During my first year as a teacher, I moved to a Manhattan neighborhood that was a subway ride away from all my friends. My neighbors and I never learned each other’s names during the two years I lived there. I waved at them from my patio and they waved back from their balcony, but only once or twice. I shared one wall with a stranger I never even met.
In his 1987 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Wendell Berry offers a rationale for his reluctance to make the transition from pen and paper to mouse and keyboard. Berry was only interested in technological change if it was as affordable, as compact, or as useful as his current technology. If new technology offers no clear advantages over traditional methods, why upgrade? He concludes his essay with a list of justifications for upgrading technology, and his final criterion is germane to education, especially in a civilization saturated with technologies of various stripes.
Homer’s epic poems tell of rage and war, shipwreck and conquest, friendship and home. The Aeneid, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, and more all tell of brave heroes, fierce battles, and even gruesome monsters. Yet, now, in the minds of too many young men, poetry conjures up images of bongos and greeting cards, with sappy verses, and sentimental gushing. Poetry, they think, falls outside the realm of manly pursuits.
Wendell Berry very rarely gives television interviews, but in 2013 he agreed to sit down with Bill Moyers as part of a conference at St. Catharine's College. Take 40 minutes to watch this. Berry speaks on topics close to his heart, and he reads several poems aloud. It's worth the watch just for that! My favorite moment is when he is moved to tears reading one of his own poems. Beautiful.
An interesting discussion popped up on my Facebook about some of the ideas we’ve been talking about on Close Reads as we work our way through Berry’s Jayber Crow. Here are some highlights.
In Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield wrote, “If we trace the meanings of a great many words – or those of the elements of which they are composed – about as far back as etymology can take us, we are at once made to realize that an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them referred in earlier days to one of these two things – a solid, sensible object, or some animal (probably human) activity. Examples abound on every page of the dictionary.”
My family and I recently moved from a suburban neighborhood, near every convenience, to a small, out-of-the-way town. Our friends and family were encouraging, but we got more than a few “you're moving where?” reactions. We are not in the middle of nowhere, but it feels like it - a feeling intensified by the numerous cotton fields, tractors used as transportation, shotguns sold at yard sales, signs advertising deer corn for sale, and slow drivers (even the ones not driving tractors).
At 80 years old, Wendell Berry shows no signs of slowing down. Usually courting controversy is a young man’s sport, but in his latest collection of essays, Our Only World, the prolific writer reminds his readers that he’s not settling into a quiet retirement! His willingness to risk controversy—and even enjoy it—motivates him to take on some of the most divisive issues of our day. And in typical fashion, he offers no easy solutions, no party talking points, while taking positions that will likely anger folks on both sides. In other words, this book is terrific!
“Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.”
- From “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry
"They were not going to school to learn where they were, let alone the pleasures and pains of being there, or what ought to be said there. You couldn't learn those things in a school. They went to school, apparently, to say over and over again, regardless of where they were, what had already been said too often. They learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of his works-- although they could tell you this world had been made by God Himself.