Book Review: Wendell Berry and the Given Life
by Brent Schnipke
Conventional wisdom suggests that reading to your children benefits them in myriad ways: it stimulates language and learning centers of the brain, creates a bond between parents and children, and emphasizes the value of books and reading. I recently learned that this practice is beneficial from birth, even before the infant can truly discriminate sounds. Further, it doesn't matter so much what you read, because just the act of reading aloud works on the areas of bonding and stimulates brain development. Given this, I made an unconventional choice while reading to my three-week old son, choosing portions of Wendell Berry and the Given Life, the recent book by Ragan Sutterfield. Choosing to read aloud forced me, as one might expect, to go a little slower, but I'm not sure that Berry (or Sutterfield) would recommend anything less.
It might be easiest to define this book by what it is not. It is definitively not a biography of Wendell Berry, which is a good thing, considering how often and forcefully he has rejected the idea of a biography himself. (One of my favorite Berry quotes regarding this is from an interview with The New York Times, when he was asked who he would want to write his life story: “A horrible thought. Nobody. As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.”) Sutterfield acknowledges this at the outset as well and offers only cursory demographic information. This book is also not a dissertation-style explication of a single author’s work; Sutterfield generally stays away from literary criticism at all. The book is only 150 pages and written in relatively plain language, which also excludes it from the average critical analysis.
Instead, the mission of the book is laid out early and adhered to well: to cast a cohesive vision of what Berry writes about across the breadth of his work, which includes his poetry, fiction, and essays. Sutterfield does spend some time placing Berry’s work in context, and of course any reader of Berry’s knows how important context – specifically place – is to him and his writing. This is the first book I’ve read, to my memory, of this style; writing exclusively about an author and his work, but not attempting to analyze the work in a typical criticism style. I suspect that Sutterfield – a writer, teacher, and naturalist, who is obviously very familiar with Berry’s work – wrote this book for the same reason I would: he loves the works of Wendell Berry. Berry’s writing is uniquely rich and covers ground that is both narrow in scope and endlessly complex, and Wendell Berry and the Given Life seeks to tease out some of the major themes.
The book reads almost as a series of essays, with each chapter serving as a mini-essay about a topic that is eminent throughout Berry’s many books: Work and Sabbath, Humility and Fidelity, Economics and Membership. The author’s system seemed to have revolved around locating a prevalent theme and exploring what this means to Berry, drawing across the full span of his work. The fact that this is possible serves as a testament to Berry’s diverse skills as a writer, yet also displays a remarkable clarity and unity of purpose. (Few authors can write prominently about a topic such as marriage in any genre; even fewer can do it in multiple genres, and this book highlights this important fact about Wendell Berry).
Further, Sutterfield writes solidly about these topics not only through Berry’s lens, but through personal experience and a wide variety of other authors (St. Benedict, Simone Weil, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others). As mentioned previously, the writing is clear and keenly readable. One of my professors used to say that good writing engenders good writing (this is why I started writing book reviews myself), and it shows in this book. The author’s own descriptions of nature and his personal experiences are an important part of the narrative, and it is evident that he is a thoughtful reader and good writer.
The book succeeds mostly because of this last point – the author’s willingness to explore the writings of Berry and draw out key themes, and then connect those themes to everyday life. He notes several times throughout the book how important praxis is – reading about new ideas or radical ways of thinking may be intellectually stimulating, but unless they can offer real change for how we live in the world, they are little more than entertainment. This is of course in direct keeping with Berry himself. Sutterfield writes: “What Berry writes about is not some abstract moralism. His is a coherent understanding of creatureliness that is born from soil and husbandry and home.” He offers a multitude of ideas about how to do this, from farmer’s markets to starting a garden to simply taking a walk in nature on the Sabbath.
Perhaps it is ironic how quickly this book reads, because reading Berry is a much slower process. This is not to say that Berry’s writing isn’t clear – it is rather its clarity and depth that requires slowing down. Sutterfield draws on this, but translates much of it to a simpler narrative. Further, although I agree with both the casting of unified vision and the utility of drawing parallels between Berry’s works, I'm not sure how much it's needed. The ideas laid out here are apparent from reading Berry’s works directly, particularly his essays. In fact, my only criticism of Wendell Berry and the Given Life is that it wasn’t written by Berry; after reading, I find myself wanting to revisit some of my favorite Berry books and expand the list of his essays I’ve read.
I would recommend this book to fans of Berry, but not at the expense of reading the author himself. This book highlights the impressive body of literature that he has created and does a fine job of drawing connections between the many books. The most salient points it offered me concerned how to live differently because of what I read. I found myself marking the pages about community, about slowing down, about knowing my neighbors and remembering the importance of treating others well. These are all things that I want to do, and things I’d like to teach my son as well. To that end, I hope that reading this to my son reminds me to actually model the behavior – and in a few years, I’ll have him read the writing of Wendell Berry for himself.
Brent Schnipke is a fourth-year medical student and writer in Dayton, OH. His professional interests include educational, mental health and narrative medicine. In his free time he likes reading at local coffee shops, exploring the city and wider world, and spending time with his wife and son.