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An E.B. White extra
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Published Wednesday, July 11, 2012 @ 6:04 AM EDT
Jul 11 2012

Ira Handelsman, my high school English teacher, introduced me to the works of many authors who still influence me. The writer with the greatest impact- even more than James Thurber- was E.B. White, specifically due to this marvelously concise satire. Written in 1938, it's still relevant- and hysterical.

IRTNOG
by E.B. White

Along about 1920 it became apparent that more things were being written than people had time to read. That is to say, even if a man spent his entire time reading stories, articles, and news, as they appeared in books, magazines, and pamphlets, he fell behind. This was no fault of the reading public; on the contrary, readers made a real effort to keep pace with writers, and utilized every spare moment during their walking hours. They read while shaving in the morning and while waiting for trains and while riding on trains. They came to be a kind of tacit agreement among numbers of the reading public that when one person laid down the baton, someone else must pick it up; and so when a customer entered a barbershop, the barber would lay aside the Boston Evening Globe and the customer would pick up Judge; or when a customer appeared in a shoe-shining parlor, the bootblack would put away the racing form and the customer would open his briefcase and pull out The Sheik. So there was always somebody reading something. Motormen of trolley cars read while they waited on the switch. Errand boys read while walking from the corner of Thirty-ninth and Madison to the corner of Twenty-fifth and Broadway. Subway riders read constantly, even when they were in a crushed, upright position in which nobody could read his own paper but everyone could look over the next man s shoulder. People passing newsstands would pause for a second to read headlines. Men in the back seats of limousines, northbound on Lafayette Street in the evening, switched on tiny dome lights and read the Wall Street Journal. Women in semi-detached houses joined circulating libraries and read Vachel Lindsay while the baby was taking his nap.

There was a tremendous volume of staff that had to be read. Writing began to give off all sorts of by-products. Readers not only had to read the original works of a writer, but they also had to scan what the critics said, and they had to read the advertisements reprinting the favorable criticisms, and they had to read the book chat giving some rather odd piece of information about the writer such as that he could write only when he had a gingersnap in his mouth. It all took time. Writers gained steadily, and readers lost.

Then along came the Reader's Digest. That was a wonderful idea. It digested everything that was being written in leading magazine, and put new hope in the hearts of readers. Here, everybody thought, was the answer to the problem. Readers, badly discouraged by the rate they had been losing ground, took courage and set out once more to keep abreast of everything that was being written in the world. For a while they seemed to hold their own. But soon other digests and short cuts appeared, like Time, and The Best Short Stories of 1927, and the new Five-Foot Shelf, and Well's Outline of History, and Newsweek, and Fiction Parade. By 1939 there were one hundred and seventy-three digests, or short cuts, in America, and even if a man read nothing but digests of selected material, and read continuously, he couldn't keep up. It was obvious that something more concentrated than digests would have to come along to take up the slack.

It did. Someone conceived the idea of digesting the digests. He brought out a little publication called Pith, no bigger than your thumb. It was a digest of Reader's Digest, Time, Concise Spicy Tales, and the daily news summary of the New York Herald Tribune. Everything was so extremely condensed that a reader could absorb everything that was being published in the world in about forty-five minutes. It was a tremendous financial success, and of course other publications sprang up, aping it: one called Core, another called Nub, and a third called Nutshell. Nutshell folded up, because, an expert said, the name was too long; but half a dozen others sprang up to take its place, and for another short period readers enjoyed a breathing spell and managed to stay abreast of writers. In fact, at one juncture, soon after the appearance of Nub, some person of unsound business tendencies felt that the digest rage had been carried too far and that there would be room in the magazine field for a counterdigest, a publication devoted to restoring literary bulk. He raised some money and issued a huge thing called Amplifo, undigesting the digests. In the second issue the name had been changed to Regurgitans. The third issue never reached the stands. Pith and Core continued to gain, and became so extraordinarily profitable that hundreds of other digests of digests came into being. Again readers felt themselves slipping. Distillate came along, a superdigest which condensed a Hemingway novel to the single word "Bang!" and reduced a long article about the problem of the unruly child to the words "Hit him."

You would think that with such drastic condensation going on, the situation would have resolved itself and that an adjustment would have been set up between writer and reader. Unfortunately, writers still forged ahead. Digests and superdigests, because of their rich returns, became as numerous as the things digested. It was not until 1960, when a Stevens Tech graduate named Abe Shapiro stepped in with and immense ingenious formula, that a permanent balance was established between writers and readers. Shapiro was a sort of Einstein. He had read prodigiously; and as he thought back over all the things that he had ever read, he became convinced that it would be possible to express them in mathematical quintessence. He was positive that he could take everything that was written and published each day, and reduce it to a six-letter word. He worked out a secret formula and began posting daily bulletins, telling his result. Everything that had been written during the first day of his formula came down to the word IRTNOG. The second day, everything reduced to EFSITZ. People accepted these mathematical distillations; and strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely at all, people were thoroughly satisfied, which would lead one to believe that what readers really craved was not so much the contents of books, magazines, and papers as the assurance that they were not missing anything. Shapiro found that his bulletin board was inadequate, so he made a deal with a printer and issued a handbill at five o clock every afternoon, giving the Word of the Day. It caught hold instantly.

