Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Plain Reader

The Plain Reader
© 1998 various authors, edited by Scott Savage
272 pages

What really matters?  Such is the question explored by the contributing authors of The Plain Reader, a collaboration between Amish and Quaker communities to express how living simply allows them to ‘put to rout all that [is] not life’ and experience themselves, their families, their communities – every aspect of the human condition, in fact – in a more profound way.  Plain is a provocative work, prompting  readers to think critically about their own lives and how our habits reveal our values.In return, the lessons taught may allow those interested to create a more peaceful, meaningful life.

The Plain Reader begins with the account of a man who quit his job at an oil company and purchased a small working farm to run with his wife and children.  He was tired, he said, of working in a place that  encouraged reckless consumerism that allowed a tiny minority to live extravagantly (that's us) at the expense of both the poor and of future generations, who will left with our messes and without resources. He was tired of working long hours at this company, being separated from his children and world outside his office. In place of all that, he was choosing a life that allowed him to practice sustainability and self-reliance, and to impart those values to his children while watching them grow up and working alongside them at the family farm while experiencing the glory of the natural world.  Toward the book's end, one author writes that the essence of being Amish is choosing to reject anything that gets in the way of experiencing life fully, that constitutes a spiritual obstacle.

In that spirit, the authors of this book live. Some of them are not so different from most people who might pick up this slender volume: they have simply chosen to disengage from the constant havoc of everyday life. They've stopped shopping for the sake of shopping; they've shut off the television and found they liked a quieter home.  They've opted to bicycle to work, or move closer to it so they wouldn't have to drive. Some start a garden and learn to can. And others have taken more dramatic steps, like joining Amish communities and taking up farming as a vocation. Because the sources hail from Christian religious communities, that tradition is touched on within, but these authors do not need to inject religious beliefs into their ordinary lives, like slapping a "HONK IF U LOVE JESUS" sticker onto their SUV; instead, their ordinary lives are their practice, and every action is imbued with the sacred, from birthing to washing clothes. They are not Puritans, for the most part; one contributor is a Quaker minister who uses a laptop to write his sermons and provide his pulpit notes.  He's uncomfortable with having become dependent on the computer to write the notes he used to compose in longhand, but, he concludes, using the computer to write allows him more time to drive his buggy.

The relationship between humanity and machines is a running theme of the book; there exists a proper relation between the two, and working  out what that relation is should be left to people and communities. Critical discussion of the machine is not limited to tools and physical objects, however, like the effect of televisions and computer games on family life;  the authors take on Systems as machines, or as things which treat people like machines. They disdain an compulsory educational system that grooms  children to take tests, but doesn't impart any skills; they reject dehumanizing work, and a medical approach that views organs and individuals in isolation and regards disease in both as something which should be treated with an array of patented pills.  The contributors time and again turn away from the big and impersonal to the small and human-scaled; they embrace barter and favors systems rather than money, and stress the importance of adults who know children personally in teaching them about the world, one-on-one and by example, like apprentices and masters.

A common thread is that of community. As mentioned, most of the authors hail from Quaker and Amish communities, and so put great stock by traditions which bring and keep people together; The Plain Reader, while attacking most of what modern people take for granted, is conservative in that it generally emphasizes the welfare of communities over that of individuals, although the essayists presumably have different ideas as to what the ideal balance is between individual and communal well-being. While one urges people to think for themselves, another writes that removing televisions from the home allowed him to shelter his children, teaching them to accept certain beliefs on face value; he explicitly scoffs at this notion of people believing any old thing they want. The catch is, of course, that the culture the authors adore so much, the traditions they keep to, are themselves artifacts, just as invented by human beings as television sets, automobiles, and SaladShooters.  

Though not a large book, The Plain Reader offers an abundance of food for thought. But that food isn't candy; it isn't necessarily sweet and easy to swallow. It's substantial, chewy, and can be felt all the way down  your esophagus.  Even to someone as receptive to their ideas as myself, some of the essays presented a challenge, especially in  regards to health. While I find the "everything should be treated with pills" model as dubious as any,  the mention of holistic medicine and having an herb for everything makes my skepi-senses tingle. Diet and exercise have their place in warding off most diseases -- but antibiotics have their place, too.  The trick is to not destroy the body's immune system by swallowing a pill for every runny nose.  Everything in moderation -- or should that be, most things?

The Plain Reader commends itself to those interested in a thoughtful life. 


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