Diary: Wendell Berry, The Writer Going Home

I have pondered a great deal over a conversation I took part in a number of years ago in one of the offices of New York University. I had lived away from Kentucky for several years—in California, in Europe, in New York City. And now I had decided to go back and take a teaching job at the University of Kentucky, giving up the position I then held on the New York University faculty. That day I had been summoned by one of my superiors at the university, whose intention, I had already learned, was to persuade me to stay on in New York “for my own good.”

The decision to leave had cost me considerable difficulty and doubt and hard thought—for hadn’t I achieved what had become one of the almost traditional goals of American writers? I had reached the greatest city in the nation; I had a good job; I was meeting other writers and talking with them and learning from them; I had reason to hope that I might take a still larger part in the literary life of that place. On the other hand, I knew I had not escaped Kentucky, and had never really wanted to. I was still writing about it, and had recognized that I would probably need to write about it for the rest of my life. Kentucky was my fate—not an altogether pleasant fate, though it had much that was pleasing in it, but one that I could not leave behind simply by going to another place, and that I therefore felt more and more obligated to meet directly and to understand. Perhaps even more important, I still had a deep love for the place I had been born in, and liked the idea of going back to be part of it again. And that, too, I felt obligated to try to understand. Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or use of such love?

The elder of the faculty began the conversation by alluding to Thomas Wolfe, who once taught at the same institution. “Young man,” he said, “don’t you know you can’t go home again?” And he went on to speak of the advantages, for a young writer, of living in New York among the writers and the editors and the publishers.

The conversation that followed was a persistence of politeness in the face of impossibility. I knew as well as Wolfe that there is a certain metaphorical sense in which you can’t go home again—that is, the past is lost to the extent that it cannot be lived in again. I knew perfectly well that I could not return home and be a child, or recover the secure pleasures of childhood. But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home—the place, the countryside—was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was no reason I could not go back to it if I wanted to.

As for the literary world, I had ventured some distance into that, and I liked it well enough. I knew that because I was a writer the literary world would always have an importance for me and would always attract my interest. But I never doubted that the world was more important to me than the literary world; and the world would always be most fully and clearly present to me in the place I was fated by birth to know better than any other.

And so I had already chosen according to the most intimate and necessary inclinations of my own life. But what keeps me thinking of that conversation is the feeling that it was a confrontation of two radically different minds, and that it was a confrontation with significant historical overtones.

I do not pretend to know all about the other man’s mind, but it was clear that he wished to speak to me as a representative of the literary world—the world he assumed that I aspired to above all others. His argument was based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to. What lay behind one had ceased to be a part of life, and had become “subject matter.” And there was the belief, long honored among American intellectuals and artists and writers, that a place such as I came from could be returned to only at the price of intellectual death; cut off from the cultural springs of the metropolis, the American countryside is Circe and Mammon. Finally, there was the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modern experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter—that is, the urban intellectuals.

I was to realize during the next few years how false and destructive and silly those ideas are. But even then I was aware that life outside the literary world was not without honorable precedent: if there was Wolfe, there was also Faulker; if there was James, there was also Thoreau. But what I had in my mind that made the greatest difference was the knowledge of the few square miles in Kentucky that were mine by inheritance and by birth and by the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.

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What finally freed me from these doubts and suspicions was the insistence in what was happening to me that, far from being bored and diminished and obscured to myself by my life here, I had grown more alive and more conscious than I had ever been.

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice. My return, which at first had been hesitant and tentative, grew wholehearted and sure. I had come back to stay. I hoped to live here the rest of my life. And once that was settled I began to see the place with a new clarity and understanding and a new seriousness. Before coming back I had been willing to allow the possibility—which one of my friends insisted on—that I already knew this place as well as I ever would. But now I began to see the real abundance and richness of it. It is, I saw, inexhaustible in its history, in the details of its life, in its possibilities. I walked over it, looking, listening, smelling, touching, alive to it as never before. I listened to the talk of my kinsmen and neighbors as I never had done, alert to their knowledge of the place, and to the qualities and energies of their speech. I began more seriously than ever to learn the names of things—the wild plants and animals, the natural processes, the local places—and to articulate my observations and memories. My language increased and strengthened, and sent my mind into the place like a live root system. And so what has become the usual order of things reversed itself with me; my mind became the root of my life rather than its sublimation. I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like the other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of the energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.


Wendell Berry is an essayist, novelist, and poet. He lives in Henry County, Kentucky. This passage is drawn from his essay “A Native Hill,” first published in 1968 and reissued this week, under the title Think Little, in the new pocket-sized Counterpoints series from Counterpoint Press, alongside work by Gary Snyder and Guy Davenport.

