‘The survival of literacy in an age of illiteracy may require us to remember how physical, how much of the senses, the life of literacy is.’ – Wendell Berry (courtesy of the Carnegie Center, Lexington, Kentucky.)
I was sitting on the only piece of paper within reach – an oversize name tag reserving my chair for the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony of Wendell Berry. The paper was beige, dull, and heavy – not really of a character to form any sort of story. The letters of my name were nicely printed on it, each had serifs that matched the decorative embellishments framing the length of my name top and bottom.
Like a mother hen to egg; I guarded it as though it was something very special. The piece of paper was after all saving a chair for me in the front room of the Carnegie Center amidst some of the most dedicated writers, journalists, editors, and publishers in all of Kentucky. Equally important: I knew the opposite side of it was blank.
Guy Davenport (1927-2005), Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007), Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996) and Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) were inducted that night too. Excerpts from the writings of each was selected as carefully as were the readers of them. Ron Whitehead read Hunter S. Thompson’s words with a volume that was maybe intended to mimic Thompson’s humor but played more clearly as the rawness of life in the absence of his long-lost friend.
Mary Ellen Miller whispered through weaker vocal chords; reminiscing – with a melancholy that each of us could sense – on her late husband’s work. Neil Chethik’s clear articulation as he introduced Wendell Berry removed any need for us to explain why we were there.
For me, each of the voices that spoke that night resounded more intently than the words spoken. There was something in the act of reading them aloud. They were comforting, familiar, communal sounds that we all know and I hope will continue to know.
Then, it was quiet as Wendell Berry – the first living inductee to be honored into the Hall of Fame – stepped up to read what he must have prepared as an acceptance speech. But, his cadence, his tonality, his sincerity and humility, and the words that filled the then hot room in the Carnegie Center on that cold January night in Lexington, Kentucky were a marked call-to-action.
No electronic devices, scratchings of pen on paper or the turning of pages interrupted as Berry made reference to many urgent public issues. He emphatically stated that in Kentucky we have no way to vet our concerns, no public forum, no healthy outlet for the a much needed dialogue about many things including the writings of Kentucky authors. There was only silence as he spoke of the ‘cloud of silence’. Postures shifted. I gently pulled the piece of paper from its resting place.
Berry continued noting that here in Kentucky ‘we have a sufficiency of writers of books, publishers of books, and readers of books, but no space for related public discourse.’ We roost with eyes closed, content on expressing our opinions in what has now become our public – the semi-private world of the Facebook and Twitter. As Leon Wieseltier notes in Among the Disrupted (New York Times, January 7, 2015) what we prefer now is a ‘twittering cacophony’ where alacritous and terse one-liners grant the highest of merits – a like, a comment. Cackling hens that only ding.
As the co-publisher of a young, fully digital magazine dedicated to arts and culture in Kentucky, I left feeling a keen sense of responsibility – not to explain what Wendell Berry had said, but to more fully understand it for myself. How much time do we have before something more significant is lost? What is my responsibility in the digital age? How can I help move us beyond what Wieseltier describes as the ‘lag between invention in the apprehension of its consequences’?
We cannot explain it fully, but my fellow UnderMain-ers and I have agreed to bring to our readers and our listeners reviews of books by Kentucky authors as well as the occasional reading. Just as in Berry’s move back to Kentucky, we might find sustenance in a new iteration of the sounding pages.
We thank the Carnegie Center for hosting the induction and for inviting us to attend. For a copy of the full text of Wendell Berry’s speech, click here.
For The Explainers
Spell the spiel of cause and effect
Ride the long rail of fact after fact;
What curled the plume of the Drake’s tail
and put the white ring around his neck?
– Wendell Berry