What Are People For?

By Wendell Berry

2,222 ratings - 4.23* vote

In the twenty-two essays collected here, Wendell Berry, whom "The Christian Science Monitor "called ""the "prophetic American voice of our day," conveys a deep concern for the American economic system and the gluttonous American consumer. Berry talks to the reader as one would talk to a next-door neighbor: never preachy, he comes across as someone offering sound advice. He In the twenty-two essays collected here, Wendell Berry, whom "The Christian Science Monitor

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Book details

Paperback, 210 pages
November 21st 2005 by North Point Press

(first published April 1st 1990)

Original Title
What Are People For?
0865474370 (ISBN13: 9780865474376)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


Take what I said about Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, rinse and repeat. There came a point where I had to stop making notes because I was writing down the whole book.

In amongst the essays on Hemingway, on Twain, on Edward Abbey are the essays on freedom, on marriage, on fulfillment, on all the ways the center cannot hold when we’re consumed by consuming. The former didn’t seem like a digression from the latter. They all spoke— passionately, provokingly, eminently responsibly— to the same crucial theme.

It dissatisfies me in the best way. It decries the culture that demands satisfaction should be our highest aim. I’d rather wrestle with these ideas than unconditionally agree with a dozen others.


I read this with my book club, but most people didn't finish it because they were too confused by the format and bored with the first two sections so they quit before it got good. This book is excellent, but an orientation is in order...

Part 1: The shortest section. It's poetic, almost proverb-esque. Interesting, but a little strange.

Part 2: This consists of several essays Berry wrote about people several decades ago, none of them you will have heard of. If this bores you, skip it. After those, there's a chapter about a poem (if you don't like poetry, skip this too). The essay "Style and Grace" is about the novel "A River Runs Through It" and is definitely worth reading; same goes for "Write and Region" which is about "Huckleberry Finn".

Part 3: Pure gold. This is Berry at his finest, defining our culture's illnesses and casting vision for the future. The essays here are loosely organized around the themes of community, human dignity, work and consumerism. This section could serve as a great introduction to Berry's thought and work for a new reader.

My absolute favorite essays are:

What are People For?
Economy and Pleasure
The Pleasures of Eating
Why I'm Not Going to Buy a Computer
Feminism, the Body, and the Machine
Word and Flesh

Josh Barkey

A collection of essays. A series of meditations. An alternate path. I LOVE this guy, even as I resent him for revealing to me my complicity in this deranged culture, and the necessity in my life for real, deep change.


gotta love this farmer-philosopher.

“When despair for the world grows in me, and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be -- I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought or grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” --wendell berry


What are People For? by Wendell Berry

There are seventeen essays in this collection and a small number of pages of poetry.

Berry is an excellent essayist and I consider the essays on Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey to be the gems here. Both are five stars easy. Berry understands these men and writes so eloquently and reverently of their humanity and even their flaws.

His essays that are most specific or narrow in subject matter and about people are the best. Some of the others like the Responsibility of a Poet or a Practical Harmony felt too general or philosophical.

4 stars. A solid collection of essays from the well noted author in the genre of Regional Environmentalism. Glad I read it.

Laura Clawson

Favorites from this collection: Waste, The Pleasures of Eating, and Feminism, The Body, and the Machine.


Well, isn't that a touch of irony.

I was probably fifty words away from finishing a review of this book and then my laptop randomly shutdown (with plenty of power).

It's an irony given one of the most interesting essays in this book: "Why I am not going to buy a Computer". I don't know what my life would look like if I was able to give reasons for not buying a computer, but I'm closer to being able to give those reasons.

*sigh* I think I'll just cut this review a bit shorter as nobody needs my rambling/windbaggyness. (At least, I don't, right now)

There's a lot of good essays in the book.
A lot of what feels like thoughtful, well-crafted essays (e.g. Style and Grace). I had to read this book pretty slowly, both to get into it and to just spend some time thinking about it.

I liked being introduced to the word usufruct in discussion about stewardship and community (instead of resources being hoarded by fewer people).

Most of Part 3 was hard-hitting essays. Not sure which but right now Economy and Pleasure and Feminism, The Body, and the Machine stick out.

So yes, we are more than 30 years after this book, and a lot has changed.
In many ways, Berry seemed to be advocating for things that have taken place: I see a lot more people thinking seriously about our use of resources, care for our environment - local and further out, social responsibility, eating local, living and being wiser. That's a bad summary and there's a lot of ways we have become less thoughtful, but it's interesting.

I do think the Internet (limited when these essays were written) has changed things. Partly the democratization of information. People are able, for good and bad, to see more quickly direct impacts small actions have. They are also able to (re-)learn work that was dying or pursue something for the pleasure of it. I'm thinking whatever the movement is called that includes 'micro-brewing' and 'knife-forging' and 'sailboat building'. I don't know, in a lot of ways people are able to branch out and become less specialized. So it's interesting/sad? that most people's (mine too) main work is still being pushed into further specialization and working in a system that... well, is weirdly anti-people.
I will be thinking about this book a lot - why I do things, what I value, why I should value what I value, who benefits, who loses... so many questions and things to ponder.

We do need more voices like Berry. We need voices that are comfortable with throwing water in our face, and laughing at the refreshed look in our eye.

John Elliott

Having previously read Berry’s Port William novels, it was compelling to see his views come to life with even greater precision and force in essay form. While provocative, his takes on conservation, economics, and technology are imminently well thought (and lived) out. Especially enjoyed the essay entitled “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine”, of which I have included an excerpt:

“The higher aims of ‘technological progress’ are money and ease. And this exulted greed for money and ease is disguised and justified by an obscure, cultish faith in ‘the future’. How we can hope to make a good future by doing badly in the present, we do not say.”

Deborah Stevens

This is my first (not last!) foray into Berry’s nonfiction. There is much to appreciate here- particularly his independence of thought.


‘ From the imperfections of life, one could take refuge in the perfections of art. One could read a good poem- or better, write one.
There is a sense in which I no longer “go to work.” If I live in my place, which is my subject, then I am “at” my work even when I am not working. It is “my” work because I cannot escape it.

If I live in my subject, then writing about it cannot “free” me of it or “get it out of my system.” When I am finished writing, I can only return to what I have been writing about. While I have been writing about it, time will have changed it.

Over longer stretches of time, I will change it. Ultimately, it will be changed by what I write, inasmuch as I, who change my subject, am changed by what I write about.’