Minding My Business: Wendell Berry’s take on Literature, Ray Dalio’s Principles and William Stafford’s Ritual To Read To Each Other

The Reader R Black

It’s all business at the moment.

I’m gearing up for a new financial year, a new planning year, a new make-the-organisation-again year at The Reader and I am working on organisational thinking things, which also require writing  and reading but not of this readerly-blog-sort. Most of my early morning time is being spent on business books and organisational thinking. Some of that organisational thinking  needs poetry, and a poem  I often turn to at work is William Stafford’s ‘A Ritual To Read To Each Other‘.

There are many copies of the poem on the internet and I’m using the one at  The Poetry Foundation.

Trying to translate everything I learn from my life in literature  into my work as the Founder and Director of The Reader is a difficult task but surely, it is the task for me? If The Reader isn’t made out of reading I don’t know what is.

If The Reader’s mission is a reading revolution, what is the post-revolutionary world? A world informed by, shaped by, made new by what we can learn from reading great books. It’s easy to say ‘a world’, but so much harder to make one. In a small way, I want to make that world at The Reader.

Before the advent of The Reader (the organisation, the movement and Calderstones all started with The Reader magazine, which is twenty-one this Spring)  the main thing I had to make from my engagement with literature was myself. There were ripple effects  on my students, too, I believe, but those ripples were much  harder to judge than the effect of literature on me, which I know from inside. Making a self is a lifetime task, as reading and tussling with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets has taught me:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.

At some point long ago, when I still worked in a university, I read Wendell Berry’s essay, ‘The Loss of The University’  ( find it in the collection of essays Standing on Earth) and realised what was wrong with literary studies. I don’t have the book here at home (it’s in the office) so cannot check the quotation, but essentially  Wendell Berry argues that literary scholars teach students to learn about works of literature rather than from them.  I’d not been an ‘about’ student or teacher, but I’d never put my instinct on this into words until I saw the words Wendell Berry used. That was key moment of shocked recognition. Now I carry that formulation with me : don’t learn about it, learn from it. You get the literary, rather than the historical, experience that way.

I want to use what I have learned from forty years of reading literature to make a good organisation that does good work, and works well.

But the difficulties of organisation-making are immense. Since I’ve been working on The Reader I have developed a massive respect for anyone who gets any kind of business /organisation/ project off the ground. A garden centre, a new building,  a plane ticket, the Olympics. Because  everything is so complicated, compromises must always be made – plastic bottles or glass bottles? –  and short-cuts must be taken, but which short-cut is a readerly organisation willing to take? You’ve deadlines to meet: will you cut out the day’s reading or your one-to-one with a sadly troubled colleague or will you miss the  bid deadline and potential income? (Clue: cut the one that will still be do-able tomorrow).

Let’s take a straightforwardly contentious issue: what’s fair in  terms of pay? This is a massive unsolvable problem and for years I’ve been tempted towards a simple solution: pay everyone the same! But that’s not fair, because some people put in more than others, some shoulder more responsiblility, some are highly valued in the outside-world-markets of skills. And, yes,  the organisation must exist within the terms of the outside world, even as  things I have learned in my life in literature tell me to build a new and better world. So it’s always a case of  compromise and adjust, work out  what’s the nearest thing to fair that fits the situation and meets legislation. Or you can just copy what most people/other organisations do.

This is what William Stafford might mean when he talks about ‘a pattern  that others made’:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
           our star.

These patterns that others made – from payscales to  maternity leave entitlements to meeting agendas to dresscode – are everywhere and are the norm in the world. They may cause massive loss of  potential and misdirection. For William Stafford this all begins at a personal, individual level. Do we know each other? Do you know the kind of person I am?

I wonder about ‘kind’ here: does it mean ‘type’, or almost ‘species’ ?

