Identifying a Classic: A Case Study of Charlotte’s Web

If you’re ever wondering if a book should be considered a “classic,” here is one simple test: read it one hundred times in quick succession and see if you still like it at the end.

I was reminded of the “x100 Test” recently due to Abby’s sudden obsession with audio books.  She’s new to listening to chapter books, and I had been excited to get her started on The Boxcar Children, a childhood favorite of mine.  We listened to it from start to finish, and then I gave Abby free rein with the CDs and the player, and she listened to it in almost every waking hour for the next three weeks.  We kept it for a long time past the due date until I finally got a call from the library that our next request, Charlotte’s Web, had arrived and was waiting for us to pick it up.

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I tweeted this toward the end of our time with the Alden kids

Here is the thing: Charlotte’s Web is not even one of my favorites.  But it’s on all the lists as a good first chapter book, They say it IS a classic, and Abby was interested in it after watching the movie at church one time, so I checked it out.

Thirty-plus listens later, I was convinced: Charlotte’s Web is incredible.

charlotte's web

The quality of the audio recording is part of this book’s appeal.  It’s read by E.B. White himself, and he has a voice I could listen to all day: it’s like having a gentle old uncle telling stories from the corner of the living rom (or the back seat of the car).  But the text of the book itself is exceptional.  Each sentence is like a string of pearls: carefully chosen details, advanced vocabulary, nuanced descriptions, and interesting and clever narration.

I love the story of the Boxcar Children, but every time I listened to a passage, the writing seemed more flat and stale.  I still liked the concept of the four kids on an adventure, but I grew tired of the characters and the details of the plot.

In contrast, I still don’t love the story of Charlotte’s Web.  I don’t like animal stories as a rule, I find Wilbur annoying and emotionally demanding, and I think Fern grows up too quickly in too short a time.  Yet the writing itself is such a pleasure that I happily turn the CD on–again– every time Abby asks.  With every listen, I hear yet another sentence that makes me smile: what perfection! what mastery! what delight!

I’ve lived by the x100 Rule in my adult life without ever really thinking about it.  Back in my pre-baby days when I read a lot more, I had a pretty long list of books that I’d return to once every year or two.  I kept a well-worn copy of The Chosen in my purse and when I’d get stuck at a doctor’s office or a traffic light I would pull it out, open it up at random, and enjoy a few paragraphs or pages.  (In these moments I now read Twitter, which I’m not sure is an improvement in my quality of life.)  The year I taught Julius Caesar, I remember the astonishing way the nuances of the text would leap off the page at me by eighth period, in what was my sixth reading of the day.  (Alas, my assurances to my students that they would understand their assigned passages if they’d just read it six times fell upon deaf ears.)

And every year when a precocious nine-year old (and there was always at least one) would eye my bookshelves on the first day of school and proclaim, “I’ve already read The Sign of the Beaver!“, I’d smile and respond, again, “So have I!  We’ll enjoy reading it again.”

I knew the secret I hoped they’d discover one day: Rather than getting stale, great literature reveals more richness to savor with every re-reading.

Goodness knows I have nothing against mindless reading; it’s most of what I do these days.  But it’s been refreshing to remember how deeply satisfying a great book can be.  I’ve been inspired to return to some of the trusted old friends on my own bookshelf and to be mindful of what kind of words and sentences and stories and characters I permit to occupy my imagination and my mind.  My soul will be stronger for it.

As for Abby, I’m trying to feed her a little more Charlotte and a little less Clifford, because I believe that E.B. White is right: “Children always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.”  I want to give her things to hang onto that will be strong enough to hold her up.

(P.S.  YES, of course I want to share some of my favorite Charlotte lines with you.  But this post is long enough, so I’m posting them in a separate commonplace)

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6 responses to “Identifying a Classic: A Case Study of Charlotte’s Web

  1. Oh my friend!! Worth figuring out how to comment from my phone this morning! I, too, have never loved the story of CW…but SO MUCH to glean any way! Thank you for making my morning, both with this and with Commonplace. Day made and it isn’t even 8am. :)

  2. Carolyn Dickinson

    Hear! Hear!! I agree completely that great books can be read any times without becoming stale. We readers have our favs (I recently read GWTW for the umpteenth time), and we may not agree on titles, but we do agree that books transport us. Ahh, thanks for the reminder of the wisdom in CW!

  3. leslie.caroline

    PLEASE read The Tale of Despereaux.

  4. I love the last line of your post. Inspired by your audiobook idea, we glanced through the selection at the library today and came home with Little House in the Big Woods. We’ll see how it goes with 8 hours in the car tomorrow (drive to the beach and back home).

    • The Little House audio books are great! Hope your girls enjoyed them. I’ve been hesitant to introduce them at our house, because it’s SO important to me that Abby loves them as much as I do!

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