The effect on the populace was salutary. Readers, once they felt confident that they had one-hundred-per-cent coverage, were able to discard the unnatural habit of focusing their eyes on words every instant. Freed of the exhausting consequences of their hopeless race against writers, they found their health returning, along with a certain tranquility and a more poised way of living. There was a marked decrease in stomach ulcers, which, doctors said, had been the result of allowing the eye to jump nervously from one newspaper headline to another after a heavy meal. With the dwindling of reading, writing fell off. Forests which had been plundered for newsprint, grew tall again; droughts were unheard of; and people dwelt in slow comfort, in a green world.


Categories: E.B. White, Ira Handelsman


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Quotes of the day
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Published Wednesday, July 11, 2012 @ 6:03 AM EDT
Jul 11 2012

Quotes of the day- E.B. White:
 
E.B. White (July 11, 1899-October 1, 1985) was one of the most influential modern American essayists, largely through his work for the New Yorker magazine. He also wrote two children's classics (Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little) and revised William S. Strunk's The Elements of Style, widely used in college English courses. (Click for full article.)

A man who publishes his letters becomes a nudist- nothing shields him from the world's gaze except his bare skin. A writer, writing away, can always fix himself up to make himself more presentable, but a man who has written a letter is stuck with it for all time.

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.
(From Here is New York, 1949)

Americans are willing to go to enormous trouble and expense defending their principles with arms, very little trouble and expense advocating them with words.

An editor is a person who knows more about writing than writers do but who has escaped the terrible desire to write.

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the one thing left to us in a bad time.

Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand.

Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.

Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.

Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.

His words leap across rivers and mountains, but his thoughts are still only six inches long.

Home was quite a place when people stayed there.

Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.

Humor plays close to the big, hot fire which is Truth.

I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear.

I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially.

I can only assume that your editorial writer tripped over the First Amendment and thought it was the office cat.

I don't know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.

I have occasionally had the exquisite thrill of putting my finger on a little capsule of truth, and heard it give the faint squeak of mortality under my pressure.

I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.

I remember what it is like to be in love before any of love’s complexities or realities or disturbances has entered in, to dilute its splendor and challenge its perfection.

I see nothing in space as promising as the view from a Ferris wheel.

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.

I would really rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else.

If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world, and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

In a free country it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty.

In every queen there's a touch of floozy.

It is easier for a man to be loyal to his club than to his planet; the bylaws are shorter, and he is personally acquainted with the other members.

Life is like writing with a pen. You can cross out your past but you can't erase it.

Life's meaning has always eluded me and I guess it always will. But I love it just the same.

Loneliness is a strange gift.

Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.

Necessity first mothered invention. Now invention has little ones of her own, and they look just like grandma.

No man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright.

No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

Old age is a special problem for me because I've never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself- a lad of about 19.

One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy.

People are, if anything, more touchy about being thought silly than they are about being thought unjust.

Semi-colons only prove that the author has been to college.

Television hangs on the questionable theory that whatever happens anywhere should be sensed everywhere. If everyone is going to be able to see everything, in the long run all sights may lose whatever rarity value they once possessed, and it may well turn out that people, being able to see and hear practically everything, will be specially interested in almost nothing.

The bonus is really one of the great give-aways in business enterprise. It is the annual salve applied to the conscience of the rich and the wounds of the poor.

The first day of spring was once the time for taking the young virgins into the fields, there in dalliance to set an example in fertility for Nature to follow. Now we just set the clock an hour ahead and change the oil in the crankcase.

The future, wave or no wave, seems to me no unified dream but a mince pie, long in the baking, never quite done.

The time not to become a father is eighteen years before a war.

The trouble with the profit system has always been that it was highly unprofitable to most people.

To achieve style, begin by affecting none.

We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry.

Whatever else an American believes or disbelieves about himself, he is absolutely sure he has a sense of humor.

When an American family becomes separated from its toothbrushes and combs and pajamas for a few hours it considers that it has had quite an adventure.

When I get sick of what men do, I have only to walk a few steps in another direction to see what spiders do. Or what the weather does. This sustains me very well indeed.

When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.

Writing is both mask and unveiling.


Categories: E.B. White, Quotes of the day


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