If people came with warning labels, that would be one of mine. Among the books I loan most often, and care the least to have returned, are the novels of Wendell Berry. While his renowned essays tell us of the strengths and perils of farm economy, the novels show us. Please, nobody idealize or romanticize country life! It’s work, risk, often dreary, often dirty, and by no means as noble as movies want you to think.
That being said, many besides me have called The Memory of Old Jack either “the best book I have ever read in my whole life” – Adam, Amish farmer, age 22 – or the Great American novel, setting out from the view of an elderly farmer, on the last day of his life, the sweeping change in American work and culture from a land-based to a commerce-based economy. It doesn’t sugar-coat it, either – one reason we love it so.
That book shows you – along with Berry’s much later (and more reflective) Jayber Crow. The one that tells you – and this is not beach reading, rather a slog, and not for anyone lacking patience for non-fiction – but not without humor, pathos or beauty, either – is The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. If you have opinions about farming, about GMO’s, about our food system, or even about the part government has to play in all that, this is required reading. Few have said it, no one has said it as well.
(Few have read it either: in fact, no one I know of for sure but me.)
Jane Austen has been “hot” (she would cringe) for about 30 years now, but I wonder if much of that isn’t either sentimental images of a simpler time (for women, at least, life was not simple!) or just the taste for costume drama. I read all her novels over, once every couple of years. And yes, they are escape: but I never read one without seeing fresh insight into human nature (but a lot more fun than self-help books).
The one I recommend most often for young people is Sense and Sensibility. The title contrasts with the modern meaning of “sensible.” In Jane’s culture, “sensible” was the equivalent of today’s “sensitive,” or even, “self-indulgent.” The book counteracts the last 50 years of popular romance in music, movies, books and out there in bars, which I sum up as “I can’t help how I feel.” Jane says, “Yes you can… and you need to.”
S & S also has my favorite JA line of all, the counterintuitive “Nothing can be more natural than to resent someone whom we have used ill.”
Kamongo: the Lungfish and the Padre, by Homer W. Smith, is obscure. Not even sure where my copy came from: it’s certainly gotten around a lot since I acquired it. It reads as a debate between missionary and paleontologist, but not about creationism or the age of the earth: the rather refreshing missionary accepts the evidence of science. What it’s about is a fish that drowns in water: originally an adaptation allowing it to survive drought, the lungfish’s apparent “evolutionary advance” has become a dead end. The (I hope) logical question is whether the opposable thumb has become a similar dead end, as we rely on technology to supply needs and controls once provided by our communities.
India – happily for me, as I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about it since The Jungle Books at age 10 – has become a major world player, and a fascinating one. Have to add, turning out much of its own world-class literature, and has been for decades in fact. To know more, start with a book that will draw you in, keep you entertained for multiple readings, and give you a broad and colorful picture to fill in: Rudyard Kipling’s beloved (by lots of Indians, too!) Kim.
Of course Kipling was a jingoistic imperialist! That’s a reason to read the book, not to avoid it. This was the era of “British [ahem!] Exceptionalism.” We need to know about that, so we can recognize it wherever it occurs.
People who encouraged me to Blog because “you have something to say,” went on to tell me to get on Facebook, to “reach” more people. Reach, maybe. But Facebook isn’t for readers. If the title sounds agreeable, you Like it and Share it, all your 534 Friends decide whether to Like or Share it, and nobody actually reads the article. Convinced of this.
Lately this Blog has been going heavy on images and light on text, just assuming that Shares better. Readers, this one’s for you.
No pictures? OK, one.