Thoughts from Wendell Berry

I really enjoyed Wendell Berry’s, What Are People For?, published in 1990 and reprinted in 2010. This collection features essay-poems, insightful book reviews, periodical columns, and other essays centered around thoughtful living, neglecting the local in favor of the national, environmental and ecological care, pleasure, and technological progress. Each are thought-provoking and masterfully written in their own way. Berry is a conscientious, lucid, and brilliant writer whose words we would benefit to consider and apply.

The most profound and influential of the essays for me was “Economy and Pleasure,” which expressed concerns on capitalism, industry, and local culture that I have been chewing over for some time, but have been too dumb to actually articulate. Other highlights include “What Are People For?,” “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” “The Pleasures of Eating,” and “The Work of Local Culture.” In general, Part I is made up of two poem-essays, book reviews, and literary criticism. There are profound nuggets sprinkled in Part I, but Part II is where Berry really shines, reflecting on the local, pleasure, economy, work, food, nature, the cultural mandate, and technology. “Economy and Pleasure” is worth the price of the book alone. Here are some of my favorite thought-provoking excerpts. As with all quotations, it is best to read them in the context of the whole.

“What a trial that ought to be for us, whose public falsehoods, betrayals of trust, aggressions, injustices, and imminent catastrophes are now almost exclusively the work of the college bred. What a trial, in fact, that is for us, and how guilty it proves us: we think it ordinary to spend twelve or sixteen or twenty years of a person’s life and many thousands of public dollars on ‘education’ – and not a dime or a thought on character. Of course, it is preposterous to suppose that character could be cultivated by any sort of public program. Persons of character are not public products. They are made by local cultures, local responsibilities. That we have so few such persons does not suggest that we ought to start character workshops in schools. It does suggest that ‘up’ may be the wrong direction.” -from “A Remarkable Man,” 1975, p. 26.

“The great question that hovers over this issue, one that we have dealt with mainly by indifference, is the question of what people are for. Is their greatest dignity in unemployment? Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal? One would conclude so from our attitude toward work, especially the manual work necessary to the long-term preservation of the land, and from our rush toward mechanization, automation, and computerization. In a country that puts an absolute premium on labor-saving measures, short workdays, and retirement, why would there be any surprise at permanence of unemployment and welfare dependency? Those are only different names for our national ambitions.” -from “What Are People For?,” 1985, p. 125.

“More and more, we take for granted that work must be destitute of pleasure. More and more, we assume that if we want to be pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation, or retirement. More and more, our farms and forests resemble our factories and offices, which in turn more and more resemble prisons – why else should we be so eager to escape them? We recognize defeated landscapes by the absence of pleasure from them. We are defeated at work because our work gives us no pleasure. We are defeated at home because we have no pleasant work there. We turn to the pleasure industries for relief from our defeat, and are again defeated, for the pleasure industries can thrive and grow only upon our dissatisfaction with them.
     “Where is our comfort but in the free, uninvolved, finally mysterious beauty and grace of this world that we did not make, that has no price? Where is our sanity but there? Where is our pleasure but in working and resting kindly in the presence of this world?” -from “Economy and Pleasure,” 1988, pp. 139-140.

“It is plain to me that the line ought to be drawn without fail wherever it can be drawn easily. And it ought to be easy (though many do not find it so) to refuse to buy what one does not need. If you are already solving your problem with the equipment you have – a pencil, say – why solve it with something more expensive and more damaging? If you don’t have a problem, why pay for a solution? If you love the freedom and elegance of simple tools, why encumber yourself with something complicated?
     “And yet, if we are ever again to have a world fit and pleasant for little children, we are surely going to have to draw the line where it is not easily drawn. We are going to have to learn to give up things that we have learned (in only a few years, after all) to ‘need.’ I am not an optimist; I am afraid that I won’t live long enough to escape my bondage to the machines. Nevertheless, on everyday left to me I will search my mind and circumstances for the means of escape. And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.” -from “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” 1989, p. 196.

And for a change of pace, here is an audio excerpt from “Economy and Pleasure:”


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