Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Some Texts": E. B. White's Web of Primary Texts

Some people you meet, artists, intellectuals, business people, technological innovators are having a great time because we are inventing so many new things, we are in a whirl, or an extraordinary whirlwind, in which there are all kinds of stimulation. The people who are excluded from this system are not simply poor, exploited or even irrelevant, they’re those who don’t understand this enjoyment of creativity and innovation. That’s why we’re living in two different cultures: a culture of bewilderment about the world we live in and a culture of innovation, creativity and the opening of new frontiers (4).

To everyone who did not have the privilege of being raised on a farm, I am sorry. Your childhood was severely robbed! I was raised on a farm located in the south east corner of Idaho, and it was there that I learned every life lesson needed to survive. I worked hard all year round, I learned how to improvise, sacrifice, gain, lose and love. I learned about death and, more importantly, I learned about life. One night in particular taught me what it means to live, and gave me a connection with Charlotte’s Web, which is why I chose to spend an intense seven weeks studying E.B. Whites story of Wilbur and his quest to live a long life.

For weeks now our family had been awaiting the arrival of the piglet litter. One night I happened to glance out the window and see the pig’s light was on, and I instinctively knew why. My dad had gone over earlier to check on the pig, so I grabbed my coat and slipped my rubber boots over the tops of my pajamas and ran across the road. I took the shortcut through the hole in the wall that dumped me right into the pig’s pen, and saw my dad sitting to the side watching a handful of baby piglets squeak and runt around for their first meal. My dad pointed to a small little porker and said, “There’s Wilbur.” As I look back on this memory after examining Charlotte's Web I recognize the compliment that little piggy was unknowingly given. Wilbur's story is a classic about love, life and friendship, and of course a little gluttony brought to us by Templeton, the gluttonous rat.

The Primary Text

The entirety of this English 295 course has been devoted to exploring, creating, consuming and evaluating literature in ways that are not traditional. This course of action brought into question what is considered to be the primary text of a piece of literature. With new technology being developed on a daily basis, it is understandable that the arts should not go unaffected. The traditional primary text is the physical book that is published and sold in bookstores; however, using non-traditional adaptations of a novel such as film, audio or other versions will create a new experience and understanding of the text that is unique to each form and beneficial to consumers.

The Traditional Book

I started my research project with Charlotte's Web by reading the original text E.B. White written back in 1952. I love this book; it brings back fond and not so fond memories of my childhood. I literally laughed out loud when I read the some of the beginning lines about Fern being "up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice" (5). I've heard this line quoted to me countless times from my own father. There is something special about reading a book. Ironically, Wilbur D. Nesbit authored a poem about books which begins "Who hath a book/ Has friends at hand,/ And gold and gear/ at his command" (Felleman, 629). Mr Nesbit was very wise; the printed text is like a friend. There is a unknown relationship that the reader forms with the pages, cover and feel of the printed book. Tammy Stephens, an English teacher who has taught almost every grade, incorporates other mediums of the text in her lessons, but emailed me her feelings on reading the printed text. She said, "I truly believe one cannot fully experience an author's words without reading those words. Probably, the book on an electronic device is very good, but I do love turning pages!"(Stephens). This connection with the book is in the entire reading process from seeing the words spelled out, to turning the pages, to fanning the pages to see how many are left, all the way down to falling asleep while reading the book before bed.

The Film as Primary

Unfortunately, there is no record of the first book turned big screen, but whatever that text might have been, it paved a road lined with Grammys and academy awards. In Christine Geraghty’s book, Now a Major Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama, she poses the argument that adaptations make explicit what seems to be implicit in a book. She defines explicit as “a recognition of ghostly presences and a shadowing or doubling of what is on the surface by what is glimpsed behind” (195). To all who crow that film makers twist the plot line, create or kill characters or morph the original out of shape, this is why. The medium of visual literature has been sculpted out of the implicit words behind, between and below the original text. That being understood, this new vehicle of literature is now a new experience of the text. As I read Charlotte’s Web, I came across a passage that was so beautifully written I read it twice. Chapter 19 of the story begins with a scenic description, “Next morning when the first light came into the sky and the sparrows stirred in the trees, when the cows rattled their chains and the rooster crowed and the early automobiles went whispering along the road…” (144). As each description is read, it is added to the imaginary scene; however, I could pinpoint this exact scene in the movie when the screen faded into the beautiful morning complete. The visual was a new experience as it was given in its entirety rather than pieced together word by word. As soon as a I saw this picture my mind immediately jumped to morning on the farm when I would pause in moving my irrigation pipe and look at the sun shining in the morning sky, and think to myself what a beautiful world I live in. Experiencing a text through a visual medium is not a lazy way to consume; in fact, it can enhance an already beautiful passage into a powerful scene of the film.

