The Essential Books of E.B. White

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"No one can write a sentence like White." — James Thurber

E.B. White's is the writerly voice I wish was mine; his prose is a model of precision, warmth, and unselfconscious grace. Whether you write essays, children's books, technical documents, or love letters, you owe it to yourself to see how this man worked with words.

White's canon trickled into my life over a course of decades, in categories disparate enough that it took me a long time to associate the works with a single writer. I list these titles in the order I encountered them.

Charlotte's Web (1952)

Charlotte's Web (1952)

by E. B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams, Rosemary Wells

Some pig. I met this story by way of an animated cartoon adaptation the teacher played for us in my Canadian grade school. Among the great children's books of all time. White once said: "My fears about writing for children are great — one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness." He doesn't. The book delivers on big themes like friendship, sacrifice, mortality, and transformation, all without a whiff of condescension to the target demographic. For literate adults and their kids.

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Here is New York (1949)

Here is New York (1949)

by E.B. White, introduction by Roger Angell

In the 90s, before I had ever been to New York, I bought a weathered first edition of this book for one franc at a thrift store in Switzerland. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with the city, one which I couldn't help but consummate by moving there. Many of the particulars of White's 1940s Manhattan are gone, but an ineffable constancy of the city's character that he sees beneath the changing artifacts of era lend this work a striking timelessness. Though from the perspective of the emerging Cold War rather than jihad, White closes the book with a dark riff on the city's vulnerability. "The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition." It was eerily prescient.

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One Man's Meat (1942)

One Man's Meat (1942)

by E. B. White

I had left the city and was living in a one-room cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior when this book found me and resonated with my circumstance. In 1938 White and his wife moved from Manhattan, where they had been on staff at the New Yorker, onto a saltwater farm near Brooklin, Maine. Superficially a series of pastoral essays about the place, White's stepson Roger Angell described the book so: "Strewn with errands and asterisks, farming tips and changes of weather, notes on animals and neighbors and statesmen, "One Man's Meat" is too personal for an almanac, too sophisticated for a domestic history, too funny and self-doubting for a literary journal. Perhaps it's a primer: a countryman's lessons that convey, at each reading, a sense of early morning clarity and possibility."

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The Elements of Style (1959)

The Elements of Style (1959)

by William Strunk Jr., E.B. White, illustrated by Maira Kalman

I had known of Strunk & White as a writing text at least since it was namedropped in writing courses at grad school, and had always assumed it to be one of those dour collections of prohibitions against splitting of infinitives and the like. Then when a corporate client needed rescuing from its marketing department's own bloated prose, I asked around about who had done the best job of codifying efficient use of English; the trails kept leading back to this book. Strunk was E.B. White's writing teacher, and author of the original style guide; White revised it in 1959, and his playful precision is all over the thing now. The edition shown here adds whimsical illustrations by designer Maira Kalman, which are somehow in sync with the overall mission of helping writers produce lean yet joyous prose.

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This book also appears on 33 of the Best Books about Writing Fiction

 
 
Stuart Little (1945)

Stuart Little (1945)

by E. B. White

The story of a two-inch mouse born into an Upper East Side human family. The best children's book featuring New York City as a central character; bonus points for canoe scenes. The New Yorker recently ran a feature about the role this book played in overturning the entrenched Children's Lit power structure overseen by Anne Carol Moore of the New York Public Library. That in itself is a remarkable story. (Editor's note: for some inexplicable reason, "Stuart Little" isn't for sale as a single volume. Instead it must be purchased as part of a box set as shown here, or with a small children's necklace that will undoubtedly break, be lost, or be swallowed by one of your children within hours.)

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This book also appears on Children's Books Featuring... a Mouse!