My friend Dave, the dirt farmer, recently decided to write a blog post about each essay in Wendell Berry’s latest collection, “Imagination in Place.” A few days ago, he wrote about Berry’s assertion that the work of a farmer is “a particularizing work.” I am not a farmer (though sometimes I play one on this blog), yet reading Dave’s post led me to wonder what my own particularizing work might be: being a good neighbor, or gardening, or whatever, and even the particularizing possibilities of writing about one’s home and people. This came to mind again later when I read a very short interview with Ivan Doig, a Montana writer, on the NYT Paper Cuts Blog. Doig was asked about the future of the Western, and this is what he said:
If you were to ask me about the future of America’s literature that derives from writers bringing the heart and soul of their home territory onto the page — as Faulkner did, as Cather did, as Updike did, as countless others have — I’d say it looks strong and promising, and I intend to keep giving it my best. The magnificent Eudora Welty (and I relish the thought of how she would have responded if asked about the future of the Southern) spoke the creed for us: “The art that speaks most clearly, explicitly, directly, and passionately from its place of origin, will remain the longest understood.”
Yesterday, writing about the collection’s title essay, Dave created a list of the writers and books that Berry says have been the most influential for him. It’s a good lifetime reading list. Not because it is long — it includes just a couple dozen authors and I think six books — but because it strikes me as a reading list for a life that is rich and deep and fruitful. The list reminds me of something Bill Moyers told Barry Lopez when Moyers interviewed him on the very last episode of “The Journal.” Moyers said something like, “You know a lot, and you know a lot about the right kind of things.”
I have the same reading list copied into my Moleskine, with a few additions: Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry (the author of six of the last seven books on my “Recently Read” list), and my friend the dirt farmer. I used to want to know at least a little about a lot of things; now I want to know a lot about just a few. I used to crave a breadth of knowledge; now I’d be content with even a little depth of wisdom.