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.