What are people for? Essays by Wendell Berry

What are people for? Essays by Wendell Berry

I just realized that while I may not be old, I am old enough to no longer remember when certain personally influential writers came into my life. Few are more important to me than Wendell Berry. His lucid prose, his tight poetry, and the insight and clarity of his essays mean that whenever I pick up one of his books I will not be disappointed. In fact, I regularly re-read many of his books, and I always find myself jealous of his skill, he is truly a craftsman of words. 

As I read through these essays something felt different, but I had a hard time putting my finger on what. Near the end, I read this quote and a light went off, it is part of an essay from 1989 on why Berry chooses not to use a computer. He says that many people argue we all must use computers because it makes writing easier, faster, editing is easier and faster, we can produce more this way. “No.” Responds Berry, “My standards are not speed, ease and quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much.” I, of course, disagree with his overly modest opinion of his own writing, but then again, I haven’t read everything he ever wrote. What struck me, what makes Berry’s voice stand out among the multitude, is that Berry wants to be slow and thoughtful and wants to be read slowly and thoughtfully. Berry does not want his readers to read extremely quickly so that they can move on to (and purchase) another book. Berry forces the reader to slow down and think with him.

In a recent TedX talk I watched, I can’t recall who gave it, the speaker was talking about the need for thinking. She said that in too many workplaces if someone walks into your office and you are looking out the window/staring at the wall/”doing nothing” and they ask you what you are up to, if you say “thinking,” they will say “get back to work.” The implication, evidently, is that our employments need not involve thinking. That she is right leaves me understanding the supposed 78% of people in America who don’t like their jobs (I can’t recall where I saw that stat, but that it even seems possible is telling enough for me). Perhaps the person is more generous and says “sheesh, I wish I could sit around all day thinking…” The truth is that isn’t what the thinker is doing and if instead of thinking fast and jumping to extremes our interlocutor slowed down they would see that they too could not only spend some of their time figurin’ but both they and their work would likely benefit from embracing the practice.  My hunch is rarely will someone applaud the act of slowing down and pondering. Perhaps yet more rarely, they will ask what you were considering.

The title essay of this collection has to do with the very purpose of people. Berry is concerned that in a culture where everyone is waiting for time off, the weekend, the vacation, retirement, we must ask ourselves if our greatest dignity is found in unemployment? And “is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal?” Bitingly he argues, “In a country that puts an absolute premium on labor-saving measures, short workdays, and retirement, why should there be any surprise at permanence of unemployment and welfare dependency? Those are only different names for our national ambitions.” Sometimes Berry is enough to throw all of us into a mid-life crisis.

In the face of a culture almost allergic to thinking and the ultra-fast media saturated world we inhabit, Berry is a refreshingly thoughtful writer. The result: he can look at an issue and slowly work his way through the layers from the surface and dig down until he gets to the root of a matter. His work is not the result of “first thought-best thought” or “get it down by the deadline,” rather his work in the result of waiting, patiently sitting with an idea and allowing it to reveal the full breadth, depth, and dare I say it, beauty it contains.

I suggest if you haven’t read him look him up and read, slowly, whichever of his books looks most interesting to you. Over time you may find you are interested in far more topics than you imagined.




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