The Audiobook as Primary

One of my earliest memories is of hearing the words of an author read aloud to me instead of myself reading the text. I remember laying on my parents’ bed with my sister on one side and my dad on the other. I listened to his soothing voice as he read the story of Big Dan and Little Anne and their coon hunting adventures in Where the Red Fern Grows. My father would change his voice with each character, and his tone would reflect the mood of the scenes. Through audio I could devote my entire focus on envisioning the story of the two dogs, and my experience with Charlotte's Web in audio format was equally memorable.

Audio books were first produced in 1935 for war veterans returning home from World War I suffering blindness, Agatha Christie and Joseph Conrad were the first authors to be transformed into spoken word (Philips, 294-295). With this knowledge, it is now discrimination to say that listening to a primary text is not really reading the book. That may be extreme, but that does not make it any less true. Over time, however, what was once produced as a resource for the blind is now marketed as new medium of literature. I purchased the audio book version of Charlotte’s Web after I had read the original text, and even though the words did not change, the experience of listening to the author read his own words enhanced the story. The parting lines are normally piercing, but in audio format it was an entirely different piercing. Instead of snapping the cover of the book shut in triumph over finishing the text, I sat in thunderous silence as E.B. White read his parting lines about Charlotte. “She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both” (184). In audio format I was forced to give these lines and the story as a whole a moment of silent reflection before the end credits began. This is not guaranteed when reading the text in its primary form. The reader sets the pace and gives as little or as much reflection as he sees fit, but in audio, the consumer is required to wait, to listen to anticipate the next words, which turns a typical reading into an active participation of the text.

Video Game as Primary

The list of non-traditional texts is not limited to film and audio. There are countless ways to experience traditional writing via art, music, comics, plays and even video games. Each one of these unique vehicles of experiencing has their own set of pros and cons. I chose to go outside of my box (way outside), and experience Charlotte’s Web in video game format. I’ve played video games before; one I once spent an evening playing Halo, and I will not lie, I was terrible. However, for one evening I became a character in White’s classic tale by spinning my own web of words to save the life of a piglet. I left the realm of merely reading about Charlotte’s creations, or even listening or watching her spin a web, and I became Charlotte. I chose the words to weave and where to weave them. I left the bystander position of consumer and became a creator along with the author and characters. Experiencing the text through this medium develops an appreciation for modern technology. A video game was no longer a way to waste time, but it became a medium of teaching a reader exactly how difficult it is to spin words in a web. In a digital literature study, Anna Gunder claims that “the digitisation of the media scape has affected the nature of . . . media migration by giving birth to new artistic forms such as computer games and digital hyperfiction. But it has also provided new means for storage and presentation of texts and works (Gunder, 31). This movement enhances the original; it creates new means for literature to be consumed, and each one gives the reader a new experience with any particular passage of text.


There is no longer a solid definition of the primary text because in the modern technological world, a piece of literature can be consumed in multiple ways, and depending on the medium in which it was experienced, that can become the primary text for readers. Each format connects to the reader in different ways, which means the purpose of reading a text is fulfilled differently to each reader. The themes and overall moral of the story are best processed by whichever format creates the most personal connection with the reader. Next time you pick up a book, experiment a little and pop in a CD of it instead.

Castells, Manuel. The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on Internet Business and Society. Oxford: Oxford University, 2001. Print.

Charlotte’s Web. Dir. Gary Winick. Paramount Pictures, 2006. Film.

Geraghty, Christine. Now a Major Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama. Mary Land: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print.

Gunder, Anna. Hyperworks: On Digital Literature and Computer Games. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 2004. Print.

Philips, Deborah. “Talking Books: The Encounter of Literature and Technology in the Audio Book.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 13.293 (2007):293-306. Print.

Stephens, Tammy. Personal interview. 1 July 2011.

Nesbit, Wilbur D. "Who Hath a Book." The Best Loved Poems of the American People. Ed. Edward Frank Allen. NY: Doubleday, 1936. 629-630. Print.

White, Elwyn Brooks. Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper Collins, 1952. Print.

White, Elwyn Brooks. Charlotte’s Web. Unabridged Audiobook, 2002. CD.

Carlie Wallentine
Five Things She loves:

1) Flowers
2) Stars
3) Cowboy Boots
4) Snow Storms
5) Cooking

1 comment:

  1. Have you every read A Day No Pigs Would Die? It's another young adult book about a boy on a farm and his pet pig. You'd probably relate. Check it out if you haven't read it already.