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
How well do you have to know someone to know the ‘kind of person’ they are? I try using the phrase  – Jane is the kind of person who thinks everyone getting the same amount of money is the answer to pay inequality/thinks eating together at work matters/would like to have a communal song every morning/always wants people to have another chance, right up to the wire/thinks you can use great literature to help build an organisation/will change her mind.
This is not very deep or very personal – most people  I work with  will know most of the above, though have to admit, have not had the courage to mention my longing for a song.  And there are other  things I haven’t added to this list, for reasons  of reputation. But do we even mostly know stuff at this level, openly ? Is it openly acknowledged?  Possibly not because look how quickly, in the next stanza, things fall apart.  (and the stuff I haven’t mentioned – how open might I or my colleagues be about that?)
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.
We start off at quite a superficial level, possibly (‘if’) not knowing the kind of person we’re talking to and then we hit the word ‘betrayal’. This isn’t merely superficial ‘kind of’ knowing, is it?  What we know or are willing to have known matters.
The betrayal is only ‘in the mind’  – you don’t say it or let it be seen –  but  still, a betrayal is a big thing.
Like the shrug –  you’d think it was not  much. You’re just letting something go, can’t fix everything, can’t get everything right.  Next thing you know, the ‘fragile sequence’ is broken.
What is that ‘fragile sequence’? It’s certainly connected to ‘god’ and ‘home’ : perhaps it’s something to do with how we behave or how we be our (whatever they are) selves? Pehaps it is the civil contract of being adult with each other? For when the fragile sequence breaks, it’s our more primitive selves that come to the fore:
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.
Small things lead to big. Bit of a shrug,  then someone is in a mess and suffering the patterns of behaviour laid down in childhood – the shouting, the storming, the trauma.
These thoughts  were already with me when I read Ray Dalio’s Principles over the Christmas break, have been, because of this and other works of literature, with me for years. When I started reading Principles there was the same kind of recognition  I had had with the Wendell Berry all those years ago. Dalio’s a money man, a markets analyst and he runs one of the most successful companies in the world. What could he have to offer The Reader, to old pay-everyone-the-same-Jane?
Principles begins with the kind of person Ray Dalio is – he wants us to know  that before we get into business together.  The book is in two halves – parts 1&2 about Ray and the kind of man he is and what he believes about life, and  then part 3, work principles.
His basic  message for me is life is evolution:  live, suffer, work out what went wrong, try to fix it.
I believe that everything that happens comes about because of cause-effect relationships that repeat and evolve over time. At the big bang, all the laws and forces of the universe were created and propelled forward, interacting with each other over time like a complex series of machines that work together: the strucuture of the galaxies, the make-up of Earth’s geography and ecosystems, our economies and markets, and each one of us. Individually we are machines made up of different machines – our circulatory systems, our nervous systems, and so on – that produce our thoughts, our dreams, our emotions, and every other aspect of our distinct personalities. All these machine are evolving together to produce the reality we encounter every day.
It’s a trouble for me that Ray Dalio uses the word ‘machine’ in exactly the same way that it is a trouble for me that George Herbert uses the word ‘God’.  I have to use my translating mechanism in both cases, and in  exactly the same way – don’t get hung up on it. Just accept he’s different (the kind of person he is) and that he still has a lot to offer me. What has the most to offer? His analytic skills  and willingness to arrive at truth are remarkable.
See Ray Dalio’s TED talk  here.



The American Scholar, Wendell Berry, Bion’s groups and no more Parrots

unknown plant growing from wall on seashore
Unknown plant growing in a wall at the shore, Kotor Bay, 22 July

Yesterday I reread the Emerson’s  ‘The American Scholar’ , thinking of Bion but also of Wendell Berry’s tremendous and for me hugely significant essay, ‘The Loss of the University’ (buy a pdf download here for $3 but there’s also a volume here.). Berry argues that with no unifying language (e.g. religion, poetry, literature) a university becomes a mere technical college where ‘skills’ can be taught to distinct professions, but the  making of human beings, which ought to be the  role of the university, ceases.

I think  it is absolutely true that making human beings is not the province of  modern universities and nothing could be further from modern curricula at all levels than asking students to think about what makes a good human being. We need  to imagine what the study of literature could do for  humanity.  Oh but what vision that would take.  ‘Without vision,’ writes Emerson, quoting the Bible, ‘the people perish.’

Trying to put together  some of these thoughts which really need a week  to emerge into something thoughtful and considered, and  here can only be  short lumpy little notes to self so I don’t forget I was interested in this…

This is an old idea – is it an ancient  Jewish story  about light being broken into fragments of sparks? –  but I was struck, because of the Bion thought about a group being, as it were, a human alphabet, a-z,  with everything you might humanly need spread about between or amongst individuals.  Emerson writes:

…the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.

The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man,—present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parceled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute-book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship.

In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

How to fix this broken state? Not that the  breakage into fingers itself is a bad thing – some specialisation is  good because we can’t be good at everything and need to practice hard at some few things…but as soon as we have broken into specialists, then a weird  compulsion to degenerate begins to be the main force. We saw this in the nineteenth century when  factory workers became ‘hands’. And we see it  when scholars know  little or nothing of the world, or accountants can’t see or care about the human cost of money movements, or politicians only care about politics and so on.

How to fix?

A strong vision of what it means to be human, to care about  the human world,  to practice humanity… once all this was cared for  in that corner of reality called ‘religion’  (and for some, I know, it still is…) An education that taught us to think of ourselves as one body would help.

