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Book Review: Wendell Berry’s Our Only World

A look at a new book of essays from one of America's pre-eminent writers

At 80 years old, Wendell Berry shows no signs of slowing down. Usually courting controversy is a young man’s sport, but in his latest collection of essays, Our Only World, the prolific writer reminds his readers that he’s not settling into a quiet retirement! His willingness to risk controversy—and even enjoy it—motivates him to take on some of the most divisive issues of our day. And in typical fashion, he offers no easy solutions, no party talking points, while taking positions that will likely anger folks on both sides. In other words, this book is terrific!

In this collection of ten works (essays and speeches), Berry tackles issues ranging from the importance of local, land-based economies and the violence inherent in our modern industrialized way of life to climate change and the problem of “joblessness” to the Boston Marathon bombing and the inability of politics to fix any of this, and to a host of other seemingly unrelated topics that Berry brilliantly points out are all connected.

He repeatedly rejects any attempts to oversimplify the problems of our day, and he challenges many of our basic assumptions: namely, that big problems require big solutions. On the contrary, Berry believes that the only solutions to our big problems are small, local, personal solutions.

That means that Berry is not trying to rally readers to vote nor lobby their senator, nor boycott corporations (none of the typical calls to action that those who write about environmental concerns usually urge). No, he asks for something far more difficult from his readers. He asks them to change themselves!

He writes, “If we are serious about these big problems, we have got to see that the solutions begin and end with ourselves. … If we want to stop the impoverishment of land and people, we ourselves must be prepared to become poorer…. our success, if it happens, will change our world and our lives more radically than we can now imagine. Without that realization we cannot hope to succeed. To succeed we will have to give up the mechanical ways of thought that have dominated the world increasingly for the last two hundred years, and we must begin now to make that change in ourselves.”

Those are very hard words, but I greatly appreciate his willingness to say them. I think that often we have a generalized concern about “the planet,” but outside of casting votes, we aren’t sure what to do. Berry offers solutions—albeit very challenging ones. He bluntly states, “If we are not in favor of limiting the use of energy, starting with our own use of it, we are not serious.” This book left me contemplating whether or not I am serious. He’s not content to let me remain an intellectual agrarian.

Berry challenged me in other ways too. He very surprisingly veers away from his typical agrarian topics and jumps head-first into the two most controversial issues of our day in an essay entitled “Caught in the Middle.” Conservative Christians will likely be shocked to hear Berry lay out his opinions of the pro-life movement and the debate surrounding same-sex marriage. In classic Berry style, he doesn’t fit neatly into any preconceived categories and finds himself “often in disagreement with both of the current political sides.” Whatever you might think of Berry’s conclusions, his arguments can’t be easily dismissed. Whether you are persuaded by his thoughtful and compassionate approach (that is clearly informed by his Christian beliefs) or not, you will be challenged to rethink your position.

While there is a great deal in this book that will inspire CiRCE readers to shout amen, this is not the sort of book that will simply affirm you in your closely held beliefs. This is a book that will challenge you and make you uncomfortable, especially when you agree with him! Because when you agree with him, you have to wrestle with the solutions he proposes. The complex, difficult solutions. Solutions that require us to be different if we want the world to be different. It’s no good waiting for Washington.

“We must reject the idea … that the ultimate reality is political, and therefore that the ultimate solutions are political. If our project is to save the land and the people, the real work will have to be done locally…. It seems likely that politics will improve after the people have improved, not before. The ‘leaders’ will have to be led.”

Asking hard questions and providing even harder answers, Berry never disappoints. Our Only World is worth a nice, slow, contemplative read.

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