Book Post is a by-subscription book-review service, bringing short book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to subscribers’ in-boxes, and other tasty items celebrating book life, like this one, to those who have signed up for our free posts and visitors to our sitePlease consider a subscription! Or give a gift subscription to a friend who might be drawn into the reading life. Recent reviews include Marina Warner on Margaret Atwood and Àlvaro Enrigue on Gabriel García Márquez. (See all our reviews here.)

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Image: Students planting potatoes at the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College, a tuition-free BA program in sustainable agriculture based in Henry County, Kentucky, administered in collaboration with the Berry Center in Newcastle, Kentucky, founded by Wendell Berry’s family to advocate for farmers, land conservation, and regional economies. Wendell Berry still lives on his family farm in Henry County.
Copyright © 2019 by Wendell Berry, from Think Little. Reproduced by permission of Counterpoint Press

Notebook: Bookselling at the Crossroads

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

In a way the place of an English-language bookstore in a non-English-speaking country is a kind of paradigm for the lot of bookstores everywhere. A shop full of books in English sends out a quiet signal—come here to be among your folk—to anyone who shares a language and wishes to be immersed in it for a while and surrounded by others who wish the same.

If Dermot O’Connell of the Almost Corner Bookshop in Rome were not real, bookstore kismet might have invented him. Like many bookshop proprietors he came to the life by chance. He had visited Rome in the late nineties and registered the pervasiveness in Italy of many of the pleasures of life that were somewhat thin on the ground at his desert teaching job in Saudi Arabia—opera, art and architecture, wine and conviviality. He says that during his entire tenure there he never saw Saudi woman’s face. In Rome by contrast couples and families played out their lives on the streets, and the pleasures of the senses had been on the agenda for hundreds of years. Into the twenty-first century, as Dermot was growing jittery in Saudia Arabia, a friend told him out of the blue that Claire Hammond, who had founded the Corner Bookshop in 1991 in Rome’s studenty Trastevere district, was looking to sell. He didn’t quite drop everything: he visited the shop, he visited friends who ran a university bookstore in his native Ireland, and finding nothing to dissuade him he took the plunge. With threatened eyesight he has recently sold the shop after fifteen years but he still shows up every day and is the social and bibliographical heart of the business.

Claire Hammond had founded the shop when space became open below her apartment on a picturesque corner of the Via del Moro, where she lived while working for the United Nations. She had been vexed that there was not then a bookshop equal to Rome’s readerly English-speaking habitués. Of course Rome has been a destination for literary types since they wore togas. Keats is buried there and the apartment where he died, beside the Spanish Steps, remains a destination for Anglophone melancholics. Many travel to Italy to study language, art, archeology, classics, and so on, and Claire’s shop was an instant hit and gathering-place for Rome’s revolving cast of Anglophones. It became too big for its little corner and moved a few doors down the street (hence “almost corner”), into the shop of a greengrocer whose children did not want to take on the business: the grocer’s bank of green wooden shelves is still used to array books in the shop’s window.

They do a robust business in books in English that have anything to do with Italy, like Donna Leon’s crime fiction set in Venice. Elizabeth Bowen’s A Time in Rome is their all-time bestseller; they have sold more copies than any other bookstore. They sell lots of Calvino, Bassani, and Dante in all translations; books about the artist Caravaggio are hot (we recommended our own Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, of course); they can’t keep Elena Ferrante on the shelves. Dermot says they don’t have room to stock books that will not sell; he had to part with the tomes on Verdi and Puccini that he brought in for love and let linger too long. University departments abroad are expanding and there are more visitors than ever, says Dermot, thanks to AirBnB and cheap flights, but strict limits on luggage put constraints on travellers’ book-buying, especially when it comes to the big art books that a plunge into the Renaissance has been known to stir a hunger for. Dermot notes that even his travelers and transients seem not sold on the e-book. When visitors enter the store, like bookstore fans everywhere, they pause to register the smell. He feels that over the years the sort of English-speaker who comes to Italy has remained a constant—a person drawn to the Old World, often someone with Italian roots. Northern Europeans continue to have a fascination with the Mediterranean and to appear on Roman doorstops.

