Jayber Crow: Welcome to the Discussion!

The house where I grew up is gone, and I haven’t returned to pay homage to the empty space.  For me, home — the place of belonging and permanence — is this country hill which has created in me a deep appreciation and understanding of the importance of place.  Expecting to live solitary and transient, I have been amazed to find that I’m content in a long-term zip code, but, as usual, I’m just catching up with what God has been doing all along.  He has always worked within a context of place, choosing a backwater Palestinian setting as ground zero for His arrival and as the backdrop for His earthly ministry. The incarnation brought dignity to the mortal body and to the notion of occupying a particular time and a beloved space.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry is a book about a man, but it is also a book about a place. Chapter 1 introduces Jayber as the barber in Port William, and then goes on to introduce the reader to the town he called home, employing six vignettes which feature various members of the Port William Membership.

Somehow, throughout the book, Jayber manages to sidestep the spotlight and to relate his tale through the observations of others.  However, he describes Port William as a place that “repaid watching,” (5) and clearly, Jayber saw plenty through his barbershop window.  It’s interesting that Berry makes his introductions in this order:  (1) Port William culminating in the first mention of Mattie Keith; (2) Jayber’s early years; (3) the Kentucky River which, we will see later, is so active in the plot that it nearly becomes a character in the story.

This is as good a place as any to address Wendell Berry’s curmudgeonly preface to Jayber Crow:


Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.


This makes me smile, but you will recall (if you participated in the book discussion group around Till We Have Faces) how we acknowledged that Orual and her associates provided a wealth of material to deepen our understanding of God and His ways.  However, C.S. Lewis was primarily a story teller, and the story superseded all the themes and character analysis we discussed.  So . . . . lest we all find ourselves banished together to a desert island, let’s acknowledge once again that Jayber Crow is first and foremost a story about the barber of the Port William Membership.

If there is really such a thing as a “fictional memoir,” William Berry has mastered the craft.  Through Jayber’s musings, we will explore themes such as vocation and calling; the blessings and bane of change; the idea of belonging; and the unfolding of time in a particular place.  Writing from the perspective of 72 years of life, Jayber ponders the lay of the land:

“Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory.  Though I knew early of death, it still seemed to be something that happened only to other people, and I stood in an unending river of time that would go on making the same changes and the same returns forever.  And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”

What Are Your Thoughts?

I hope that you are already beginning to fall in love with the people of Port William.  Have you noticed how Jayber describes in elaborate detail the characters’ background, temperament, and manner of living?  Some of these individuals will appear later in the story (or in other books that Berry has written about the Port William Membership), but some of them never appear again.  Even so, Berry has given gratuitous attention to them, like that of a painter to one tree in a landscape of forest.

I’d also love to hear your thoughts on Jayber himself.  I’ve never had a brother, but I think I love Jayber the way one would love an odd, errant brother who never quite lived up to his potential, BUT could explain every turn in the road to his own satisfaction, so was just fine in his own skin, thank you very much.

I hesitate to mention this at the outset, but I want to discuss it when it comes up, so I’ll front-load an observation from this read-through of Jayber.  Wendell Berry, in addition to being a poet and stunning author of fiction, is a farmer, an environmental activist, and a cultural critic.  I noticed several incidents in which Jayber’s monologues sounded as if maybe Wendell had jumped in front of the microphone for few paragraphs.  Not yet.  But bear this in mind as you read on.  I’m wondering . . . is it just my imagination, or do you notice it as well?

One of the reasons I have called Jayber my favorite fictional theologian is his ability to make observations about the faith which sound like an outsider and yet to be profoundly orthodox on so many points.  I’m hoping for some lively discussion on the state of Jayber’s eternal soul, but listen to this insight on God as Father from later on in the book:

“I imagined that the right name might be Father, and I imagined all that that name would imply:  the love, the compassion, the taking of offense, the disappointment, the anger, the bearing of wounds, the weeping of tears, the forgiveness, the suffering unto death . . . Divine omnipotence might by the force of its love be swayed down into the world.  Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on mortal flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death.”

