Linger around here long enough (eh, maybe read one blog post) and you’ll find that I’m quite stuck on Wendell Berry and have been for years now. There also a good bit of Wendell propaganda that I spread, like how I coerced my husband that naming our dog after a living writer/poet was a good idea. His writings have lifted me out of dark places, given words to my feelings, and inspired me to live as a better, more thoughtful steward.
I am regularly asked where to start if you want to begin reading Berry. To which I usually just shake my head, laugh uncomfortably and say something along the lines of, “Oh man I don’t even know where to begin!” But let’s be honest. I do. It just depends on who you are and what you’re in to.
First, Berry writes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. The non-fiction is heady and rich. The fiction is bucolic and slow, but deeply moving and convicting. And the poetry is as accessible as it is inspiring. So! Where to begin. I’ve decided the best way to structure this is by use case. [Disclaimer: this is not exhaustive. It’s just purely a place to start. If it was to be exhaustive, I would have to devote my entire blog and the rest of it’s subsequent posts to it.] That being said, here we go…
If you’re into fictional stories about a different time and place-– specifically, a pastoral, small town farming community America– start in the Port William stories, period. At this point, you can really start anywhere. I started with Jayber Crow, but have found that that’s not always the best…see below. The stories include: Jayber Crow, Nathan Coulter, Hannah Coulter, Andy Catlett, Memory of Old Jack, A Place in Time, That Distant Land, A World Lost
If you’re into fiction but aren’t used to Berry’s pace (heads up: it goes as fast as life on a farm does, so, yeah, slow) and need a quick win, start with Andy Catlett. This was Chris’s first, and I’m pretty sure he’s caught the bug since.
If you’re in the throes of spiritual unrest, read Jayber Crow. It will help you navigate some very dark waters. (I deeply deeply love this book. I’ve found though that many people aren’t used to Berry’s speed, so this book–his longest– is tough to get through if you’ve been reading dystopian/crime/thrillers/etc.)
If you have sons, read Nathan Coulter or Andy Catlett. Or, if you don’t have sons, these books will make you want them.
If you are a good woman, know a good woman, want to believe in good women, read Hannah Coulter. She’s mighty and strong, and yet so tender and human. I see so much of my reality– the good and bad– manifested in her complicated love for her family and her work.
If you’re not the fiction type and want to straight-up learn, head to Berry’s non-fiction – they’re piercing and convicting. I’d start with Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, and specifically the title chapter. I love to be inspired in fiction as much as non-fiction, and this book fires me up over the way he charts the degradation of our communities, our lands, and our families. Runner up: The Unsettling of America, The Art of the Commonplace
If you’re really into food and/or the way we cultivate it, Bringing It To The Table takes a three pronged approach to looking at food: farming, farmers, and the community that is sustained by it. He provides insight into the world of farming practices, and the farmers who support them. It also includes excerpts from his fiction works that reflect the values of food and how it brings people together. You get a little bit of everything with this one.
If you want to start small, his collected book of poems (recently released) is excellent. His poetry is not too esoteric or as my parents may say, “artsy-fartsy.” It’s beautiful stories and moments and memories set to beautiful verse. I read a page or two of them often alongside my morning coffee. The Mad Farmer poems are some of my most distinct favorites. You’ve also probably heard The Peace of the Wild Things.
There’s more I could say on all of these, and more that Berry has actually written that I haven’t even mentioned. Hopefully this can be a primer though. Enjoy Wendell!