Book Review: The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry

Title: The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry
Author: Wendell Berry
Genre: Essays, non-fiction
Publisher: Shoemaker & Hoard
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy borrowed from a friend

We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled. ~p. 20, from “A Native Hill”

Back cover blurb:The Art of the Commonplace gathers twenty-one essays by Wendell Berry that offer an agrarian alternative to our dominant urban culture. These essays promote a clearly defined and compelling vision important to all people dissatisfied with the stress, anxiety, ill-health, and destructiveness of contemporary American culture.

Why is agriculture becoming culturally irrelevant, and at what cost? What are the forces of social disintegration, and how might they be reversed? How might men and women live together in ways that are to the benefit of both? And, how does the corporate takeover of social institutions and economic practices contribute to the destruction of human and natural environments?

Through his staunch support of local economies, his defense of farming communities, and his call for family integrity, Berry emerges as the champion of responsibilities and priorities that serve the health, vitality and happiness of the whole community of creation.”

How do I even begin to review this book? It is dense, thought-provoking, convicting, and mind-changing. In fact, there really is no way to “review” it. Some of these essays are intellectual and deep and require slow reading. Others are more easily accessible to those not familiar with the agrarian philosophy. All of them are worthy of much time and contemplation. While I may not agree with every single conclusion Berry asserts, there were many points that had me nodding my head in agreement and wishing that we could turn back the clock to a simpler time. I realize that isn’t possible, and so am having to look at other ways to change the way I think about community, food, health, and the economy. I really can’t say anything else to do this book justice, and so will let Berry’s words speak for himself.

The hill is like an old woman, all her human obligations met, who sits at work day after day, in a kind of rapt leisure, at an intricate embroidery. She has time for all things. Because she does not expect ever to be finished, she is endlessly patient with details. She perfects flower and leaf, feather and song, adorning the briefest life in great beauty as though it were meant to last forever. ~p. 28, from “A Native Hill”

A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure. But he is doing something else that is more important: he is making vital contact with the soil and the weather on which his life depends. He will no longer look upon rain as an impediment of traffic, or upon the sun as a holiday decoration. And his sense of man’s dependence on the world will have grown precise enough, one would hope, to be politically clarifying and useful. ~p. 88-89, from “Think Little”

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14 Responses to Book Review: The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry

  1. Rebecca Rasmussen

    Oh how I love Wendell Berry! He is such an inspiration to me and how we should care for the people and the world around us. Great non review review 🙂

  2. Kailana says:

    Sounds really great. My library of course has nothing by him, but I am interested now!

    I need to find an essay collection to read… Not having much luck on that yet!

  3. bermudaonion (Kathy)
    Twitter: bermudaonion

    Hm, this might be a little dense for me, but it sounds like I could tackle it essay by essay and learn something.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Kathy – it definitely is one that you have to read slowly in order to digest.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Sounds like an eye-opening, thought-provoking read.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Kathleen – thought-provoking is a perfect way to describe Wendell Berry!

  5. Melissa says:

    This sounds like my kind of reading…thanks for bringing it to my attention…I’m going to see if I can find it at my library!

  6. This book just arrived in the mail from Paperbackswap this week! I think I’ve been waiting for it for two years! But I know that it won’t be a quick read. Like Kathleen says, he is thought-provoking.

    Thanks for your thoughts on it and for the quotes.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Oh, Carol -you are in for a treat! Two years – now that is patience. 🙂

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