A Book in the Mail

Yesterday I received in the mail a copy of Scott Elledge's biography of E.B. White from a graduate student friend of mine at Berkeley who had found the volume at a used book sale. Actually, he texted at least a month ago to ask if I would be interested in having the book and it arrived here in Kupang at least two weeks ago, but I have simply been procrastinating. The day before yesterday, I finally mustered up the energy and initiative to go pick it up from school, where the package was being held for me. But the administrative office was empty by the time I arrived at noon. "They've all gone home already," one of the other teachers explained. "Come back tomorrow morning at nine or ten o'clock," she said before pointing at my forearm and adding disapprovingly, as she does every time she sees me, "Your skin is getting dark!" It is a silly and, at this point, quite tired comment that gets less innocent the more often it is repeated. It also does not get any less annoying because it is summer vacation and I don't have to hear it at least every other day. If anything, it is even more annoying when it comes out of the blue on a quiet, July morning and interrupts me as I am just trying to go about my business and get done what I ought to have gotten done already.

At any rate, I did as I was told and retrieved the book yesterday morning at an earlier hour. It is now finally sitting on my desk where it belongs. I knew what I was getting all along and that it was something that I had wanted to read for quite a while. But opening the package and handling the object inside filled me with a totally fresh and unexpected feeling of anticipation and enthusiasm. It was as if I was getting excited for the first time all over again about something tremendously promising—something that had been tailor-made for my personal fulfillment and edification.

For one thing, I didn't know until I looked at the inside-back flap of the book jacket that the author, Mr. Scott Elledge, had himself been Goldwin Smith Professor of English (and later, Professor Emeritus) at Cornell University—my own and White's alma mater too. This link between the three of us—subject, biographer, and reader/admirer—feels fortuitous and makes me believe (or want to believe) that I will both receive anew and have recalled to me certain feelings and images and bits of wisdom that perhaps only fellow Cornellians can fully enjoy and appreciate. The exclusivity—the aura of prestige—is not the point. The feeling of shared experience and of communing in the memory of a place where we have all buried pieces of our hearts, is.

The inside-front cover confirms as much. The blurb reads: "In this book, which contains previously unpublished letters and New Yorker 'capsule essays' written by White, Scott Elledge describes the writer's childhood, his undergraduate career at Cornell, and the often difficult pre-New Yorker years when he struggled to find himself as a writer and a man." I myself am struggling to find myself as a writer and a man and have been since I discovered, slowly and painfully, at Cornell, that I was only a boy who hoped one day to deal with words. I hope to take some solace and derive some sense of spiritual companionship from the story of one who wandered that same path years before—some sense of being watched and guided from above.

It's also important and, I expect, instructive, that White's story is in fact an older one and that my youth and his are separated by almost a century. Time lends credibility—is proof of the reliability and integrity of the very thing that has withstood it. And these days, as I read The New Yorker and other "smart" publications, I sense only the anxiety of modernity, the fragmentation of the digital, interconnected world, and the despair that comes from our cultural hyperfocus on nothing but the loudest, the most extreme, the least average—a kind of neurosis that White seemed to have aligned himself against with every patient pen stroke and fiber of his being. Nobody seems to write anymore as he once did in his "Notes & Comment" column, or in the Harper's columns that would go on to comprise One Man's Meat, or about the same things—about big, worldly ideas, sure, but also always about physical objects and daily life and all the mundanities that define human existence everywhere. I don't yet know what is meant by a "capsule essay." But I know that I am always hungry for more of White's humble wisdom and eager to have him remind me of what is simple and good and true.

But perhaps what is most tantalizing about this object that I have received in the mail is its very, physical presence. Its being here, halfway across the globe, not just as a book, but as an artifact and capsule of meaning and memory. It has a navy, cloth-bound, hardcover and a rough-cut, deckle edge. The book jacket is a similar dark blue, with bold, off-white, serif-font lettering and worn, fraying edges. On the first blank page (the first book sale), in the bottom-left corner, is "2.50" in pencil. On the back of the last blank page (a later book sale), "7.50 bio-White"—also in pencil, but less shaky and smudged. And at the bottom of the title page, scrawled at a slant: "To Afton, Merry Christmas '94, Love, Bob & Joan." I have never wanted to know so desperately who three people were and what became of them, never wished so fervently that I could transport myself to a time and a place and see for myself the circumstances under which certain acts of giving and of leave-taking transpired. I cannot remember the last time I was so fascinated by the moment-to-moment history of a thing in our midst, so overcome by wistful longing for the retelling and preservation of it story, so aware of and enthralled by the passage of time, the colliding and interconnectedness of worlds.

Some secrets this book will never give up. Some things I will never learn from its pages. It promises other worlds though—just as rich and full of personality. It has begun to immerse me already, even without my having to open it or read a single word. On the front cover is a picture of the man himself, busily typing away in the floating, wooden writing cabin he kept docked in Allen Cove. The picture is clearly from a series of environmental portraits that the photographer Jill Krementz took—he is wearing the same shirt as in one of the other, more famous photographs from the set and the lighting is the same too. But in this one, which is taken up close and from a front-facing angle, I can see more of White's face and figure and in greater detail—the thinning hair, the wrinkles on his forehead, the criss-cross of his Gingham button-down, the watch, the glasses, the expression of concentration, the blur of his hand as he lifts it to type another word, or perhaps to slide the carriage-return lever back across to the right. I can hear the typewriter ding. I can smell the wood and the water. I can see my friend on a Berkeley street corner, scanning spines and titles and stopping at one. I can imagine him folding the cardboard and stepping out of the post office. It's all right there on the desk in front of me, half a world away.

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