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The throng of local English-language authors presents their books regularly in the shop and bring in a crowd. Once so many people showed up for an event with Matthew Kneale that Dermot ran it twice, dismissing half the multitude to a bar down the shop’s tiny cobbled street and then summoning them back for round two. One customer came in expressing an interest in Giordano Bruno, and Dermot handed him Ingrid Rowland’s Giordano Bruno: Philosopher / Heretic, adding, “and this is the author right here,” gesturing toward Rowland herself, browsing a few feet away. (Rowland remembers when Trastevere was the haunt of pickpockets and miscreants, before today’s crush of semester-abroad students and eminences like those filtering down from the American Academy in Rome up the hill.)

When asked if Amazon seemed a threat from where he sits Dermot’s eyes widened. He said that Italians were relatively slow to embrace e-commerce, because they cherish their local shop culture, tend to be distrustful of corporate intrusions into their traditions, and have small mailboxes. But Amazon secured a big advantage for itself by locating its European operation in Luxemburg and negotiating a secret tax deal (c.f. its original decision to base itself in Seattle to avoid US sales tax) that in 2014 led to its being charged a fine of 250 million euros for receiving illegal tax benefits. (The European Commission is aggressively pursuing tech giants on a number of fronts; they levied a similar penalty against Apple for avoiding taxes by basing operations in Ireland.) Amazon continues to fight the penalty and has since found ways to offset its earnings and lower its tax burden.

The biggest threat to Almost Corner’s way of life however is the prospect of Brexit. Dermot says he and his fellow booksellers have no idea what the consequences will be for them: currently 99 percent of all English-language books come to Europe via the UK. He mentioned that he does a lot of his business through the European sales arm of Penguin Random House, and if they are able to locate to a Continent-based point of entry that would address a lot of the potential problems, but one winces to be dependent on corporate consolidation to provide books to all of Europe’s readers of English, the de facto lingua franca. (Dermot notes that most German cities, for example, have an English-language bookstore.) Almost Corner’s clientele, too, linger precariously on the precipice of Brexit. Dermot himself managed to obtain an Irish passport in order to remain a European, an option not available to most of his customers. The exuberant life of the Almost Corner Bookshop and its eclectic cast of characters certainly seems like an advertisement for a united Europe and the place of bookstores and books in supporting a mutually tolerant (indeed celebratory) culture.

For more on bookselling abroad see our three-part Notebook on an English-language bookstore in Spain and Spanish-language bookstores in the US, our Notebook on European supports available to booksellers and publishing, and Geoffrey O’Brien’s Diary on the bookstores of Paris.

By the way, we were in Rome working on residencies for Russian writers in Rome, on the model of the American and other academies, in memory of the poet Joseph Brodsky. Give if you can to help support a cosmopolitan reading and writing culture in these times of retrenchment …


Book Post is a by-subscription book-review service, bringing short book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to subscribers’ in-boxes, and other tasty items celebrating book life, like this one, to those who have signed up for our free posts and visitors to our sitePlease consider a subscription! Or give a gift subscription to a friend who might be drawn into the reading life. Recent reviews include Marina Warner on Margaret Atwood and Àlvaro Enrigue (of Sudden Death fame) on Gabriel García Márquez. (See all our reviews here.)

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Photo by Dicky Del Hoyo

Diary: Patricia Storace, The Greatest Food Writer

“In the chowder are warmed the essences of Chile,” Pablo Neruda

Every writer who tells stories through food satisfies a particular appetite in a reader. To do so a writer has to search for ways to write about food freely, vitally, and memorably beyond the familiar pattern of personal anecdote and formulaic presence of recipes.

There are the autobiographers, like M.F.K. Fisher (who refused to be called a “food writer”) and Gabrielle Hamilton, whose memoirs of an American chef’s coming of age give us ways to look more fully at the place of food in our lives, not in idyllic memories only, but present in the bitterest moments. There are philosophers like Brillat-Savarin, whose 1825 masterwork The Physiology of Taste explored what we are thinking when we are eating. There are culinary geologists, like Patience Gray, whose writing about Mediterranean food shows us how food can make us experience antiquity, sharing a past that isn’t our own. There are urban anthropologists like Grimod de La Reynière, the first chronicler of restaurants, who left us a vivid gastronomic record of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paris. Betty Fussell’s delightful and defiant My Kitchen Wars is a political document of her struggle to write literature involving food when it was considered a trivial feminine subject; her Harvard-professor husband described her writing as “silly.” There are the portraits of childhood seen through the prism of food, like Madhur Jaffrey’s Climbing the Mango Trees, and histories of families, like Norma Jean Darden’s Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine. Darden’s description of shoebox picnics, the picnics African-Americans packed for car trips when hotels, restaurants, and bathrooms were reserved for “whites only,” record how cooking can confront fear and deprivation with hospitality and pleasure.