And so . . . back to incarnation once again.

What are your thoughts on barber chair theology?
Is there a place in your history and memory that anchors you in the way Port William anchored Jayber?

Let’s Get Started

I would love to hear your thoughts as we read. If you do not blog, just share your insights directly to the comments, but if you have a blog, I hope that you will write a piece or two (or a post about each section!) and then share them here by copying the URL of the post into the comments section below.  It will be fun — and enlightening — to learn from each other’s insights.

Don’t feel as if you need to share earth-shattering observations.  Just write about what impressed you in the section we are reading. If something puzzled you, pose your questions to the group.  Let’s commit to reading the book and learning from it in community!

I’ll be here next Thursday (September 14) having read Chapters 4-6.  I’ll share a summary to get us started, mention some of my insights, and then throw the door wide open for your input.
How do you participate?
Simply get a copy of the book and read along.  You don’t need to register or commit to anything other than just reading the book!

In the meantime, are you planning to read with us?
Will this be your first time through one of Wendell Berry’s books or are you a repeat reader?
What else have you read by Berry?  Do you have a favorite?
Where are you, who are you, and what do you love?
Do you plan to blog about your impressions?
Let’s begin to get acquainted in the comments below!
And just in case you missed the schedule I posted last week, here it is again:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32


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51 thoughts on “Jayber Crow: Welcome to the Discussion!”

  1. Makes this non-fiction girl want to grab a copy and read along. 🙂 Sounds like he brings the people and places to life well. I’m only 46, but this quote resonates well with me lately, “And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.” — Thanks for sharing, Michele. Hope you and your family had a wonderful Labor Day weekend. ((xoxo))

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good morning Michele! I too took note of the quotes you shared. To extend the one:
    “Toward the end of my life at Squires Landing I began to understand that whenever death happened, it happened to me. (!)
    That is knowledge that takes a long time to wear in. Finally it wears in. Finally I realized and fully accepted that one day I would belong entirely to memory, and it would then not be my memory that I belonged to, and I went over to Goforth to see if there was any room left beside my parents’ graves.” –p. 24

    I’m not yet to this stage, being ‘just’ 55 but I think it’s not a bad thing to get a glimpse ahead. What do I want to be remembered about me anyway?

    But on a less somber note! Yes, glad to be here. I do hope to post regularly my comments and reaction to reading Jayber. I’m posting at my alternate blog: https://dictationbydawn.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/jayber-crow-chapter-1-3/

    I’ve read only one other Wendell Berry book: Hannah Coulter, which I really enjoyed as it gave me opportunity to spend time in the skin of an older woman and mother from Port William and I suppose I could relate more closely than I can to a bachelor barber! It was great as an audio book for quiet evening reads!

    And Michele, yes, it is not your imagination, every so often Wendell Berry himself hops up to the soap box and rants a bit. These are not my favorite spots in the book. I sympathize with his concerns but am not sure he comes up with any good alternatives to progress and change. I think it’s part of the lot of persons living on planet earth! His story is a lovely reprieve from modern life though, a well-penned peek into the way things were ( :

    As for me, I pulled up anchor from my own Port William (a rural spot in NJ, walking distance from my grandparents farm) when I left home to go to boarding school in Canada as a highschool senior. I never really got back to live, just visits, which are among my most cherished memories to this day. Life has not played out steady and rooted as I would have imagined it. I ended up marrying a Canadian and dividing the growing up years of our tribe between Arizona, the deep South of Mexico, and British Columbia, Canada. Now we’ve sold the family house and live as empty-nesters as close as we could get to the next generation of kidlets, in Alberta, Canada. Perhaps it’s not so much place that matters, as face. We are determined to stay connected with our kids and their kids even if it means sacrificing houses and lands and a sense of permanence (which feels, at times, like a big sacrifice for this homebody).
    And that’s me. Thanks for taking on this book discussion!

