The books? I been reading 'em.

What with one thing and another, I've been curiously absent from this venue.  It always seems to work that way.  It's never the one thing that gets me, but another, well, that can knock a good wollop.  And though my reading progress has been significantly hampered of late, I have still been reading.  In fact, I've been on a YA and small people books kick of late, which I'll post on later this week.  Today, though, I must comment on the latest book to make it all worthwhile: Wendell Berry's The Memory of Old Jack.  I am a big fan of Berry the person and Berry the essayist, but I haven't read his fiction, so I chose this one to start my foray into Port William, the fictional town where Berry set this and many other of his books.  The first in the collection is Nathan Coulter, which I plan to pick up at my earliest convenience.  The Memory of Old Jack falls third in the chronology of publication, but the stories don't seem to be linked by time or narrative, so I think they can be read in any order. 

This book took me ages to finish, a surprising detail considering its mere 170 page length.  I focused on the details, dwelled heartily in the descriptions, and relished the slow unfolding of each moment.  In fact, I did with this book much of what Berry advocates for in all of life.

The book focuses on Jack Beechum and his memories and reflections at the end of a long life.  In the course of the story, we are granted access to many of the folks of Port William as well as the rhythm and fabric of the place.  We see Jayber Crow and his barber shop, where Old Jack rests and reflects; Jasper Lathrop's store, where the men gather for talk around the stove; the fields, the kitchens, the barns of this Kentucky.  Old Jack is revered among his friends and family, despite his somewhat irascible qualities, despite the difficulties of his loveless marriage. 

I marked up this book as though storing up treasures for heaven.  And friends, there were many such treasures.  Here are a few:

Though he stands leaning on his cane on the porch of the hotel in Port William, looking out into the first cool morning of September, 1952, he is not there.  He is four miles and sixty-four years away, in the time when he had music in him and he was light.  From the height of that time his mind comes down to him, a bird to the head of a statue, and another day of his old age lights the street. (7)
This next one comes after Jack and his renter have had a conflict over their shared work.  As someone whose family has a farm and has gone through numerous tenants, temporary workers, and passers-through, I was startled with the resonance of this passage.
It is final.  Their anger was the end of words.  Between them now is a silence against which they have no speech.  They cannot be reconciled, for no real peace ever existed between them, and they are far off in history from the terms and the vision of such a peace.  Jack knows now what it was he asked of Will Wells, and knows he cannot ask it again of another man.  And so he lies still, knowing that another of the inexorable hinges of his life has turned.  And now on the stubble of the hayfield and over the hollows and ridges and roofs of the countryside, the rain has begun to fall. (64)
On being divided between one's past and one's future:
...in order to be what he might become he would have to cease to be what he had been, he would have to turn away from that place to which his flesh and his thoughts and his devotion belonged.  For it was the assumption of much of his schooling, it was in the attitude of most of his teachers and schoolmates, it was in the bearing of history toward such places as Port William and even Hargrave, that achievement, success, all worthy hope lay elsewhere, in cities, in places of economic growth and power; it was assumed that a man must put away his origin as a childish thing. (109)
I could keep going, but I'll just do one more:
He goes out and draws the doors to behind him and turns to the winter twilight, the cold wind bending close over the farm out of the starless distance.  The ground is whitening with snow, and he can feel the flakes melting on his cheek.  For some moments yet he stands still upon the turning world, in the whirl of the snow, in the falling night.  Closing the doors against the cold dark, he has closed and cherished  in his mind the thriving that the barn holds, the vision of that harbored life emerging in green spring.  This is his devotion.  He tilts his face up into the long fall of the snow. (126)
So gorgeous. So thoughtful.  I can't wait to go back to Port William.


Link Love

I've been out of town, out of mind, out of anything but the stack of papers that confronted me last week and the ocean this week. But I just read my writer-friend's amazing post on Steve Jobs and Fred Shuttlesworth, and you should too. Don't know who Fred Shuttlesworth is? You should.

Read it. Now.

And then come back and look at the ocean and hate me.  But only just a little bit.