Instead of getting any work done this morning, I've been through the house at least three times looking for a book. I just saw it the other day, so I know it hasn't actually disappeared, and yet, it's nowhere.
I can tell you where it's supposed to be, though. It's supposed to be on my desk right on top of the volume of collected poems by Billy Collins and under Sharon Creech's Love That Dog and next to an Ogden Nash book and just in front of Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity. These are the books I keep on my desk so that when I need a little burst of inspiration I can pick one up and remember how writing is supposed to look and feel and sound.
But the one I'm missing is the most of important of all. Or, at least, the most important for today. It's a collection of essays by EB White, so droll and smart and cranky and wonderful, I can lose myself in them for hours – really, for days. In some of the essays, he talks about living on his farm and in others he talks of the city. He talks of politics, both minutely local and terrifyingly large. He talks about his pup, Fred, and about a raccoon mama and about pigs and birds and wood-burning stoves. Everything he talks about is with a smidge of whimsy and a huge dollop of intelligence, and often there's a nice sprinkling of a hidden kind of lovely melancholy. Every time I pull that book out and read something I feel like my heart and my brain both grow three sizes.
And now it's lost.
I checked the pile of books by my bed. I checked the pile in the bathroom. I checked the two piles in my sons' room. I checked the upstairs bookshelves and the downstairs bookshelves. I checked the stack of books by the window in the kitchen and the stack under the side table in the living room. I checked the niche in the wall where I sometimes lose books because I set them there when I need a sandwich. I even checked the top of the fridge (where I have been known to hide books that I don't want the kids to run off with). Can't find it, and now I'm bereft.
Here's a great quote explaining the pull of EB White's essays (from a 1977 article in the New York Times): "With his relaxed serendipitous technique of seeming to stumble on his subject by way of the back door, he lends you confidence that you don't really have to know much about a thing to write about it intelligently; you need only possess the skill to write, along with a lot of sanity. Thus, if you've got the hang of it, you can arrive at the subject of disarmament by way of Mary Martin's furniture, or at the prospects of American democracy by the route of a dachshund named Fred."
These essays are not blunt and angry, even though the ultimate topic may be something worthy of being blunt and angry about. They are languid trips down sun dappled paths where before you know it, you are staring into the face of an angry raccoon or being chastised by an off-kilter neighbor, and yet you're smiling and nodding, or shaking your head and wincing, and then you're past the scary part and back on the path only you have a new found respect for the topic and for the man who took you on the stroll to begin with.
I can never, honestly, hope to write essays like EB White, but I can hope to take some of the things he's done and make them my own. To be an esaayist's essayist is a nice thing to be, and yet, it's also nice to reach a wider audience. Is it possible to add a little more fire to the languid walks and turn them into a kind of EB White – Molly Ivins Mr. Toad's Wild Ride? That's what I would like to do with my writing. I'd like to take the wheel and spin you into walls that crack open just as you think you're a goner. But instead of making you cry out, I want to make you laugh and say AH HA! Or shake your head and give me a rueful fingerpoint.
There is a way to write an essay where the reader feels a little out of control, a little unsure of where the whole thing is heading and then BAM, right at the end it all makes sense. This is something I would like to practice. And to practice it, I need my copy of EB White's essays.
So the hunt continues. For the right words, the right topics, the right guiding hand, and the right book. And just like the book, I know those words and topics and that guiding hand are out there somewhere, it just happens to be somewhere beyond my reach.
I will keep looking.