    Linda (blogging at—-https://dictationbydawn.wordpress.com)


    1. I absolutely know why you’ve made the decision to anchor yourselves to your kids and grandkids rather than “houses and land.” Such a good investment. There’s a sadness to Jayber’s rootlessness at the beginning that tugs at me, and doesn’t resolve itself until sometime after chapter 9 when he makes his home in Port William as the barber. Even then, his ties feel so tenuous. I’m heading over to your place now to read your post. Thanks for participating in this venture.


      1. Yes, his ties do seem to be quite tenuous for so much of his life. I thought that rather sad. This can be the catch of small town closeness. If you’re not a native, you’re never quite accepted…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh yes, one more thing! If anyone is like me a bit challenged at picturing the layout of the land based on description alone, there is a map of Port William and all the characters that inhabit it!!
    I was delighted to find it here at http://www.wendellberrybooks.com/
    under the ‘Port William’ tab. And it’s a printable PDF file so you can have it along for the read. (It occurs to me that perhaps this map is in the hardcopy edition of Jayber? I am reading on a Kindle…the map is great!)


    1. What a great tip for Kindle readers. In the paperback I’m reading from there is a map in the back — along with a family tree that shows the Port William Membership intertwining of inlaws and outlaws. Very helpful!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Michele,
    I highlighted that same passage on memory also, as I was reading along. This is the first time I have read any of Wendell Berry’s books, but I have seen his name in connection with environmental issues. So it will be interesting to watch for his “microphone interruptions” in the story. :). But I am loving the characters and setting already. Here is my post sharing my thoughts this week:
    Thank you again for being such a great hostess and teacher (and book mentor!).


  5. I love the author’s caution as I have often felt that way about many a book. I can remember my teachers asking me all sorts of deeper meaning questions when I was in school and I always wondered how they knew the author meant to do that… as I got older I realized that it was what spoke to them. But I have learned that all readers (even when re- reading the same books) relate to different aspects of books at different times and seasons of their lives.


    1. Yes, and different people notice different aspects of a story, as we can see from reading the comments on this post! I do wonder if Berry’s caution is somewhat tongue in cheek as well– he’s a poet as well as a novelist, so he certainly writes on multiple layers at once.


  6. I wasn’t sure I would have time to participate or read this book, but I am so glad to have you introduce the book to me, Michele. I love the “voice” of the author, his poetic words rich with meaning. I rarely highlight or underline a fiction work, but I have begun in earnest with this one. I also highlighted the same powerful words about time and memory. They seem especially poignant since I, too, am older. I also loved the images and thought this sentence created for me: “The river, the river itself, leaves marks but bears none. It is only water flowing in a path that other water has worn.” Another sentence about the water/river and how it inspires and speaks to him: “The surface of the quieted river…is like a window looking into another world that is like this one except that it is quiet. Its quietness makes it seem perfect.”

    This is my first Wendell Berry book, but may not be my last!

    I live on not quite an acre of land in a small development in Ohio just two miles from the farm where I grew up. I had not thought I would live so close to where my roots began, but when my husband met me he fell in love with the area and how much quieter it seemed than the other side of the county where he lived. It is less quiet now than when we built the house after he returned from active duty as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, but I can still see a few cows from my kitchen window and I routinely visit an orchard I have known since childhood. Seeing farm fields planted and well tended give me a strong sense of “rightness” in the world and connects me with my dad in particular.

    I am a wife of nearly 53 years, mother of two adult children by birth (and their spouses), grandmother of 6. I am a lover of Jesus, stories, exploring the beauty of God’s creation in my own backyard and many other places in the U.S. and Canada. I love photography, good books that stir my heart and thoughts, music of many kinds, and movies. I enjoy walks, bicycling, sitting listening to the breeze or ripples of a lake or stream, and a good cup of coffee or tea in the company of a friend. I am tenacious about relationships and the value and gift of them. I pay attention to details about persons I meet and love to find ways to surprise them to let them know I have been paying attention to their story and who they are.

