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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

One good paragraph about spring

Because March is National Reading Month, which I didn’t realize until this week, and since this is the first week of spring on the calendar — if not outside, where here in Vermont the snow persists and mud season has only just begun to soften up — I went looking yesterday for the perfect spring paragraph.

My first prospect was E.B. White, one of the very finest writers of thoughtful observation in American English; and in The Second Tree from the Corner, which draws from his essays for “The New Yorker” in the late 50s and early 60s, I found “A Report in Spring.” At that time, White and his wife Katherine, the magazine’s fiction editor, were going back and forth between Turtle Bay, the neighborhood in eastern Manhattan where they lived near the United Nations headquarters, and the little saltwater farm in South Brooklin, Maine where White had done his observations, in his barn, for Charlotte’s Web.

White wrote his essay on spring one morning in 1957, after coming back to the city. It ends this way: 

One never knows what images one is going to hold in memory, returning to the city after a brief orgy in the country. I find this morning that what I most vividly and longingly recall is the sight of my grandson and his little sunburnt sister returning to their kitchen door from an excursion, with trophies of the meadow clutched in their hands — he with a couple of violets, and smiling, he serious and holding dandelions, strangling them in a responsible grip. Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists — just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts.

What I love about this first is the plain naturalness of White’s language. His honest rhythm, made of ordinary language, pops into color with words that are just right in both meaning and emotion. “Vividly and longingly” ... “trophies of the meadow” ... “strangling them in a responsible grip.” (This is not to mention the sweet use of “orgy,” which no one would even try in a paragraph about springtime and children today.) I also like that White, for whom lack of self-importance was a core value, makes fine use of the em dash, even if strict grammar people say whatever they say about that.

And I love that, as a writer with a big and sophisticated audience, he was never scared to be genuine. White infuses this paragraph with a sober open-heartedness: He loves his grandchildren, he loves the sunshine and small bright flowers of spring, and he’s not afraid to put this into words. He didn't screen himself behind irony or other safe attitudes. He wrote what he saw and felt, and put that into simple, unpretentious, yet very very carefully composed pieces of writing.

And it's true. As I re-read this paragraph, in the final throes of a very long winter, I realized that I am less sure of spring — less sure of it in my struggles to do my best with these spirit-depleted days; yet I do hold in some deeper place the awareness and faith that it’s coming. When I read something that gets to this deeper place and connects with it, I am reassured. The spirit in some little way comes back. I think that's how a good paragraph, even just one, can become a gift — something that helps to sustain us.

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