Sunday, June 16, 2019

Re-Reading


Here you are, after the shipwreck, hanging on to a piece of driftwood having hastily grabbed the essentials of life: toothbrush, floss, a few protein bars, a portable de-salinization unit (no such thing) and a couple of books to see you through the adventure as you paddle your way to a desert island. The question is: what books.

Kindle won’t work nor can you order books from Amazon and wait for the next drone to drop. Alas, batteries don’t get re-charged on this island even by the occasional lightning strike. So let us say you have been regressed back to when people actually bought books from bookstores and turned pages.

If I were allowed two books the first should be a self-help volume on how to build a raft out of coconuts and palm fronds. My second choice might be a novel by Wendell Berry, either A Place On Earth or The Memory of Old Jack which I last read about 25 years ago. I usually don’t re-read books. I came late to the party and there are still too many classics I haven’t read for the first time. But Berry’s voice stands alone among American writers and is worth revisiting.

His characters inhabit a universe unfamiliar to me: the small farm in Kentucky. They speak a language, spare but to the bone. As custodians of the land they are challenged by the vicissitudes of unforgiving weather, morally compromised townfolk and encroachments of corporate agribusiness. It is the values embedded in his community of extended family which enter me as if I’m experiencing some spiritual reawakening. Immersed in his pages one is returned to a hard-earned decency and caring for one another.

I’m struck by the grace of his simplicity. The fields and woods become characters themselves brought to life and matched by an exploration of the interior landscape in each person. Responsibilities of husbandry toward the crops are mirrored by the fidelity of their marriages. His people recognize and honor their lineage. They hold dear a set of convictions as inviolate.

Strange, the paucity of our English tongue. How we lack words for the most elemental, life-enhancing moments. That much abused word, spiritual, seems appropriate to Berry’s novel; soulful humans reaching for each other or struggling for alignment with their core values. What I come away with is not the noun, religion, but the adjective as in religious experience. A reverence for life. A transcendence not above the toil and hard times but through it towards a communion with one another aligned with rhythms of the natural world.

Having re-read the above I'm not altogether sure I agree with myself. I part company with Berry when his advocacy goes astray. He defends rural values against the advances of Science and urbanity which he foolishly identifies as threats to his idealized community. His condemnation of modernity is painted with too broad a brush as if pesticides and weaponry could be conflated with medical science and climatology. Even worse, he sometimes scolds his characters when they stray off his moral map. I'm remembering now why it’s been so long since I last picked up his books. However his narrator’s voice remains, for me, both penetrating and one sorely missed though I didn’t know till it arrived.

Here I am buffeted between his ennobling vision of humanity and the whiff of the preacher claiming a high ground. It's not an altogether bad place to be. In Berry's own words: When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work. The mind not baffled is not employed.

Looking back across our shelves of cherished books I can barely remember most plots or quirky characters. Yet there is a distillate which endures from the best of them. Something ineffable that eludes description. Wendell Berry has it for me. Though I’d forgotten the details of what happens in these pages the residue is as fresh as I felt it the first time around. The effect of his language is to move me to another realm. A lift sufficient to get me off this island. I think I spot a row boat with an empty seat…and my name on it.

2 comments:

  1. Well, Norm, I finds myself in the same place as you. I want to reread a number of books or at least revisit them but my pile of unread ones is tettering dangerously.We went to an art opening for a dear friend last night in The Bookman book store in Orange. the show was wonderful and the store is Fabulous!!! Large, organized and a great selection (new and used)on many, many subjects. You and Peggy would enjoy it.
    When we get back from our travels in August we will be calling you to arrange for us to come visit!!

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  2. Yes, yes we'll look forward to seeing you and Brad.

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