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Reading list for Right Living 101

by The Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, Dec. 13, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- If you wanted an introduction, a crash course for looking to live right with the world -- perhaps because you think a crash course is what the world is on -- what would be its reading list? Here are some authors' answers, presented as a springboard for learning.

Wendell Berry, farmer and writer of poetry, fiction and essays, including "The Unsettling of America":

I would pick old, proven books that I know can support a lifetime of thought: "The Odyssey," Ezra Pound’s translations from the Chinese of "The Great Digest" and "The Unwobbling Pivot," the Gospels, Dante’s "The Divine Comedy," Shakespeare’s "As You Like It," "King Lear," "Macbeth" and "The Winter’s Tale," and Milton’s "Paradise Lost."

Ellen Davis, associate professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, and author of "Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament":

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s "Letters and Papers from Prison." During two years in a Nazi prison, ending with his death in 1945, this profoundly wise young theologian wrote to his family and closest friends; his words are grounded in love for God and humanity, and reflect his refusal to escape into a false religiosity that is ultimately contemptuous of the world.

E.F. Schumacher’s "Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered." Written thirty years ago, this deeply humane analysis of our economic life is still "prophetic" in exposing our illusions and moving us with a realistic yet inspiring vision of what good work in community looks like.

Dante Alighieri’s "Purgatorio (The Divine Comedy)." Imagining Purgatory as a great mountain rising into the sunshine with a garden at its summit, Dante shows human souls encouraging one another with song as they leave behind the way of sin and death and acquire the virtues -- prudence, courage, justice, and temperance -- that will enable them to enter Paradise.

Proverbs (The Bible). Almost every verse in this book is a short poem that preserves the shared yet uncommon wisdom of "ordinary people" about getting along with neighbors and family, handling your money and being content with as much of it as you have, working with a good will and living wisely on the land -- in short, about the art of living well, mindful that life and the world itself are gifts from God.

Janisse Ray, poet and author of "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood":

Mary Oliver’s "New and Selected Poems," poems that grasp the heart of the mystery of life. I return to it almost daily. Wendell Berry’s "In the Presence of Fear." This is a small but profound treatise that finally lays out a bitter economic truth -- that global capitalism is at the bottom of not only environmental destruction, but also many other ills of the world. And Berry’s "Collected Poems"-- how to live in place.

Thoreau’s "Walden." These meditations on simple living changed my life forever.

Harvey Jackins’ "The Human Side of Human Beings" has been the most powerful and helpful information I ever learned about healing human relationships, ending oppression and bringing about world changes.

Charles Frazier’s "Cold Mountain" -- how could we live without stories, beautifully written, beautifully told? Aldo Leopold’s "A Sand County Almanac." It still says so much.

And field guides to the animals, plants and stars seen in your region.

William McKibben, a regular contributor to Harper’s and other magazines, and author of "The End of Nature":

Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Job: God’s original attempt to remind us that we're not the absolute center of everything -- if only we’d paid a little more attention.

Terry Evans, a photographer whose books include "Prairie: Images of Ground and Sky":

"My Antonia" by Willa Cather is my favorite book. Narrator Jim Burden describes the land with such deep feeling that I am swept away with pleasure every time I read the first section. Surely no one else ever described the barely settled prairie with such rich longing and passion for its beauty.

"Jayber Crow" by Wendell Berry is a close second to "My Antonia." It is about personal relationships to community and to land, and one person to another, with the deepest commitment possible. This book is powerfully moving, unsentimental, and it kept me pondering for days and nights after I finished it.

Other favorites are "The Field of Vision" by Wright Morris and "The Meadow" by James Galvin. All four of these books are about deep memory of place, with sadness and, finally, hope.

I also love "Last of the Curlews" by Fred Bodsworth, a small book that is devastating but full of wonder.

John Todd, ecology-based designer and head of Living Technologies:

I would start with the book "Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World," Alan Weisman’s story of a group of Colombians’ success at innovative sustainable living. Then I would read "Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine" by James Lovelock.

I would take along some classics such as Albert Howard’s "Agricultural Testament," J. Russell Smith’s "Tree Crops," and a Louis Bromfield book about his Malabar Farm, "Pleasant Valley." I would also have a book by my wife and me, "From Eco-Cities to Living Machines." Then "Ecology: A Bridge Between Science and Society" by Eugene Odum.

For a novel I would take Wendell Berry’s "Jayber Crow."

The Prairie Writers Circle is a project of the Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan.