How Wendell Berry and A.A. Milne Saved My 2020 Reading

By Friday, January 01, 2021 , , , , ,

As we bid farewell to another year, per usual, I’m reflecting on what I’ve read and the books that stood out. As previously discussed, 2020 was different for my reading life, just as it was different in practically all areas of life for most people. When I look back on the upheaval my reading life saw this past year, Wendell Berry and A.A. Milne stand out as its most obvious lifesavers. When I think about what I read in 2020, I’m filled with gratitude for the work of these two authors. Their writing breathed renewed life into my reading, steadied me amidst anxiety, and reminded me to recognize the beauty and goodness of everyday life. I hope what I’ve learned from them can encourage you too, help you think about what made your reading easier this past year, and perhaps move you to pick up a Berry or Milne book. 

Wendell Berry’s Poetry
I hadn’t read much poetry regularly before this year. But, as providence would have it, I picked up a volume of Wendell Berry’s the last weekend before my local library closed in March. I knew a bit about Berry and had been wanting to try something of his, but I had no idea just how much his poetry would mean to me in the coming weeks. I read his Selected Poems and A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, and there are still several across both volumes that I think about regularly. Berry’s reflective style and his steady focus on what is good, true, and beautiful were a balm to my tired heart. When I think about my time with his poems, I notice three overall themes in how they were a help to me–

1. They slowed me down
There’s something about the rhythm of a poem that forced me to stop and breathe. Even now, when I read a Berry poem, I can often nearly feel my heart rate coming down as I absorb it. In a time when my attention span was suffering, poetry ended up being the perfect solution, because its cadence enabled me to pay attention and to re-center myself in a way that prose couldn’t. And yet, poems are also comparatively short, so it wasn’t difficult to sit with a few at a time.

2. They helped me notice the simple good in front of me
Wendell Berry’s love of nature and simple living is well-known, and his poems bring it to center stage. His Kentucky farm life features heavily, as do the people he loves, his value for meaningful work and leisure, and other seemingly “everyday” things that become miraculous when you stop and consider. A friend of mine recently commented that he was thankful for how 2020 has reminded so many people to be grateful for “the basics” like family, health, church, and community. Wendell Berry certainly reminded me of how beautiful the basics can be too, and I’m so glad he did.

3. They helped me look up at the beauty of the world and away from self
I’ve always appreciated nature, but, as mentioned, Wendell Berry loves it. And now, at the end of 2020, I’d say that I also love it. His lyrical voice and word pictures awoke me to the beauty of my own backyard in new ways, and my daily walks gradually became an outlet not only for exercise, but for remembering how big and beautiful the world is, and, subsequently, my own smallness and finitude. Acceptance of one’s own limits can be difficult, but it’s also freeing. Berry turns often to the natural world’s grandeur both for thrills and for reminders to be at peace with the present, and I’m grateful for how his perspective encouraged me to look up and outside of myself.

A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh Books
Somehow, A.A. Milne’s Pooh books didn’t make it into my childhood repertoire, and I was only passingly familiar with the animated movies based on them. I picked up the first two, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, on the recommendation of two trusted friends when I was easing back into chapter books. Surely a light children’s story would help me work up to normal size books again, right? Right, BUT! Oh, how I ended up savoring these delightful tales. The characters are endearing, and the writing was easy to follow, yet it also surprised me with its wisdom.

1. They made me laugh
This may seem too obvious, but I don’t want to treat it like a small thing. We all needed laughter in 2020, and I’m glad I read books that provided it! Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor,” and I found that true while reading about the Hundred Acre Wood and its inhabitants. I have the antics of Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, et al to thank for laughter when I needed it, and I think the fact that I didn’t expect to get it from them made it sweeter.

2. They made me remember the beauty and profoundness of simple children’s stories
The benefit of simplicity was again brought to my attention through these books. They’re short, easy, and the plots aren’t particularly exciting or fast-paced. The characters stay close to home and their troubles could be seen as silly if one resorts to easy cynicism. But I was reminded of how helpful and wholesome it can be to read a story stripped of extra frippery and mind games. I didn’t have to think hard or get uptight with suspense, so the poignant moments really smacked me in the face with their simple, heartwarming goodness. The final scene between Pooh and Christopher Robin in The House at Pooh Corner still gives me all the feels. *cue blinking*

Have I convinced you to try either of these authors yet? I hope so! But I’d also love to hear from you. If you struggled with reading in one way or another in 2020, what helped? What books or authors were steadying or newly inspiring for you amidst the year’s uncertainty? I’d love recommendations too! In closing, here’s my favorite poem from Wendell Berry. It’s a lot of people’s favorite, but there’s a reason for that :)

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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