I often feel great pressure to craft perfect answers. Whether it’s a question from my eight year old or from a friend in Bible study, my mind goes through all the angles to create a proper response. I don’t want to leave anything out.
These feelings are undoubtedly precipitated by the words we all consume each time we turn on our phones. Short, carefully crafted pieces of wisdom and trite hashtags fill our screens. If the words we take in affect the way we think and perceive as author Karen Swallow Prior claims in her book On Reading Well, then the thousands of hours spent reading headlines, tweets, and one-liners have conditioned us to expect pithy answers and simple formulas out of our own mouths.
Yet this stands in stark contrast to the way teaching and reading has been thought of for centuries. A thousand years ago, reading (and in-turn, learning) was compared to digestion- a slow ruminating, so much so that monks would often combine their study time with their meals to further entrench the point. Bartolommeo believed an individual searching for wisdom should take pains to gather it, as one picking flowers.
This way of instruction requires a kind of patience that won’t be found in 140 characters on a Twitter feed. It’s a patience that can still be found today, though not in the mouths of influencers, but in the pen of a novelist.
To see this in action, we can consider E.B. White and his three popular children’s novels. While praised for their charm and tender messages, these three novels viewed together show us a perfect example of how to teach one concept patiently. In the course of these three novels, E.B. White slows down and invites his reader to learn three very unique definitions of love.
Stuart Little: Love that Risks Everything
The first of White’s books, Stuart Little finds its main character, a mouse, born into a family of humans. Though the audience might be given to giggles, it doesn’t seem peculiar to anyone else in the Little family. Nor is it absurd to find Stuart befriend an injured bird named Margalo who finds refuge in their home. From first sight, Stuart loves her.
Yet White chooses to manifest this love for Margalo in a very specific way throughout the entire book. Stuart has a love that will protect at all cost. First he saves her from the clutches of Snowbell the cat. After gallantly aiming his arrow at the feline, Stuart proclaims it “the finest thing (he) had ever done.” The theme of this protective love continues throughout the story, as Margalo rescues Stuart right back from his own death. Eventually, Margalo must flee the Littles’ home in the night to escape another attack, but this only emboldens Stuart. He already fought for the bird, and naturally the next step is to leave his family and home to find her.
Though he is tempted by beautiful new places and another girl, “something deep inside him made him want to find Margalo.” We know that something is love, but White doesn’t cheapen the term with a lazy definition. Instead he narrows it and draws us into the story where love risks everything for another.
This kind of love plays out in relationships around us. A mother risks her safety to grab her child near the edge of a curb or a soldier puts his life on the line to protect a brother. A spouse turns down a career opportunity for his family or a daughter releases a dream to care for ailing parents. Perhaps this sacrificial love is one of the most common definitions that come to mind, as we remember that Christ himself told us that there was no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend. White validates this case through the story of Stuart Little, showing us how love protects and risks everything for another. But White wasn’t quite done teaching.
Charlotte’s Web: Quiet Faithful Love
If the first of E.B. White’s stories show us the risk of love, the novelist took a different turn with his second book to show us the slow faithfulness of love. In Charlotte’s Web, a spider befriends a new pig on the farm named Wilbur. Wilbur’s fate, like any spring pig, is to be on the dinner table come Christmas. But Charlotte won’t let that happen.
With a sure promise, she tells Wilbur early on, “I will be a friend to you,” and the remaining chapters prove how true those words were. Charlotte saves her friend by spinning words into her web, making him a celebrity. Comically, the “radiant” and “humble” pig is seen as the miracle, instead of the spider who wrote the words.
But this gets to the very heart of White’s definition of love. Wilbur’s success is Charlotte’s success because she loves him. She continues to show this love in the most ordinary of ways—the long hours spent spinning, the one-more-story she tells him before bed, and the constant encouragement she gives to lift his anxious heart.
If Stuart shows us what love looks like in the grandest sacrifices, Charlotte shows us a love in the in-between. It’s a love nobody sees. It’s the 1 AM feedings night after night, the daily meals on the table, the hundredth answered phone call, the drive to work every single morning, or the forgiveness granted again and again. It’s a love of faithfulness and commitment that says, I will be your friend, your mother, or your brother. This is much like the covenant faithfulness of the Lord who calls and secures his people as his own despite their sinful wanderings. Charlotte hints at their fixed relationship when she tells her self-conscious friend, “You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned.”
In Charlotte’s Web, White draws us into a contrasting picture of the love he displayed in his first novel. This hidden, quiet love, White tells us, is also what love means.
Trumpet of the Swan: Love that Takes Shame
In his final children’s book, Trumpet of the Swan, White continues his unique study on the meaning of love. In this tale, Louis, a mute trumpeter swan, faces a world of rejection because of his disability. He will never impress the swan he loves if he cannot woo her with his voice. This is when his father, the Cob, steps in. The Cob’s waxing eloquent is a foil to the silence of his son. Where Louis is quiet and unsure, his father is long-winded and confident.
Yet when he sees the cruel fate his son is dealt in life, the Cob decides to act. His solution is to retrieve a trumpet for his son, but he does so by theft. In a twist, the proud Cob removes the shame from his son by taking it upon himself. He sacrifices his own honor, for the sake of the one he loves.
Though many themes can be seen throughout the book, it’s interesting that White took time to narrow in on this often forgotten angle of love. Once again, he shirks broad definitions, forcing us to take a closer look at the element of love that takes on the shame of another.
We can see this act of love throughout the body of Christ when the burdens of suffering are shared. It’s a kind of love that says your pain—whether from your own sin or from deep suffering, is now mine to help you bear. As Christians we see this parallel more completely when we think of Christ, who, though righteous, completely took our sin and shame on his own body (1 Pet. 2:24).
This picture of love is one we take for granted in our day to day life. White tells us to remember it. If we are to truly teach each other and grow in virtue, White knows we must sit longer in the particulars.
Gregory the Great once said that texts are not about what we should be, but instead a picture of what we are. E.B. White understood this well, for he knew that what we are is complex. Concepts like love involve not one simple answer, but instead many realities at the same time. They are like a gem that we can study from all different angles.
Surely we see this truth across the pages of the Bible. God’s loving-kindness shows through the redeeming love for his people right along with the sustaining love of all creation each day. Is one truer than the other? The atonement of Christ himself, shows us various angles of accomplishment. When we look at the cross we see Christ satisfied our sinful debt by his substitution, yet at the same time we can also look on as Christus Victor rules over death and all evil (2 Cor. 5:21, Jhn. 16:33).
White reminds us knowledge is not a simple definition, but a collection. Philosophers of the Middle Ages described this in terms of bookcases and strongboxes in the mind, while scientists today prefer to define it as webs of connection between neurons that form our understanding.
With each new bit of knowledge or experience we link another synapse in our brain. We couple an example of courage that acts with an example of courage that waits. We chain together examples of faithfulness in a job, a friendship, and a sunrise.
And as E.B. White demonstrates so well, we link together unique elements of love and linger on the beauty we would have missed by settling for generalizations. The method of authors like White will often take longer to digest than a social media post, but it’s one that is sure to leave us filled.
Prior, Karen Swallow. On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. Brazos Press, 2018. ↑
Carruthers, Mary J. The Book of Memory: a Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. ↑