    I had not planned to us Jayber Crow as a jumping off point for a blog post, but as I have been reading I am rethinking that. Stay tuned….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m really happy about that last paragraph. And so pleased that you have managed to interact so much with this first chunk of Jayber. All Berry’s references to the river captured my attention as well, and it gets better. Truly. I knew that you lived in Ohio, but I did not know that you were so rural. And SIX grands! Wow. I love the way you described yourself as “tenacious” about relationships. I’m actually working on that — as a long-time bridge burner.
      Thanks for sharing your Jayber thoughts!


  7. Michele- thank you so much for hosting this! I almost exclusively read non-fiction, but it took a lot of self-control to stop reading at Chapter 3. (I’ll probably be reading ahead!!) The concept of memoir-fiction is fascinating to me. Are you familiar with the Little House on The Praire Series? I discovered a few years ago that Rose Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, actually fictionalized the stories. The series’ teeters on the edge of being a fictional memoir. That was sort of disappointing since the stories were beloved to me as a kid, but they are still engaging and precious!

    The quotes on memory (belonging to it vs it belonging to us and time vs memory ratio) grabbed my attention too. So far I appreciate how he weaves concepts of time passing and our perspective as it does so. The section describing the river that Pam mentioned is also wonderful.

    I don’t know that I’ll write a blog post specifically on the book, but I know I’ll be copying down quotes to reference and share! Is it correct to cite Jayber Crow or Wendell Berry, haha??


    1. Good question! I find myself mentally citing Jayber, anyway. And I’m also in a place where most of what I read is non-fiction, but this book feels like the right thing at the right time. The themes Jayber keeps running into, oddly, dovetail with some of the non-fiction I’ve read this year, particularly Keeping Place by Jen Pollock Michel. (More on that next week!)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi! I have never been involved in any kind of book club. But I thought it sounded interesting and fun!

    I have never read any Wendell Berry, but his name had a familiar ring to it when I heard it. I am already finding myself enjoying his style and expect that I’ll read more of his work in the days ahead.

    We’ve lived in our small town about 13 years. It’s one of those towns where you don’t belong unless you were raised there but your grandchildren might if your children stick around long enough. I live far from home but about and hour from where my husband was raised.

    I find myself already sucked in to the story. I love that Jayber observes so much of life around his slow paced life. Not just looks but really sees life’s happenings. I picked up on the “back at 6:30” sign he inherited with the shop. He has not a care to change it or to make all new one. He adjusts his schedule to fit that sign. I also thought what an odd time 6:30 is–not at a normal business time.

    I also could not help but to think of another fictional small town barber from Mayberry.

    Mr. Berry also packed a large back story into 3 short chapters. So many facets to this seemingly simple character’s life already. Is he as simple as he seems or is he more complex? I found myself wanting to read on but forced myself to stop.


  9. Hi Michele! I wanted to personally invite you back to my weekend linky party. The free linky that I was using is up and running again. I hope you have a chance to stop by. Thank you for always being so faithful in visiting and commenting. God bless!


  10. I’m listening to the audiobook, which is delightful, but I am going to look at the library and see if they have a copy as well, because there are parts I want to reread in print. This is my first experience with Berry except for a few poems (loved “The Blue Robe.”) I love the setting and the pace and Jayber’s narration. I admit I got frustrated with him over his theological questions in college – not that he had them, we all do, but that the ones he brought up were, to me, fairly easy to reconcile. But I’m waiting to see what happens and whether he changes his mind on any of them along the way. I loved your description of him as an “odd, errant brother” who could “explain every turn in the road to his own satisfaction.” That’s a perfect explanation of him, from what I can see so far (I’m right at the part where he’s trying to cross the flooded Kentucky River after having just left his first barbering job with Skinner). I’m glad to be gaining insights into the story by reading this along with you.


    1. Gotta look up “The Blue Robe.” You’ve got me curious. This business of Jayber’s spiritual development is something I’m looking forward to discussing as we progress through the book. And I’m re-reading for upcoming posts, and am also traveling through the flood with Jayber.
      So glad to have you reading along.