The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered.

To have the  human overview – ‘Man on the Farm’ instead of ‘farm labourer’ –  people must have ways of coming together,  gatherings.  As Wendell Berry argues, literature is a language that might perform such gathering for us.  For that to happen we’d have to give  parroting. Scholars would need to become humans amongst humans, speaking not to each other only in specialist lingo but to all in the universal tongue, Man Thinking:

the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

Alas, that has not got me very far.

Time’s up for today.  I’m starting to read  a new novel, My Brilliant Friend. Wish me luck.

Terror and loveliness

I was in London yesterday when the attack occurred on Westminster Bridge. I was there to meet Bristol MP Thangam Debbonaire, and was waiting in the reception of no. 1, Parliament Street, next door to Westminster Tube and Portcullis House when it happened.

I didn’t hear the shots or even notice noise outside – only, suddenly, as I sat there next to the security section, realised that the external doors had shut and  the security guys were saying very firmly to someone,  ‘No, you can’t go out. Something’s happened.’

‘I’ve got to go and vote,’ said an MP. ‘Can I go the back way?’

‘No, Sir, there’s been an incident.’

People began to fill up the reception area. ‘There’s been a shooting,’ someone said. Everyone remained very calm.

Thangam’s constituency  assistant, Jonathan Downing, there for his first day in Westminster, came to find me and took me up to Thangam’s office on the third floor.

We stayed there for the next four hours as the Westminster Estate went into lock-down. For half an hour or more we had no idea what had happened, though the words ‘terrorist attack’ were used and ‘shooting’. Some announcements were made over a tannoy system within the building, ‘Stay in your offices’.

Out of the window, which was sideways on to Parliament Green I could see a crashed car, police, people in white crime scene suits, and what I now realise were injured people or bodies on the pavement.

Jonathan brought me a glass of water.

Bev Archibald, Thangam’s office manager, made me some tea. We watched the news. Rang our relatives. Waited. The corridors of the building were silent and empty when an hour or so later I went to the loo.

Gradually because of the news on the office TV we began to understand what had happened. Thangam texted from where she was locked in the House of Commons Chamber. A party of Bristol schoolchildren were here today, could Jonathan find out if there were all right?

Hours later, there was an announcement that the catering staff  had made food and everyone was invited to come downstairs to the cafeteria to eat. We walked past the nursery where children who had not been picked up were being settled to sleep by nursery staff.  In the cafeteria it was oddly moving to see hundreds of fried eggs set out…It is a time of terror. We are all afraid.  What can you do? You can fry eggs. You xan settle the babies to sleep. You can bring water. You can feed the hundreds of people in this building. You can remain calm and hospitable to me, an out of town visitor.

Thank you to the police, always polite, helpful, good- humoured whenever I have been to Westminster, yet living with the daily threat. Thanks to the security teams, the cooks and cafe workers, thank you, Jonathan and Bev, thank you, Thangham, thanks the man coming out of an office as I was heading to the loo who said ‘Are you ok?’ rather than ‘Where are you going?’

Two poems for today, but no time to read them. 

First George Herbert, really here in celebration of those fried eggs, an act of care, civility, decency. Second, Wendell Berry, because of the scars.

The Elixir
Teach me, my God and King,
         In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
         To do it as for Thee.
         Not rudely, as a beast,
         To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
         And give it his perfection.
         A man that looks on glass,
         On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
         And then the heav’n espy.
         All may of Thee partake:
         Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
         Will not grow bright and clean.
         A servant with this clause
         Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
         Makes that and th’ action fine.
         This is the famous stone
         That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
         Cannot for less be told.


George Herbert


The Slip

The river takes the land, and leaves nothing.
Where the great slip gave way in the bank
and an acre disappeared, all human plans
dissolve. An awful clarification occurs
where a place was. Its memory breaks
from what is known now, begins to drift.
Where cattle grazed and trees stood, emptiness
widens the air for birdflight, wind, and rain.
As before the beginning, nothing is there.
Human wrong is in the cause, human
ruin in the effect–but no matter;
all will be lost, no matter the reason.
Nothing, having arrived, will stay.
The earth, even, is like a flower, so soon
passeth it away. And yet this nothing
is the seed of all–the clear eye
of Heaven, where all the worlds appear.
Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return. The good gift
begins again its descent. The maker moves
in the unmade, stirring the water until
it clouds, dark beneath the surface,
stirring and darkening the soul until pain
perceives new possibility. There is nothing
to do but learn and wait, return to work
on what remains. Seed will sprout in the scar.
Though death is in the healing, it will heal.