Where I live, I am fortunate to be in a reading group, and the pieces chosen by my fellow readers have introduced me to all kinds of authors I had not previously thought of engaging with. The latest of these was the contemporary American writer Wendell Berry, and the piece chosen was his essay A Native Hill.
One of the principles of our group is 'close reading'. This means we allow ourselves the luxury of reflecting together on the quality of the author's language. Berry's writing is both elegant and eloquent. By reading and re-reading writing like this, I hope that something of its quality will seep into my own prose. We'll have to see...
Berry's essay begins with him pondering his close connection to the part of Kentucky he came from and returned to after many years in California, Europe and New York. He takes us on a stroll along the paths around his home, sharing his observations about rivers, streams, trees, fences, walls, roads, topsoil and litter. But A Native Hill is so much more than a description of a landscape. It is an inspiring meditation on how to live well in our busy, destructive human world.
At one point, he remarks: "It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history ... I am forever being crept up on by the realisation that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of the violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth...".
I have long felt that cars and roads have made our world uglier and dirtier, so when I read Berry's perceptive thoughts on the difference between a road and a path, my heart started racing : “A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place.” “A road", he goes on to say, "even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.” These words felt like a delicacy that I wanted to savour as slowly as possible to make it last longer.
Though I loved the essay, the opening pages of the essay had left me feeling impatient. What finally hooked me were the following words on the third page: “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”. From that moment, I couldn't wait to be told the rest of the story. Some years earlier, a senior member of Berry's university had tried to persuade him to stay in New York ‘for his own good’. But he had already made up his mind, after much agonising, to take up a teaching job at the University of Kentucky. Nevertheless, the conversation stayed with him for years and prompted him to reflect on the assumptions of the 'urban intellectual'.
I myself have chosen to spend most of my year in a city, but Berry's words left me respecting his decision to go back to the land - and the quality of his writing. By the time I finished A Native Hill, it had become clear to me that the leisurely opening was there to set the tempo for what was to come – mirroring the languid pace of nature, of the woods, and of the soil.
If you want to excel at writing, the consensus is that it’s crucial to read a lot. Over my lifetime, I haven’t read as much literature as I would have liked. This is mainly because I worked in various research jobs at the beginning of my career. By the time evening came, I felt saturated and had neither the appetite nor the stamina to read another word.
A couple of years ago I made up my mind to catch up with my reading. But rather than enrolling in a course in literature, I decided to be my own university. I just started reading books that had escaped my younger self – by Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, Wharton, Goethe, Gaskell, and plenty of contemporary authors too.
Not only has this tardy spurt of reading given me a sense of the wonderful variety of narrative forms; it has also heightened my feeling for the beauty and wisdom in the words of great writers. I hope that some of these qualities will rub off on me. Meanwhile, the reading is certainly deepening my understanding of human relationships.
For some time now I have been working on a book about how humans relate to each other. Last July, I had three chapters in draft form. They were partly memoir and partly my reflections on human communication. More unusually, each chapter was inspired by a work of literature - respectively, Kafka’s The Castle, Camus’ The Guest and Michael Ende’s classic children’s book Momo.
Everything was going fine until a handful of conversations and email exchanges in August left me wondering whether I was asking my book to do too much.
While I was pondering what to do about this, I stumbled across Alison Jones’s “Business Book Proposal Challenge”, which entails writing a book proposal in just two weeks (with Alison’s expert help). I joined the relevant Facebook group, more or less kept up with the daily tasks, and regularly shared my progress with other authors doing the same challenge. Alison is an experienced publisher and a coach, and the process was both rigorous and instructive. At the end, Alison liked my book idea but wondered whether there was really an ‘acutely felt need’ for my book.
To me it was and is absolutely clear that paying more attention to relationships is essential if we are to live peacefully and sustainably together on this planet. But I also understand that publishers want to see a specific need or niche, so they can feel sure they can sell your book. I am still pondering what exactly that need might be. But meanwhile I will continue to write about what really matters to me, and hope that it engages my readers.