Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review: The Story of Charlotte's Web, by Michael Sims

When I read the biography of an author, I hope to get insight into an author's personality, writing habits, influences, and what shaped the person who shaped books I enjoy reading. This is what I got from The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims.

Going in, I knew very little about E.B. White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985), beyond his authorship of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, and his reworking of The Elements of Style. But the book looked interesting when it popped up as a Nook Daily Find bargain, and I'd been wanting to read an author biography, so I bought it. I'm glad I did.

E.B. White was not your average person. An introvert with anxiety issues who was uncomfortable in social situations, White got in on the ground floor of a new magazine, The New Yorker, soon after it began publishing, although it took quite a bit of convincing to get the under-confident writer to join the staff after he had contributed several pieces. Through his work on the magazine, he associated with many well-known writers of the twentieth century. He even married one of the magazine's most important editors, Katherine Angell.

Of course, it's as the author of some of the most popular children's books in history, and one that is often considered the best ever, that White is best known. This biography focuses mainly on White's early years and how he came to write his greatest work. There are brief excerpts of discarded writing, especially of his attempts to begin the book. It explores his relations with animals, which he wrote about because he was more comfortable with them than he was with people. And it goes into detail about the reactions--both positive and, almost unbelievably, negative--of critics and readers upon the books publication.

The book is not perfect. It is fairly lightweight, and does not explore how the great events of White's century influenced him. It doesn't go into any great deal about his relationships with other authors who crossed his path. And there's no deep probing of his psyche, although we do get a pretty good idea of what made him tick.

But it does what it does well, illuminating an author who is not well known outside his books, largely because of his own social anxieties and dislike of public attention. It is a quick read, and remains interesting throughout. It's a simple book about a seemingly simple man who is not nearly as simple as he seems. At times, especially near the end, it is quite moving.

There are many moments of inspiration for writers, especially children's writers. I found myself wanting to post several quotations from the book on Facebook (and actually posted two or three).

Which brings me to the most important thing I expect from author biographies: writing lessons and inspiration that will make me a better writer and help me navigate the rough waters of a writing life. Based on that requirement, this book was a successful read.

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