Each of these writers offers something irreplaceable, though when pressed to name my favorite food writer, the one most essential to me, I can only answer: Pablo Neruda. No westerner has written more thrillingly about food than the Chilean poet, in great still lives made not of brushstrokes but of words.

Neruda, along with the Guatemalan poet, Miguel Asturias, wrote a book of considerable (and sometimes irritatingly self-conscious) charm about Hungarian food, Eating in Hungary (Neruda’s contributions are marked with a fork, Asturias’s with a spoon), but it is the presence of eating threaded through his poems, especially in the two hundred and sixteen odes he wrote between 1952 and 1959, that created an utterly new way of writing about food, beyond personal history. The odes began as commissions to write a weekly column of poetry for a newspaper, which Neruda was promised would appear on the main news pages, not the arts section. The poems are a kind of anthology of what Neruda is living and experiencing: there are odes to cats, socks, individual friends, trees, political events, ships’ figureheads, and food, though Neruda’s quotidian world is no more mundane than William Blake’s cottage at Felpham, visited by angels. Every day is infinite in Neruda’s odes.

The artichokes, onions, French-fried potatoes, watermelons, olive oil, tomatoes, of Neruda’s poems are described as if they were a primal language from which he is translating: the words that made the world, the gateway through which poetry first enters the earth. Food is older than we are, and it will outlive us, likewise poetry is a form of speech older than the book. Eating for Neruda becomes a way of speaking, and speech a means of eating. The great poet Federico Garcia Lorca described Neruda as “one of those who senses are trained to a world that is not ours and that few people perceive.” Neruda’s odes prove that.

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Neruda’s salt is “the dust of water … a kiss from the marine night.” His lemon is “the ray of light that becomes fruit.” Neruda’s spoon, like the essence of a hand abstracted in a Brancusi sculpture, is a companion:

… spoon … at mankind’s side
you have climbed mountains
swept down rivers
populated ships and cities, castles and kitchens
but
the hard part of your life’s journey
is to plunge
into the poor man’s plate
and into his mouth.

His apples taste of genius, preserving the flavor of the tree of knowledge: “You’re always new like nothing else or no one, always as if just fallen from Paradise …” Here is the miracle of flavor, like a song that can be sung again and again, always and never the same.

Neruda’s food retains its anatomy: A potato is “compact like a cheese produced by the soil,” and he notices, “You’re not from Castile: / you’re dark / like / our skin / we’re Americans / spud / we’re Indians …” He captures food as it is served: French fries, in their tantalizing uniformity, “a repetition of abundance” on the plate. And in the process of being cooked: as sliced onions fry “in the blazing heat of the oil / the shred of crystal / is transformed into a curled feather of gold.”

His “Ode to Conger Chowder” is a perfect recipe, offering not only a guide to how the dish is made, but also to what its flavor means: “Then slowly deliver the treasure to the flame, until in the chowder are warmed the essences of Chile, and to the table / come, newly wed / the savors of land and sea.” Neruda’s food metamorphoses, as it changes us: a watermelon, “green whale of summer” becomes “weightless … in the all-embracing siesta …” Bread is formed through elemental passion, the “joining of seed and fire,” and becomes a pregnancy containing us, “growing growing … like hips, mouths, breasts … or people’s lives … you are … the will to live itself.” Wine becomes memory, song, conversation, and love-making. The food on the table, transformed into poetry, becomes a vision of an abundant world where all are fed, the only place this has yet happened.

And what cook doesn’t dream of setting this table, where we “weep without suffering,” as when chopping an onion, and we taste heaven together, while the work of one’s hands enters another’s body so intimately that it is transformed into the rhythm of its heartbeat?


Patricia Storace’s most recent book is the novel The Book of Heaven, in which the intimate histories of eating and storytelling are also deeply entwined. She is also the author of Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece and a book of poems, Heredity. This is the fourth in her series on cooking and reading for Book Post. Read the first, second, and third here.

Book Post is a by-subscription book-review service, bringing short book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to subscribers’ in-boxes, and other tasty items celebrating book life, like this one, to those who have signed up for our free posts and visitors to our sitePlease consider a subscription! Or give a gift subscription to a friend who might be drawn into the reading life. Recent reviews include John Banville on Robert Macfarlane and Marina Warner on Margaret Atwood. (See all our reviews here.)

Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry, in Cleveland, Ohio, is Book Post’s autumn partner bookstore. Please buy your books from them this fall. We support independent bookselling by linking to independent bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 at our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com. And/or

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Photo: “Caldillo de Congrio (Congor stew) at Las Rocas in Iquique Chile,” by James on Flicker

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