The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry


Being an English teacher, I thought I should occasionally post on books that rocked (or are currently rocking) my world. So, today I’m inaugurating a new category: BOOKS.

This collection of essays brings me deeper and deeper into an interconnected consciousness. Sometimes, when I resurface from one of Berry’s essays, I realize that my entire vocabulary for dealing with and discussing society has gained extra layers of connotation. I’ll admit I get a little uneasy when people start talking about “The Creation,” but I believe that in Berry-speak, he is not talking about a singular event, but an on-going one that we’re all a part of.

Ditto my discomfort when marriage is brought up, having been in and out of one, but his description of partnership and the function of marriage in society is about supporting/strengthening both the partner and the society. This kind of partnership creates a kind of safety valve wherein a person’s instinctual appetites can be satisfied, their household labors and produce can be shared, and partners and the society can be at ease with each other. He talks about the choice we make to be part of such a partnership, and the comfort of returning to the choice we’ve made and making it anew.

Berry’s worldview is so radically different from, yet so much more rational than, the one practiced by our culture as a whole, that my head begins to spin with reconciling “the way things are” with “the way things should be.” This is an ongoing internal discussion with me–is “the way things really are” what we have for a society now, or is that “reality” not real at all–merely an idea of disconnectedness floating above the physical world and believing that we have somehow “mastered” it? Or is “the way things really are” that we are connected, and we are dependent and interdependent, whether or not we wish to believe it?

I, for one, do want to believe it because I think it’s our salvation–not only as physical beings on a planet, but as spiritual beings in need of community–in need of each other. But there are certainly a lot of folks out there who would claim that “the way things really are” is greed, exploitation, and fear–get what you can and get out.

Another important point that Berry makes is that not only have we separated ourselves from each other and the natural world, we’ve also created a mind-body division that is incredibly harmful. All of these divisions are related, of course, and Berry points to church-based religions as the organizations responsible for denigrating the body while uplifting the mind/spirit. Berry connects this divisiveness with an economy wherein, for one commodity to raise in value, another has to be de-valued.

All in all, this is an incredibly rich group of essays to be savored–simmered on the back burner of one’s mind. While I enjoy a good, quick read at times, this is a collection of essays I believe I’ll keep on my shelf for a long time, re-reading and re-considering for many years. Highly recommended not only for those interested in agriculture and the land (this book is about so, so much more), but philosophy, spirituality, society, the roles of men and women–well, I think almost anyone with a curious and questing mind could get something important out of this book.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Pasque on January 23, 2008 at 6:43 pm

    I do hope you keep this on on your library shelf . Good stuff !

  2. Posted by susan on January 24, 2008 at 12:55 am

    You might also check out The Long-Legged House. One of my faves.

  3. My wife loves Wendell Berry. He does Christianity… well, I’d say he does Christianity right, but some might consider that presumptuous. I’ll settle for saying that he does Christianity in a profoundly deep, holistic way that a lot of folks would benefit from studying.

    I do tease my wife that Berry would have us all end up wearing burlap sacks, what with some of his anti-technology positions. I still wonder about the full pragmatic implications of Berry’s philosophy, but dang, it’s good philosophy, worth arguing about.

  4. Posted by flyingtomato on February 5, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    Cory–

    I agree. I am still wading through the above-mentioned book, and with every essay, it takes a couple of days for those “pragmatic implications” to sink in.

    For some reason, your comment was deemed spam by Askimet, so I’m sorry I didn’t see it until now. I’m still getting to know the wordpress way.

    Thanks for visiting, and for commenting!

  5. Rebecca–

    I’m so happy I came upon your site and this review. I love your writing, both in style and substance. I’ve been casting about for what to read next (just finished Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food and everything I pick up seems so unsatisfying compared to that).

    I happened to buy Wendell Berry’s book when I was traveling in January, so it’s sitting in a pile of possibilities on my night stand. Thanks for the encouragement to dig in.

    DJ

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