Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Jayber Crow is probably one of my favorite books of all time, if not my very favorite book. Reading it was like spiritual reading and prayer and rest all at the same time. The line that will probably stick with me longer than any other is when Jayber says, “The Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not yet seen.”
Jayber’s reading of scripture and his belief in every line of the Lord’s Prayer make up a constant theme running in the background of the novel. Yet, do not be misled: this is not a book about religion or spirituality. The full title is Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself. This is a book about the life of a man named Jayber Crow, told from his point of view as an old man looking back at the life he lived with joy and sorrow, pride and shame. He tells the story of his life with this belief: “I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked.” The pilgrimage he speaks of is not one with marked roads like on el camino, but the pilgrimage of life in which one makes his own way.
The story begins with the tale of how Jayber ended up as a child at an orphanage, then tells of his time there and the time after, during which he thought he was to become a preacher. Then, he ends up (as you knew from the very beginning—it’s the subtitle of the book) in the small township of Port William, acting as their barber.
Jayber’s tale is told with care—with the wisdom of an old man telling his story. Berry’s writing is, as always, masterful. There is an element of the story telling that reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. He tells the story, but often out of order and sometimes two ways.
Jayber writes, “I have raked my comb over scalps that were dirty both above and beneath. I have lowered the ears of good men and bad, smart and stupid, young and old, kind and mean; of men who have killed other men (think of that) and of men who have been killed (think of that).” Yet, he loves them all—or almost all.
The connections that Jayber Crow makes with the people of Port William define him. They form and shape him. He tells about the old men, farmers who sit and tell stories or bring out their instruments and sing, “I loved to listen to them, for they spoke my native tongue.”
Jayber’s story is about community, about love, and about belonging. I think Jayber’s story can speak to us all. Berry’s expert storytelling gives us an old man that is lovable and relatable, wise and yet, through his reminiscences, in need of wisdom. There is much to learn from the old barber, Jayber Crow.
I recommend this book with all my heart. I give it a sold 5/5, maybe even a 5.5. Read it.
Some favorite quotes:
“The University… was preparing people from the world of the past for the world of the future, and what it was missing was the world of the present, where every body was living its small, short, surprising, miserable, wonderful, blessed, damaged, only life.”
“I became a sort of garden fanatic, and I am not yet over it.”
Of Miss Gladdie Finn: “When she got tired of some of her stuff, she would gather it into her apron and hike off among the neighbors to trade for stuff that they were tired of.”
Of WWII: “What had caused it? It was caused, I thought, by people failing to love one another, failing to love their enemies.”
Of Cecilia Overhold: “Of courses, Cecilia held some secret doubts about herself; you can’t dislike nearly everybody and be quite certain that you have exempted yourself.”
Of Roy Overhold: “Roy lived too hard up against mystery to be without religion.”
“I feel a little weary in calling them “the dead,” for I am as mystified as anybody by the transformation known as death, and the Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not yet seen.”
“As I buried the dead and walked among them, I wanted to make my heart as big as heaven to include them all and love them and not be distracted. I couldn’t do it, of course, but I wanted to.”
There is much, much more, but for fear of spoiling the story, I will refrain!