This week I re-read a short story by Wendell Berry–“Pray Without Ceasing” in a collection of five stories called Fidelity–and it occurred to me that it was a perfect little microcosm of Wendell Berry’s work. Like the rest of his fiction, it’s set in the hamlet of Port William and peopled by characters with familiar names–Coulter and Catlett and Feltner and Rowanberry. People wrong each other grievously in this story, and yet forgiveness and love and shared commitments carry the day. Berry speaks of Port William as a “membership”: it’s a peculiar use of the word, but if you read “Pray Without Ceasing,” you get it. The Feltners have cause to hate the Coulters, but they are members of a larger body–and, more to the point, members of one another.
A person who’s looking for a brief introduction to Wendell Berry could hardly do better than “Pray Without Ceasing.” It’s not just that it’s a great story; it’s a story that encapsulates how Berry’s fiction does its work on you. You could read this story and know whether you wanted to read his novels (you would, by the way). In a pinch, you could talk pretty intelligently about Berry on the strength of this one story (if, indeed, talking intelligently about books and authors is important to you).
I like finding little distillations of an author’s work…stories that you could plug into the following sentence, “If you want to introduce yourself to [name of author here], you should start by reading [name of short-ish work here].”
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a big chaw at close to 600 close-set pages. But if you were to read Dostoyevsky’s novella Notes from the Underground (112 pages), you’d have a pretty good idea of how Crime and Punishment works. It isn’t nearly as good, but it’s a decent place to start acquainting yourself with Dostoyevsky without committing to Crime and Punishment or Brothers K.
Flannery O’Connor can be a bit of a shock, so I tell people to start with her story “Revelation.” Like so many of O’Connor’s stories, it hinges on an act of violence that leads to a revelation for the main character. But the violence is less extreme than in many of her stories, and the revelation is, I guess you would say, friendlier. “Revelation” is comparatively easy to get, and once you get “Revelation” you can see what O’Connor is doing throughout her oeuvre. Whether you like it or not is another thing altogether.
Conversely, it has always bothered me when A Tale of Two Cities is assigned in English classes. I’ve got no real complaint about the book itself, except that I don’t think you “get” Dickens when you’ve read it. It’s such an outlier in Dickens’ body of work, I hate the thought of it being the only Dickens that many people have read (except A Christmas Carol, which is also unrepresentative, though at least it’s very English in a way that A Tale of Two Cities isn’t).
But I digress. Our APF topic this week is literary microcosms. Pick an author and tell us the shortest work by that author that still conveys the essence of his or her work. And tell us why. For example, “If you want to introduce yourself to Mark Twain, you should start by reading ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.'” Then you might explain how Twain makes literature out of vernacular storytelling traditions, just as he did later in Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.
Choose fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. I could imagine somebody making the case that Orthodoxy is the perfect microcosm of Chesterton’s work. What would you say for C.S. Lewis? Shakespeare? I’m looking forward to your answers.