As my income has risen and my living space expanded, buying more books than I can ever hope to read has grown from habit to addiction. I disagree with people who’d argue that it’s only appropriate to buy as many books as you’re planning to read; that’s akin to buying enough food for dinner and expecting your morning self to just figure something out. Morning selves should never be left to fend, and neither should morning minds.
So I keep my mental pantry heftily stocked. One woman’s hoarding is another woman’s intellectual smorgasbord.
But when I’m hungry for something new to know, there’s immeasurable comfort to be found in perusing my own unread bookshelves, inspecting a chapter or a page and then moving on to something equally unknown until I land on what I’d like to savor on that particular day.
Today, what I’ve been savoring is a 77-year old idea:
“[W]hat an unpredictable customer the human being is.”
This is taken from the author’s note of a collection of E.B. White’s New Yorker editorials that I found it in a going-out-of-business sale at a Santa Cruz bookstore last weekend. It was $2. I bought it along with a handful of other books I’ve never read: a lesser-known D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, a biography about a guy who made the dictionary, and some Anne Dillard. $7 for the lot, which is a book nerd’s goldmine.
The E.B. White collection is called The Wild Flag. Its name comes from a December 1943 editorial contained within it which describes a post-war world where the tiny remaining population lays down allegiance to their separate banners and instead commune around a global symbol of peace: a blue iris, or Iris tectorum. A “wild flag.”
At the time in American history that these editorials were written, we were engaged in World War II and the controversial United Nations was taking form in the wake of the failed League of Nations. Or at least that’s a gist of the history as I understand it. Anyhow, this dream of an iris that White described is an allegory for a united world, one in which “our children, and their children” know and love this universal, wild flag. A beautiful dream, and an especially resonant one today.
That notion, of our progeny abandoning nationalism and embracing a world order, ties up White’s author’s note to the collection, where he almost refuses to claim authorship of the editorials and makes excuses for the hastiness with which they were written while musing at the consistent mystery of writing anonymously to an unknown audience in the unifying “we.” It’s as if he wanted to make sure that, before reading the perspectives contained within those pages, his reader understood that knowing the name, face, and opinion of the other side of “we” isn’t as important as understanding simply that there is one.
Unpredictability is, paradoxically and platitudinously, the single thing we can come to expect from each other as humans. On the other side of the inevitable “we” is an inconsistent, complicated creation with little more knowledge of itself that you have of yours, and on the sending end of “we” is perhaps the least predictable party.
Reading White’s imperfect, reactive, astute observations of a world in turmoil reminds me that I am that sending end of “we,” and draws on the Emersonian notion that each of us must speak our minds with “words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.” This is a painful way to walk through the world, just as slogging through shelves of unknown novels can be a fruitless and frustrating endeavor. It can also be an enlightening one. And accepting the unpredictability on the receiving end of “we” without fear, while maintaining a willingness to throw cannon balls at your own yesterday’s words – therein grows the iris.