  11. Well, I thought I left my comment earlier this week, but it’s not here so I’ll go again 🙂

    As I began, I couldn’t help but think of another fictional small town barber, Mayberry’s Floyd. Jayber and Floyd seeing the small town world through the eyes of a barbers window.

    I too am a “new” resident of our small town, even after living in the rural area of our community for nearly 14 years we’re still on the outside looking in and probably will never be an old timer.

    I found it interesting that Jayber was perfectly content with the old cardboard “back at 6:30” clock of the former owner. He arranged his schedule to work with the clock instead of jotting a sign or investing in the time and effort for a new clock. 6:30 struck me as very odd. AM is too early, PM is too late.

    The last line of chapter 3 almost had me reading more. To be “the survivor of two stories almost ended” by the time he was 10 left my heart aching for such a young man to be alone. So many losses for one so young. So glad Mr. Berry gave us hope for his future from the barber window.

    I’m looking forward to reading more about Jayber and interacting here. Thanks so much for doing it Michele!


    1. Thank you for persevering, Christy! I found your comment in the spam bucket — who knows why?? If this happens again, be sure to let me know, because I appreciate the time you took to comment and the great observations you made. I thought that Be Back at 6:30 sign was hilarious as well. And kind of poignant when he mentions that he used it until he didn’t. His story has all kinds of sadness in it, but all kinds of strength. And weakness. So good to enjoy the development of such a rich character in a group of readers!


    1. Jayber’s story covers much of the history of the 20th century here in the U.S. I love thinking about those “simpler” days. Eventually he begins having internal conversations about cars that sound like the ones I have about the Internet.


  12. Words like these are what makes me know we are kindred spirits: “So . . . . lest we all find ourselves banished together to a desert island, let’s acknowledge once again that Jayber Crow is first and foremost a story about the barber of the Port William Membership.” You read books like I read books…on all levels. What’s your favorite Wendell Berry essay if you had to pick?


    1. Wow, that’s a hard question. Especially since he released a collection of essays a few years ago that are based on his fictional characters in Port William. Of his non-fiction, I’d say I most enjoy any of the essays in which he avoids “ranting.” I love his writing style, but when he feels strongly about something there are times when he gets shrill in his non-fiction. I’ve also loved his poetry.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Another author who does this beautifully is Marilyn Robinson. Have you read Gilead and Home? Two points of view from the same neighborhoods. Two of my all-time favorite books of fiction– perfect for a future reading-together time! Ha! Just what you need right now ( :


    1. Loved those books, and for a while just kept re-reading. Have you read Lila, the third in the series? I don’t love it as much as 1 and 2, but appreciate backstory on Marilynn’s imagined backstory on John’s wife and how she came to be.


      1. Lila disappointed me 😐 I had her pegged in my mind already as quite a different person. I gave that one away. The others are treasures I shared and re-bought used just recently.
        Housekeeping was a fascinating look/conjecture? into the mindset of the homeless by choice. It has really stuck with me as a reminder that not everyone thinks as I do about the nature of home.


      2. Yes, me, too, especially after all the pre-publication hooplah and after having loved Gilead and Home so much. 😦 I need to re-read Housekeeping, I guess, because I don’t remember much about the overall plot. One of Marilynne Robinson’s books would be a good topic for a discussion group . . .


  14. I haven’t read this book before but I am hoping to join you. That said, I haven’t started yet so we’ll see if I can get caught up! As for favorite fictional theologian, I’ll be truly amazed if Jayber can unseat Jan Karon’s Father Tim from that spot in my own heart! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday on Mommynificent.com!


  15. I love the community you nurture around books, Michele. I’ve never read anything by Wendell Berry, and I don’t think I can read this one right now, but it sounds like one I would enjoy at some point. 🙂 I noticed in one of your responses that you will be reviewing “Keeping Place” soon … that’s another book I’ve had on my radar screen and so will be looking forward to your thoughts about it.


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