I love Wendell Berry. I think I’ve read more of his books than any other author’s. I’ve had the honor of seeing him speak on three different occasions. When he came and spoke to a rapt crowd at a packed barn in my (then) small town, I was thrilled that he signed my post-it-note-laden, cover-is-delaminating, I-recommend-it-to-everyone-who-expresses-an-interest copy of The Art of the Commonplace. I have had nothing but massive respect for the man and (most of) what he stands for.
With that context in mind, it kills me to admit any crack in my admiration for Mr. Berry. Now that I’ve started examining that crack, however, I’m realizing that I’ve had a few misgivings all along. This has sparked a familiar sort of grief: the grief that comes from removing someone from a pedestal I had them on.
In the first essay in The Art of Loading Brush (Counterpoint, 2017), “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age,” Mr. Berry repeatedly compares screen addiction to drug addiction, but worse “because it wears the aura of technological progress and social approval.” Now I’ll agree that screens have caused (and/or are symptoms of? How can we be sure which came first?) some serious issues in modern society and to the surface of the earth itself. I also appreciate that he’s very consistently held down the anti-technology side of that argument (his 1987 Harper’s essay “Why I am NOT going to buy a computer” prompted this interesting back-and-forth), even if I don’t . So I was willing to let that slide.
(I should mention that I was reading The Art of Loading Brush on the plane on my Kobo e-reader; though I’ve long been aware that my jet-setting ways and addiction to technology make me part of the problem, so to speak, I would like to think that I’m not finding fault in his representation of things out of defensiveness. For instance: how many people, I wonder, are familiar with Mr. Berry’s work thanks to screens?)
It was Mr. Berry’s extended defense against an unnamed “eco-critic” that wore me out, almost to the point of not reading any further (I did soldier on, which is how I got to the rant against screens, but I didn’t get much farther than that), and this gets me to the questions I’d love to talk through with someone who is more familiar with the man and the evolution of his thoughts than I am:
Why devote so many pages of a book to debunking one person’s critical statements? Have perhaps many people thrown the baby of insights out with the bathwater of his origins in tobacco farming? Have others accused him of being racist? Is it possible that he is? What difference should that make (and I’m thinking of the #metoo movement here to) in how we interpret his ideas?
On a larger scale: might Mr. Berry be feeling like all his hard work to share his views has failed to make a difference as he faces the twilight of years? Or has his writing always carried this sort of tone and I’ve just found it easier to ignore before now? At what point has something become so commonplace that it’s time to give up fighting it?
Why doesn’t he write about organizations whose work does align more closely with his vision of intact and thriving local economies, such as the ones where I have served as an employee: Slow Money, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, RSF Social Finance? Maybe he has, and I just haven’t read those pieces?
To the point about technology and appropriate channels for various types of conversation, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: Might I have been more sympathetic of his critique of his critic had he posted it as, for instance, a Tweet storm, one that the original critic and others could have tweeted back into?
I’ve got lots more questions that I haven’t found the words to articulate yet. What are you thoughts about Wendell Berry’s latest writings? Leave a comment, get in touch… I want to talk this through!