Wednesday, February 06, 2019

capturing a reader

In the fifth chapter entitled The Audience of his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser writes these two sentences after quoting several paragraphs of writing by E.B. White on his appreciation of hens.

Now there's a man writing about a subject that I have absolutely no interest in. Yet I enjoy this piece thoroughly. 

Before he gave you three lengthy paragraphs from White's 1944 article The Hen (An Appreciation), he introduced them with these words.

Let's look at a few writers to see the sheer pleasure with which they put into paper their passions and their crotchets, not caring whether the reader shares them or not.

Zinsser knows that an article on hens is not something he would be interested in, yet he acknowledges that he enjoys the piece thoroughly.
What did White do to compel an admitted apathetic reader on the topic of hens to not only read his article but to enjoy it?
Zinsser names a few reasons why:
- the simple beauty of its style
- the rhythms, the unexpected but refreshing words
- the specific details about hens and the brooder house
- writer is sharing his unabashed love affair with poultry that goes back to 1907
- it is written with humanity and warmth
- and after three paragraphs, he knows quite a lot about what sort of man this hen-lover is

Do you want to know what E.B. White wrote that made Zinsser react in such a way?
I thought you would.
Here are the three paragraphs he quoted:

Chickens do not always enjoy an honorable position among city-bred people, although the egg, I notice, goes on and on. Right now the hen is in favor. The war has deified her and she is the darling of the home front, feted at conference tables, praised in every smoking car, her girlish ways and curious habits the topic of many an excited husbandryman to whom yesterday she was a stranger without honor or allure.
My own attachment to the hen dates from 1907, and I have been faithful to her in good times and bad. Ours has not always been an easy relationship to maintain. At first, as a boy in a carefully zoned suburb, I had neighbors and the police to recon with; my chickens had to be as closely guarded as an underground newspaper. Later, as a man in the country, I had my old friends in town to reckon with, most of whom regarded the hen as a comic prop straight out of vaudeville….Their scorn only increased my devotion to the hen. I remained loyal, as a man would to a bride whom his family received with open ridicule. Now it is my turn to wear the smile, as I listen to the enthusiastic cackling of urbanites, who have suddenly taken up the hen socially and who fill the air with their newfound ecstasy and knowledge and the relative charms of the New Hampshire Red and the Laced Wyandotte. You would think, from their nervous cries of wonder and praise, that the hen was hatched yesterday in the suburbs of New York, instead of in the remote past in the jungles of India.
To a man who keeps hens, all poultry lore is exciting and endlessly fascinating. Every spring I settle down with my farm journal and read, with the same glazed expression on my face, the age old story of how to prepare a brooder-house…

~ excerpt from E.B. White's essay collection entitled The Second Tree from the Corner published in 1944

What I see from E.B. White's writing in this example and in others I have shared before is that he captures human nature with all its foibles and fads and makes us laugh at ourselves and think, that is still true today. I think he was good at holding up a mirror to whatever topic he landed on and inviting us to look into it with him and say My, my, what funny creatures we are. 
How thankful we can be for writers like White who rouse us out of our expected comforts and narrow interests to show us the rest of the world in all its interesting magnificence.

*About this graphic seen above: In searching my blog for something related to this post, I came upon many posts that were based on book quotes. They were often shared as part of a blogging theme called "Wednesdays with Words" hosted by various bloggers back in the day.
In an effort to help my reading life be more fruitful, I have decided to do this again, whenever the mood strikes. I will share something from a reading and then tag it with the graphic above. I usually use the tag writing and literature in the footer of the posts if you are interested in past posts.

**Also William Zinnser's book On Writing Well was an assigned title for Seth for this year, Grade 10. We are continuing to use it for writing assignment ideas.

1 comment:

  1. Cole agrees: "To a man who keeps hens, all poultry lore is exciting and endlessly fascinating." We are settling down right now to The Wool Growers 'catalogue of sexed breeds' wondering just what type to add this spring.


I enjoy reading your comments and try to reply as much as I can. Thanks for reading here.