During the years I worked on Shepherd: A Memoir, I learned that literary folk interested in country matters wanted to know my agrarian pedigree was pure. Maybe that I had one. Those early draft-readers wanted assurance that I’d read Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. At first this irked me. Sure, I knew their work. Their writings on agriculture and American society have informed my thinking from early adulthood; Berry’s Jayber Crow is one of my all-time favorite novels.
But why was it crucial that I let readers of my story know that?
From the start, Shepherd explored my boyhood hero worship of Ohio farm memoirist Louis Bromfield; and my being influenced as a practitioner by Bromfield’s more pragmatic eco-farming successor, Joel Salatin; and my discovery of Charles Allen Smart’s classic memoir, RFD, set in the same region where I ended up struggling to become a farmer. Plus my day job was in publishing, so there was plenty more about books in my memoir.
I finally decided that concerns about my literary lineage were a kind of backhanded praise. As if those readers were saying, “This book is by a writer, not just some farmer.” So I dutifully mentioned Berry and Jackson.
Now it strikes me as odd that nobody mentioned E.B. White.
It is not often that someone comes along who is a true farmer and a good writer. White was both.
You told your mate that for every new physical book you bought, two would leave the house—carted to the used bookstore, or to the library, or even secreted in the trash. Yet this has not quite happened. The jig was up when she caught you culling her old books more heavily than you pared your own.
In the basement are six full bookcases, pine painted white, each four feet tall and three feet wide. Eighteen feet of books. Your how-to library and oddments, many small thin paperback novels and plays from the spouse’s days as an English teacher. Some children’s books. This library could use another hard sorting—or complete dispersal. But all those gardening and farming and dog and chicken and sheep and cattle books are old friends. Some were your father’s. They reflect long-gone prior lifetimes. Youth itself.
Upstairs, on the main floor of this house, built in 1939, just off the foyer there’s a tidy room with real built-in bookcases. The house’s own small but dignified library: dark, solid walnut shelves. Now a sitting room-TV room-library. The show library. Here are the big hardback novels. And Dad’s leather-bound Britannica Great Books—54 unread volumes. Also a complete set, as resonant as a train whistle from your childhood, of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And The Riverside Shakespeare. Books as decoration, as aspiration, as comforting totems.
Like the three oversized paperback iterations of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog—1970s pre-Internet subject-surfing fodder. The iconic black-covered original edition is crumbling from heavy use, high-acid newsprint, and cheap binding.