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! 

  • Donna Hopkins

    Rebecca, I’m always happy when I see your name and a new post show up in my Inbox. Your writing is thoughtful – making me, in turn, thoughtful. I aim to move through life at a little slower pace, taking time to think and savor. And so, I’m delighted to discover Wendell Berry. I checked out two of his books from our local library (here in Fredericksburg,VA just up the road from you), and can hardly wait to begin – after chores and errands this morning. Thank you for the primer on Berry.

    December 8th, 2015 10:33
    • Rebecca Parker Payne

      Oh, Donna, I hope you find his work as life-giving as I have. I’m confident you will.

      December 8th, 2015 10:36
  • Pam Batchelor

    I started reading Wendell Berry when I was in college. We read The Gift of Good Land in a class called Down on the Farm. I’ve never forgotten how much this class impacted me but never really changed my life’s decisions that I can tell. Anyway I’m now rediscovering those messages and lifestyle that I so crave in my soul. Your blog is great.

    September 19th, 2017 12:42
  • Marcy Jones

    I read one line written by Wendell Berry and knew I wanted to know more about him. ( It may be when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.)

    And … In researching him, your name and information about his writing came up. Thank you so much for your thoughts about his books and poetry. It gives me great starting points! Otherwise, I may have never gotten around to reading any of his books.

    December 21st, 2017 14:16
  • Colin

    I haven’t begun Berry, but I’m thinking of ordering his two most recent Port William collections; I prefer to read short fiction lately as you can read a “whole” story, or two or three, in a short sitting, and avoid the novelistic temptation of bingeing and getting nothing done for several days. Thanks for the review and commentary; it helped me decide I would enjoy his writing.

    If you haven’t read Larry Woiwode yet, you’d probably enjoy his fiction, too. I’d go to “The Neumiller Stories” and “Beyond the Bedroom Wall”, a lengthy novel set in the same fictional universe as the story collection. Other writers that retrieve this lost America for me have been Marilynne Robinson and Jane Smiley in her excellent “The Last Hundred Years” trilogy (especially the first and second book).

    April 25th, 2018 15:35
  • Shannon Richardson

    Hi! I found this post in searching about Hannah Coulter. I read Jayber Crow first, am reading Hannah Coulter and have to say that I’m hooked. Just wow. Thanks for the run-down….looks like I’ll read about Nathan next 🙂

    October 30th, 2018 23:49
  • Mike Macon

    I started with the poem “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Whole Earth Catalog in the mid 1970s. Powerful words that still guide my journey.
    I read Jayber Crow yearly to remind me how beautiful our language can be when it flows from the mind of such a gifted practitioner. I look forward to readin more of this site.

    March 31st, 2019 9:17
  • Adrien Martin

    So happy to find this. Where to begin is exactly what i’m looking for. Thank you for this and I look forward to reading your work

    May 20th, 2019 15:35
  • Meg Bloom

    I came across this blog post in a google search “where to begin with Wendall Berry”— and I didn’t realize I knew the author! Hello to Becca, and thanks for this super helpful post! Can’t wait to get started reading!

    October 17th, 2020 15:51

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