I’m still reading The World-Ending Fire, The Essential Wendell Berry. This morning it was a very short essay, ‘In Defense of Literacy’, written in 1970, when literacy was in a better state than it is now. Even so, the writing, so to speak, was on the wall. It’s more or less over now. We’re losing it. Got a fight on.
Of course, there are noble exceptions. I was also reading George Saunders this morning. Probably the best writer alive in the English-speaking world, I think I read that somewhere around the time he was winning the Book prize with Lincoln in the Bardo – ha hard read, not a starting place. You gotta take the language, the slippery argot, dangerous internal monologues, the manic self-talk, the truths. The swearing. But if you can stand the rude, the real, the revealing, George is your man. Read his short stories in the collections Civil War Land in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, The Tenth of December. Read ‘Sea Oak’. Read ‘Pastoralia’.
But to return to Wendell Berry. He quotes Edwin Muir’s, ‘The Island’ , a poem I’ve not read but will find later today, and mentions Thoreau and Ezra Pound, writing of them,
These men spoke of a truth that no society can afford to shirk for long: we are dependent, for understanding, and for consolation and hope, upon what we learn of ourselves from songs and stories. This has always been so, and it will not change.
What touched me here was Berry’s imperturbable belief in the necessity of song and story, a necessity which demands survival, ‘this has always been so, and it will not change.’ It is not always easy to see necessity, to spot it, to identify its pressures and demands, though they are there, pressing. (Read The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing). I read again. It is our dependency that ‘will not change’ in Berry’s careful sentences. What happens to us when we don’t have the stuff we depend on? We get sick, we don’t work right.
Berry’s short essay warns that practical language, the quick, slick language of selling you stuff, including books, language ‘to be read once and thrown away’, won’t feed us. There are no nutrients! For that we need a richer diet, ‘works that have proved worthy of devoted attention’.
This used to be the basis of Eng. Lit courses and one way the guys who ran them justified their selections. I met a few really heart-wise men in my English degree days and I’m glad of them, but also (to use the language of Mr Saunders) I found some of those guys were lazy copiers who just did what everyone else did. Some of those people were not brave. Some could not think. Some did not love literature. Some seemed to have no hearts! For an antidote to all that dead academic Eng Lit stuff (which unfortunately is still alive and kicking the reality of reading out of class) you need Joseph Gold’s The Story Species, which I’ve also been rereading lately. He talks about his early life in Eng Lit departments:
I began by asking questions about Literature, this certain form of language, half a century ago. They fell on ears so deaf that I gave up asking for a couple of decades.
What is story? What role does Literature play in human evolution and in individual lives? What role do transferred words play in the biological and social life of readers? How is the product of reading stored in the body of the reader? What has taken place in the event that you take a novel off the shelf, read it and return it? where does the power of a book lie?
Ah, time up, got to go to have a swim, no time to proffread. forgive my pselling mitaskes.