Book Review: The Art of the Commonplace

The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian EssaysThe Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry

Norman Wirzba edited this collection of essays and wrote the introduction. Mr. Wirzba himself has written and edited books, essays, and articles on caring for creation, living in harmony with creation, food and faith, and related subjects.

Wendell Berry’s writing is a joy to read. In it we find such sentiments as these: “It is not from ourselves that we will learn to be better than we are.” (from the essay “A Native Hill”) and “Respect, I think, always implies an imagination—the ability to see one another across our inevitable differences as living souls.” (from the essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.”)

Wendell Berry’s writing is difficult to read. His writing is prophetic; he does not write to make his readers comfortable or to make his readers feel good about themselves. He hands down indictments of many institutions that are embedded in Western culture: consumerism, corporate greed, and the leisure and entertainment cultures.

Not everyone who reads Wendell Berry holds him in high regard. Allen T. Stanton, a Methodist pastor, wrote Why I Hate Wendell Berry for Duke University’s online publication Faith & Leadership. The argument is easy to understand. Wendell Berry’s writings, especially his essays, are seen as idealizing, or romanticizing small-town and rural life. Those of us who’ve never lived in a small town or spent time on a farm often buy into the idealized vision. If we’ve read enough of Berry, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals), or even Ragan Sutterfield (Cultivating Reality), we assume that we know how to fix America’s agricultural and food systems.

It brings to mind this quote from Meaghan Hammond in This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm: “This second-guessing of basic animal husbandry, often to satisfy a grocery shopper who has never been on on a farm, is a sore point for almost anyone engaged in raising livestock these days.”

What, then, is the point of reading agrarian writers or those who write on related subjects? It is to try to understand what has been lost in our relationships with the food that we eat and to try to find ways of restoring a proper relationship with food and with those who produce it from wherever we are in the food supply chain.

If Wendell Berry’s writing is nothing else, it is  call to action for thoughtful readers. In that spirit, please consider these action items from the final essay in this collection, “The Pleasures of Eating,” which also appears in his collection What Are People For?

  1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard or even just a porch box or a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat in it. Make a little compost of your kitchen scraps and use it for fertilizer. Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to seed to flower to fruit to food to offal to decay, and around again. You will be fully responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it. You will appreciate it fully, having known it all its life.
  2. Prepare your own food. This means reviving in your own mind and life the arts of kitchen and household. This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of “quality control”: you will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat.
  3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home. The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.
  4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. All the reasons listed for the previous suggestion apply here. In addition, by such dealing you eliminate a whole pack of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producers and consumers.
  5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production. What is added to food that is not food, and what do you pay for these additions?
  6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.
  7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.

I have not read many collections of essays, and I would imagine this is true of other essayists: All of the essays in this book have also been published in other collections. Each of the following collections of Berry’s essays includes at least two of the essays in The Art of the Commonplace:

  • What are People For?
  • Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community
  • The Gift of Good Land
  • The Unsettling of America
  • Home Economics

Wendell Berry might have mixed thoughts about this observation. On the one hand, if your public library consortium has a fair collection of Wendell Berry’s works, you can probably read all of essays without buying any of his books of essays. Patronizing a community resource such as the library is certainly in the spirit of the lifestyle that Berry advocates. On the other hand, he earns an income from the sale of these collections and other works. My first choice is always to borrow books from the library if I can.

Thanks as always for stopping by!


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