if the endorsement of the right man were lacking,
O clublife, and the pleasures of membership,
O volumes for sheer fascination unrivalled.
Into an armchair endlessly rocking,
Walter J. Black, my president,
I, freely invited, cordially welcomed to membership,
My arm around John Kieran, Pearl S. Buck,
My taste in books guarded by the spirits of William Lyon Phekps, Hendrik Willem von Loon
(From your memories, sad brothers, from the fitful risings and callings I heard),
I to the classics devoted, brother of rough mechanics, beauty-parlor technicians, spot welders, radio-program directors
(It is not necessary to have a higher education to appreciate these books),
I, connoisseur of good reading, friend of connoisseurs of good reading everywhere,
I, not obligated to take any specific number of books, free to reject any volume, perfectly free to reject Montaigne, Erasmus, Milton,
I, in perfect health except for a slight cold, pressed for time, having only a few more years to live,
Now celebrate this opportunity.