This past March I had the great good fortune to come down with the flu. I say great good fortune because, if no cloud is without its silver lining, in my case the cumulonimbus of a bad bug is almost always silvered with long bouts of uninterrupted reading. On this occasion, I decided to revisit all of Wendell Berry's fiction. Some of you are doubtless now asking, “Wendell who?” Don't feel bad. Unlike most of today's writers, Wendell Berry is uninterested in self-promotion. He does not attend book fairs, he does not do Letterman, he does not blog. He thinks. He writes.
And he farms. Berry's is the fifth generation in his family to live and farm in rural Henry County, Kentucky. This is the life he writes of, the life of a small and (by today's standards) insignificant agricultural community. Like Faulkner, Berry has created a fictional landscape (Port William, Ky.) in his stories that he returns to again and again, peopling it with characters that come and go with a regularity that mirrors real life. Unlike Faulkner, Berry manages this trick without ever resorting to language that is difficult or obscure. His writing is simple and direct even as it addresses life's big issues. And he writes about said issues with humor and humanity. Reading Wendell Berry you will find yourself laughing out loud from time to time, tearing up at others, and, at others still, finding yourself unexpectedly touched by the beauty of it all.
Finally, Wendell Berry is wise. I like books that entertain me, and Berry is consistently and eminently entertaining. But I will also admit that I like to read things that make me think. If you, like me, want a little more than mere diversion from your reading, if you want to come away from a book feeling refreshed and enlarged, Wendell Berry is the man for you.
And reading all of him in one fell swoop, as I did with the flu, turned out to be instructional. Characters I had thought inconsequential, having previously met them only piecemeal, now grew large, linked up with other characters, acquired motives, relationships, a lifetime's accumulated joys and tragedy. And we meet these personalities in a place and time when people found their entertainment not in television or computer apps, but in each other. They came together for meals, they came together to work, they came together to play, and they delighted in what they knew of each other and how well they could weave what they knew into conversation. Which is not to say they noticed little else. By nature, they had an eye for the lay of the land, for pretty sunsets, moving water, the myriad natural miracles that border—however quietly, however unobtrusively—our every waking moment. These were people who knew how to be still, who knew how to be content. Remember folks like that?
I was so impressed by what I learned from a complete reading of Berry's works that I am going to try to re-create the experience for our patrons. Instead of hosting a single discussion in which we talk about just one of an author's books, for the first time I shall host three, each devoted to an important work in the Berry canon. On February 10, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton library, and again on Feb. 13, at 2:00 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, we'll discuss A Place on Earth, on March 3, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton library, and again on March 13, at 2:00 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, Fidelity, and, finally, on April 10, at 2:00 p.m., in the St. Michaels branch, and again on April 14, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton library, Jayber Crow. Won't you join us?