Wednesday, August 29, 2012
The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry
Visionary thinking from a latter-day Thoreau
I had never read Wendell Berry before, and this book has provided me with a very comprehensive introduction to his thought. Berry advocates abandoning the present resource exploitative global industrial economy in favor of local economies and a more responsible, ethical treatment of the Earth. He is against “free trade” and the free market economy, because it strengthens corporations and eliminates farmers. He is a strong proponent of sustainable agriculture, but he mostly avoids discussing the science here and concentrates rather on the ethics of land use and food production. He’s a confessed Luddite, in that he detests technology when it replaces human labor. He’s also a devout Christian, but offers a unique interpretation of the Bible that sounds an awful lot like Pantheism. He believes we should place more emphasis on marriage, family, and community life, and replace our meaningless occupations with meaningful vocations. Berry’s main argument is that for the sake of a little money and ease we have ceded too much of our decision-making responsibility to the corporations and the government, thereby giving up our personal freedom and becoming passive bystanders rather than active participants in the world in which we live.
Though I don’t agree with Berry on every issue, I found his writings very enlightening and in some cases mind-blowing. Berry is a brilliant diagnostician. I doubt there’s a writer alive who can better enunciate the ills of modern society. Unfortunately, this collection doesn’t prescribe a clear course of treatment. Berry proposes we take up organic gardening and invest in local food—good first steps, indeed—but that hardly seems sufficient to overthrow a status quo that’s existed since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Much of Berry’s agrarianism seems to harken back to a time when the population of the world was one tenth if not one hundredth of what it is today, yet he’s against birth control. On an Earth full to bursting, how practical are his dreams of a quasi-Amish society?
Most of the faults of this book are editorial rather than authorial. The collection is relentlessly repetitive, with the same points being hammered home again and again. Berry states his case so elegantly and eloquently, do we really need to be beat over the head with it? When I first started reading the book I was excited by Berry’s ideas; by the end I just wanted to get it over with. For this reason, I would recommend taking a break between essays.
The Kindle file, inexplicably, has no table of contents. There is a bibliographic list of essays in the very back of the book, but you have to hunt for it, and it’s not interactive. It’s also difficult to tell when exactly some of these pieces were written. Some essays begin with a date, some end with a date, others are simply undated.
Whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, a Christian or a freethinker, you will find much food for thought in this collection of essays. If you care about the world in which we live, then Berry’s perspective is worth a listen.
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