E.B. White, More Than 60 Years Ago, on How New Technologies Change Reading and Writing


Essayist E.B. White and his dog Minnie.

“In schools and colleges, in these audio-visual days, doubt has been raised as to the future of reading—whether the printed word is on its last legs. One college president has remarked that in fifty years ‘only five percent of the people will be reading.’ For this, of course, one must be prepared. But how prepare? To us it would seem that even if only one person out of a hundred and fifty million should continue as a reader, he would be the one worth saving, the nucleus around which to found a university….

“Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy. As in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading—the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.”
“Photography, as a journalistic form, is in the ascendant, with the candid camera challenging the privacy of all, with flashlights exploding in restaurants and theaters in the faces of the unwary, with able-bodied seamen equipped and ready to snap the sinking of their own ship, with Life exposing the fat man in the act of taking off his pants. Today the Leica in steady hands can be as deadly as a revolver, and it enjoys immunity from the Sullivan law. The pictures that result satisfy something in the public, yet there is sometimes a quality in the photographer’s art more predatory than reportorial. And we say that knowing that even a despondent man on the bridge is not necessarily an unwilling subject.”
“A publisher in Chicago has sent us a pocket calculating machine by which we may test our writing to see whether it is intelligible. The calculator was developed by General Motors, who, not satisfied with giving the world a Cadillac, now dream of bringing perfect understanding to men. The machine (it is simply a celluloid card with a dial) is called the Reading-Ease Calculator and shows four kinds of ‘reading ease’—Very Easy, Easy, Hard, Very Hard. You count your words and syllables, set the dial, and an indicator lets you know whether anybody is going to understand what you have written….

“Communication by the written word is a subtler (and more beautiful) thing than Dr. Flesch and General Motors imagine. They contend that the ‘average reader’ is capable of reading only what tests Easy, and that the writer should write at or below this level. This is a presumptuous and degrading idea. There is no average reader, and to reach down toward this mythical character is to deny that each of us is on the way up, ascending. (‘Ascending,’ by the way, is a word Dr. Flesch advises to stay away from. Too unusual.)

“It is our belief that no writer can improve his work until he discards the dulcet notion that the reader is feeble-minded, for writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar. Ascent is at the heart of the matter. A country whose writers are following a calculating machine downstairs is not ascending—if you will pardon the expression—and a writer who questions the capacity of the person at the other end of the line is not a writer at all, merely a schemer.”

—From The Second Tree From the Corner, published in 1954 by Harper & Brothers. The book is a collection of E. B. White’s essays and comments from the period 1934 to 1954—some of the material first appeared in the New Yorker.


  1. Also in the book is a short essay on writers at work. White describes one writer, Kenneth Roberts, who boasts about his writing discipline and production, and then says:

    “Now turn for a moment to your correspondent. The thought of writing hangs over our mind like an ugly cloud, making us apprehensive and depressed, as before a summer storm, so that we begin the day by subsiding after breakfast, or by going away, often to a seedy and inconclusive destination: the nearest zoo, or a branch post office to buy a few stamped envelopes. Our professional life has been a long, shameless exercise in avoidance. Our home is designed for the maximum of interruption, our office is the place where we never are. From his remarks, we gather that Roberts is contemptuous of this temperament and setup, regards it as largely a pose and certainly a deficiency in blood. It has occurred to us that perhaps we are not a writer at all but merely a bright clerk who persists in crowding his destiny. Yet the record is there. Not even lying down and drawing the blinds stops us from writing; not even our family, and the preoccupation with same, stops us.”

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