What Are People For?

Wendell Berry
North Point Press, 1990

146153I’ve been to a Wendell Berry book signing where he talked to a crowd near a thousand people. I was naively surprised that he would have such a following in Salt Lake City. Berry does not write to the popular market or to a reader who won’t read deliberately and thoughtfully.

All twenty-two of the essays in this slim book are written with a moral authority and integrity that thinks deeply, doesn’t flinch during argument (and he does argue), and deeply roots himself in an academic, and some would say elite, background. Written in the 1980s, these essays on creativity, education, farming, quality of life, and related topics stand the test of time. His sources and supporting arguments are usually poets, writers, the Bible, and obscure historical documents he could only find through deliberate, painstaking research. The flaw some would find could be Berry’s lack of acceptance of modernity or current research data at the time of writing.

He is a philosopher farmer in Kentucky whose first essay, Damage, is a four-page review of a farming mistake he made by trying to build a pond on his farm. When it becomes evident he hurt the land, he explains how he feels related to his mistake, the natural world, and art. It ends with, “But a man with a machine and inadequate culture–such as I was when I made my pond–is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.” The book has now established Berry as a seeker of knowledge who knows he is mortal.

From that point he continues his Thoreau-type essays perfect for reading while sitting under a large oak tree with essays on Edward Abbey, his teacher Wallace Stegner, criticisms of Hemingway and Mark Twain, the need for diversity farming, responsible eating, and importance of community and culture. A near final essay covers his reasons for not buying a computer, and was first printed in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly and then in Harper’s.

His first reason is superficially correct, “The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces,” which is a pencil. Then he went on to write, “My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and is as good now as it was then.” Oh my, did he ever hit a nerve in those early computer days. The reader response shook his usual tranquility.

Harper’s allowed him to respond to the pillory from men and women who were clear about his sexism and fear of technology. The resulting nineteen-page essay that follows entitled, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” is his answer.

Wendell Berry is a poetic man of the soil who ponders the universe, God, and his place in it. His writing is thoughtful and dense, certainly not easy beach reading. Since the book signing with near a thousand people, I’ve respected his strength and following as he guides readers as a powerful undercurrent in popular media.

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13 Responses to What Are People For?

  1. I haven’t read him. Will have to add to my l-o-n-g reading list. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I know what you mean. Too many good books, too little time.

  3. Did he happen to read Isaac Asimov’s “Caliban”? I’m sure there’s a lecture in there with the question “What are people for?” in it…

  4. He certainly could have. His take on it in the essay that named is the book, is farmers are being kicked off the farms for numerous reasons to make room for an industrial agricultural monster that will ruin the integrity of the food chain. He also does not like to see everyone is cities. They need to have more connection with land.

  5. iamforchange says:

    http://iamforchange.wordpress.com/awards-page-and-nominations-thank-you-i-am-so-honored-and-grateful/ So many have shared so much with me and I wish to share as well please accept my nominations and if nothing else know I am grateful for your sharing on your pages with us all and the time you share with me on mine.Thank you!! 🙂 Joe

  6. Carrie Rubin says:

    Oh, my, life without a computer? I can’t imagine. I really don’t want to go back to my typewriter days. 😉

  7. Me either! I wouldn’t be surprised if he has secretly come to use one.

  8. Wendell Berry. Sounds like an interesting writer – might look him up. Yes, the typing comment was a bit of a slip up!

  9. Especially by today’s standards. I wonder if he uses a computer now.

  10. Wow, Wendell Berry, I haven’t heard that name since college days! A book signing sounds very interesting, I have never seen in person an author I’ve read. cool. My son’s office is near Harold Bloom’s office and I’m a bit in awe of that, for sure, which is probably why he keeps me away from there, he thinks I’m gonna break in with a sharpie and an autograph book!

  11. As a “fellow” mother I well appreciate the humor, power to embarrass our children (what happened to the days of we could do no wrong?), and self-revelation that they may well be right we’d burst in with sharpie and autograph book!

  12. Kathy says:

    I’ve read only a few of Berry’s poems. It looks a if I’ve missed a lot. Thank you for introducing me to his work.

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