the memory of old jack: a book about which i don't know what to think

Acquanitences of mine, both virtual and real, have urged me to read Wendell Berry. When I found myself loose in Barnes and Noble with plastic money burning a hole in my pocket I heard their voices in my head. I bought the least expensive and therefore least risky Berry book on the shelf at the time: The Memory of Old Jack.

By way of review, I'll cut to the chase: I wouldn't pass up the chance to read more Berry. Probably Jayber Crow will be next. Yet there's something about his storytelling, something in the tone he takes as narrator that I find too 'present.' I was conscious of his presence in the story. That in itself is not a bad thing, the guy can write after all and the story was a good one too. The problem (though a minor one) wasn't that Berry seemed to have put himself in the book but that he seemed to be trying not to. Because of this seeming ambivalence of his it felt at times as if Old Jack was a book that just misses being a sermon.

I like good sermons and I like good books. Book length, book form sermons are okay too. I just wish this one had decided to be one or the other. I had the same problem with Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and eventually I put it aside. If this book had been a hundred or so pages longer, it would probably have suffered the same fate.

There's no accounting for taste, and I'm not even claiming to have any. Some people think Wendell Berry can be life changing. They may be right, after only reading one book, who am I to know? But if Jayber Crow takes the same just-this-side-of-condescending tone with me, Berry won't have another chance at changing my life despite the quality of his prose.


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