I started reading Wendell Berry 22 years ago. Sort of amazing really. I was an 18 year old city girl going to college in a new town. What affinity could I have for books written by a farmer who was older than my parents? But along with Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez–because the three of them always go together in my mind–Wendell Berry gave me characters that reveled in the created world that was steeped in a religious sensibility. Their works were not something that would be found on the shelves of the local Bible bookstore, but they were nourishing, they were formative in deep ways.
I’ve read all of Wendell Berry many times over but find it very difficult to recommend a place to start. His fiction is interconnected; characters you meet in one story are often bit players in another. But in the essays too, the same themes come up again and again. And for me the more I read, the more affection I had for the man, and the more my understanding grew.
I think I would begin with the poems (but not the Sabbath poems). Even long poems are short. There’s not much commitment. If you don’t like one, you can always turn the page and start another. But if you do find something you like, the lines will keep singing to you all day long. I’d start with The Country of Marriage or The Wheel. These are the poems you’ll hear me quoting from, these are the lines that have informed the last 22 years.
Then I’d read his biography of Harlan Hubbard. The Hubbards lived down the river from Wendell and were a major influence on his life. They lived very simply and made art and loved each other. This book will fill up your commonplace book with delicious quotes!
Then I’d listen to Wendell himself read selections from the essays in What Are People For? You’ll have to find these used and dig out your cassette player, but it is oh so worth it to hear the humor and complexity in his voice. Words that sound strident and harsh on the page, dance off his tongue. It’s not that Wendell isn’t strident and harsh–that’s exactly why some people like him. But that’s not all he is. And his voice helps me find that other stream.
And finally some fiction…generally speaking I think his writing has gotten better over time, so his more recent work is better than the older stuff. But the interrelated stories inform each other, and what you know of a character in one instance helps you understand the implications of what happens in another story. If you’re in the market for a good, thick novel maybe start with Jayber Crow. Or my favorite, A Place on Earth. The novels both take place during World War II, and were written 33 years apart. In many ways the older work, A Place on Earth, is a darker, more pessimistic novel. But it’s aging very well.
Or you might start by just searching for Wendell Berry on this blog! I’ve shared quite a few of his poems here over the years. What was the first Wendell Berry you read? Or where do you recommend starting?