The Selective Pleasures of Home: Recommended reading

December 1 | 2016

For those of you interested in memoir and family history—the reading or writing of it—I recommend The Task by Olivia Judson. An evolutionary biologist and writer, Judson created this eight-part series about emptying the family home for the New York Times opinionator blog. “The dismantling of a house is also a dismantling of the people who lived there,” writes Judson.

The eight blogs, while centred on the family home, address topics as wide ranging as rediscovering one’s own bedroom, sorting the detritus of parents’ lives and rifling through filing cabinets (there Judson happens upon a file dedicated to her mother’s early death from pneumonia, with a label assigned by her father, “Sorrow”). The author also confers with her brother over the “mine” and “yours” of cherished objects, recalling their childhood efforts to apportion ice cream in equal servings.


“To Read or Not to Read” is the blog entry that came nearest to my own experience. Here Judson deliberates over the ethics of reading her late mother’s diary, a choice that likewise fell to me. She does, and I did.

For me, the decision came more readily, because my mother’s only diary dated from her teen years, before she’d met my father or entertained an inkling of me. In short, I was violating the privacy of someone I never knew. Mostly, the accounts are of teenage romance—boys who held her so close “it wasn’t even funny,” one who “broke a New Year’s date,” another she rated as “a real gigolo.” For Judson, the experience is otherwise. Not only does she appear in her mother’s diaries, but also she recognizes aspects of her adult self in the now-vanished writer.

Perhaps the most unusual item recovered from Judson’s family home is a fragment of the original DNA model built in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick. The find leads Judson, ever the evolutionary biologist, to ponder those who shared her own DNA: her maternal British grandparents married in Calcutta in 1867, her father’s Puritan ancestors who arrived in America in the seventeenth century. She reflects, then, on how DNA links everyone and everything on Earth—a discovery connecting her, by implication, with each and every one of her readers.

The Task by Olivia Judson in the Opinionator blog, New York Times, February 15 to 21, 2014:

Our Porcine Selves

November 15 | 2016

In “The Etiquette of Freedom,” the writer Gary Snyder reminds us:

Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting—all universal responses of this mammal body. They can be seen throughout the class.


Children’s literature may be among the only refuges for this idea. But even there, it doesn’t roam free. We think of the children’s classics as being full of animals with human attributes. Take Wilbur the pig, for instance, in Charlotte’s Web. With his spider ally, Charlotte, and his human ally, Fern, Wilbur plots to avert his own end in the slaughterhouse. We recognize the human in Wilbur, but do we acknowledge the pig in Fern? The strength of the bond between girl and pig suggests so. So does E.B. White’s knowledge of pigs.

In creating Wilbur, White didn’t just slip a human voice into pig’s trotters. Charlotte’s Web was published in 1952, five years after White had written his essay “Death of a Pig.” In 1947 White was living on a farm, where he’d become familiar enough with pigs to chat about their “deep hemorrhagic infarcts,” not to mention their “coy little lashes.” White had purchased a pig with the intention of regaling it with food and then performing “first degree murder.” Instead he found himself “cast suddenly in the role of the pig’s friend and physician.” He knew the brute right down to the “pink, corrugated area” of its throat.

Wilbur came out of the farmyard as much as he did from E.B. White’s imagination. There’s got to be some pig in Wilbur, and in loving Wilbur, we recognize, albeit dimly, the even-toed ungulate in all of us.