Saturday, July 12, 2008

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Let me start by saying that I could not do justice to this book if I labored for a week over a blog post, so I simply won't try. Just remember two things--(1) this book is much, much better than anything I am going to say about it, and (2) when I tally up the best reads of 2008, this book will be on that list.

My taste in books runs to character-driven books laced with philosophy, faith, and depth, and I already knew this book fit those criteria. Nevertheless, my first experience reading Wendell Berry was unexpected, and so I tried to set any pre-conceived ideas aside and just read, letting the book say what it had to say. Which turned out to be a lot.

Jayber Crow, the narrator and main character of the book, lived a life that could be summed up in a brief sentence or two. He didn't DO much of anything, so this book isn't about what he did. It is about who he was. And because no man is an island, it is about the people who lived and moved around him, making up the community he chose to live in, and for that, 350+ pages are barely enough.

There is a sometimes-told tale of a boy walking along a beach littered with thousands of stranded and dying starfish, washed ashore. He picks them up, one by one, and tosses them into the sea. A bystander asks him why is bothering, since his efforts will not really make a difference in the numbers of dying starfish. The boy reputedly looks at the one in his hand and remarks, "It makes a difference to this one," and tosses him into the life-giving water.

Jayber Crow is a book which earnestly speaks the message that a small life, lived in a confined place, makes a difference. Not to multitudes. Not to the world at large. Not even, perhaps to posterity or generations to come. But a difference. To someone. Perhaps to someone in very great need of the solace or friendship or listening ear that only one person is in place to provide. It is a book that illustrates, in some way, that when Jesus said giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty man, for his sake, was serving Christ himself, he really meant it. Not too many people believe that.

What did love have to say to its own repeat failure to transform the world that it might yet redeem? What did it say to our failures to love one another and our enemies? What did it say to hate? What did it say to time? Why doesn't love succeed?

Hate succeeds. This world gives plentiful scope and means to hatred, which always finds its justifications and fulfills itself perfectly in time by destruction of the things of time. This is why war is complete and spares nothing, balks at nothing, justifies itself by all that is sacred, and seeks victory by everything that is profane. Hell itself, the war that is always among us, is the creature of time, unending time, unrelieved by any light or hope.

But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit. Of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here. We do not make it. If it did not happen to us, we could not imagine it....It is in the world but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Love never faileth.

Small wonder, I think, that Christ told his followers, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples..."

In Jayber Crow, every one of those acts of love is shown--both the positive and the negative.

I'm not going to minimize the book by trying to summarize the plot or story or Jayber's life in a few sentences. I said I couldn't do it justice, and I haven't, but you won't be sorry if you put yourself into Wendell Berry's hands--and Jayber Crow's life--for a while.


At 2:10 PM , Blogger DebD said...

What a loving review you have written. I read it last year and didn't like it as much as you - however I saw potential in Berry and was encouraged to give him another try.

At 5:09 PM , Blogger Kerry said...

I've had Wendell Berry - and Jayber Crow - on my list to read for some time now.

This was a fantastic review, I'll have to move it to the top of my list.

At 9:19 PM , Blogger Carrie said...

Berry's That Distant Land: Collected Stories is one of my favorite books of all time. I love his poetry, too.

At 3:17 AM , Blogger SmallWorld at Home said...

Great review. I read this earlier in the year. Here's my review:

At 1:46 AM , Blogger The Correspondent said...

I found your blog through Ambleside and our mutual friend Queen Shenaynay.

I enjoy your book reviews, which cause me to want to read most all of the titles you write about. This book is no exception.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

At 3:46 AM , Blogger Bonnie said...


Great book! I loved Hannah Coulter
so very much. AND The Wild Birds ~
Steve Garber said was the best book
on Calling. Missed you at Childlight!


At 6:24 AM , Blogger Headmistress, zookeeper said...

I can't tell you how much that book meant to me. I was so glad I read it. Unforgettable.

At 5:58 PM , Blogger Sandy said...

I also just finished this book. I've been reading all of Wendell Berry's novels and that was the last one I had (from the library). I now have Nathan Coulter and hope to get Hannah Coulter soon. It's hard to pick a favorite of the books, but Jayber Crow and A Place on Earth would probably be the two at the top.

The books have made a huge impact on me and I'm kind of living vicariously in Port William this summer. That's a good thing. It's a softer, gentler, slower place than our modern world.



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