I first tried to read Wendell Berry some forty years ago, starting with poetry and a novel. People I respect swear by his work. As a newspaper reporter I looked forward to interviewing farmers. Most were plain-spoken realists. Berry’s farm, Lane’s Landing, is in north central Kentucky, a region I have visited, and he often writes about farmers and farming. Berry was a friend of Guy Davenport, my foremost informal teacher, who lived in Lexington, Ky.
I have often tried to read Berry’s work in poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, but each time I stall after a few pages. Last week I borrowed from the library the two volumes of his essays published last year by the Library of America. The same thing happened. The best explanation I can come up with is that Berry has a certain flat earnestness of tone that I find off-putting. My idea of an essayist is Lamb or Beerbohm, a dance of irony, wit and style. I can’t accuse him of being a bad writer. I find almost all persuasive writing unpersuasive. His prose is clean. It’s a case in which the failing, beyond argument, is mine, a conclusion that makes me uneasy. Something John Wilson posted Tuesday on Twitter I find comforting:
“Some years you stopped reading X, w/ mixed feelings. Subsequently X went further & further awry (all the while, seemingly, gaining MORE respect!). You realize now that your decision back then should have been made sooner.”
My history with Berry is a little different from what Wilson describes. Closer to it is my protracted relationship with Witold Gombrowicz. I have eight of his volumes on my shelves, and I’ve read them all, along with others I don’t own. I have a soft spot for Polish writing. But Gombrowicz is a repellent character. The much-celebrated opening passage of his Diary (trans. Lillian Vallee; Yale University Press, 2012) sums up my distaste: “Monday – Me. Tuesday – Me. Wednesday --Me; Thursday – Me.” A parody of diary-keeping? A joke? I’m certain I will never read Gombrowicz again.
A precise example of the reader’s syndrome Wilson identifies in me is Thomas Pynchon. A high-school friend and I obsessively read the first two novels and I reviewed Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) for an “underground” magazine when it was published. I read Vineland when it came out in 1990. Already, my motivation was not pleasure but vanity and perhaps nostalgia. It was a slog and I haven’t read any of Pynchon’s subsequent novels.
If my tastes and capacities in books were unchanged from when I was thirteen or twenty-one, I would be a rather pathetic reader. Conversely, I remain loyal to a number of writers I read as a kid – foremost, Swift and Defoe. We’re obligated to read certain books but not to reread them.