What is an analysis of The Art of the Commonplace?

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Wendell Berry provides a challenge and an inspiration to our society. Both his life and thinking cut across political and intellectual divides, challenging us to leave our isolated ideological silos and to think deeply about how we really live and about what constitutes a worthwhile life.

Out of paradox, Berry has carved a niche for himself in American society as thinker and teacher, writer and activist. He comes out of a countercultural  tradition that includes Henry David Thoreau, William Morris, the Amish, and Annie Dilliard, author of the Pulitzer prize winning The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. He is both deeply Christian and deeply wedded to environmentalism, both an intellectual who left a prestigious teaching position at New York University and a Kentucky farmer. 

The Art of the Commonplace pulls together 20 essays from across his career, united by the theme that it is vitally important that Americans return to a whole life: a life centered in place and community, a life in touch with past and future, and a life that values work while being centered in morality.

He writes in The Art of the Commonplace of himself as anachronistic. By this, he means he belongs to an earlier period of history and to some extent shares its worldview. Berry, born in 1934,  states that if he had been born five years later, he would not be who is today. The agrarian Kentucky world he first knew was, he writes, "doomed." He grew up knowing how to hitch a team of horses to plough a field; he did not know how to work on a car. After leaving rural Kentucky for the big city, he returned to his roots, buying a Kentucky farm and investing in the community of his grandparents.

The Art of the Commonplace is well named. An argument running throughout the essays maintains that we have lost the art of living ordinary lives. Like Thoreau, Berry rejects consumerism as a soul-killing disease that has robbed us of our understanding of what is most important. Berry reserves some of his harshest language for our exploitative economy, stating in the essay "The Unsettling of America" that it "sells sham and frustration as luxury and satisfaction." In fact, he argues, our economy, based on the drive to always have more, leads to "the hysterical self-dissatisfaction of consumers."

For Berry, the devastation of the natural environment reveals to us our soul sickness. We cannot divorce who we are from what we do and how we do it. As he writes in "The Unsettling of America," quoting Confucius, "If a man have not order within him, he cannot spread order without him." A ruined environment can only emerge from souls that are sick and in need of healing. 

Berry envisions a better society built on agrarianism and localism, in which people are deeply connected and rooted in a particular place, a geography they steward for future generations rather than exploit for present profit. Like William Morris, he advocates that we lose our "contempt" for work—by which he means good work that is well done in a spirit of craftsmanship. He passionately argues that the physical diseases that plague our bodies will not be cured until we go deeper than treating our atomized physical symptoms. Instead, we need to live as whole people.

Berry has much to offer in his critique of society and the environment. He exemplifies and offers a compelling alternative vision.  

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The Art of the Commonplace

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