James Howard Kunstler: World Made by Hand

February 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

World Made by Hand – 978-0802144010 – paperback – Grove Press – $14.95 (e-book edition available)

The Witch of Hebron: a World Made by Hand novel –  978-0802119612 – hardcover – Atlantic Monthly Press – $24.00 (e-book edition available)

This is an unusual podcast for me as it covers two books, World Made by Hand and the next in what looks to be at least a trilogy for author Kunstler, The Witch of Hebron.  I had heard of, but never read any of Jim Kunstler’s books before these two, which I read much the way I read science fiction and fantasy novels when I was young, voraciously, entering and imaginatively inhabiting the world the author has created, joyfully, and always wanting more.

These two books are set in a fictional town in a real region of upstate New York, near the Hudson River, several hours north of Albany, in a period that Kunstler has dubbed The Long Emergency. That is the title of his most recent and best-selling work of nonfiction, a book I subsequently read and now believe is one of the most important books of our time.

In The Long Emergency, Kunstler describes why our current civilization is inevitably going to collapse.  This is by no means a joyful prediction, but as his novels illustrate, the world ahead as we might imagine it, is not completely grim or devoid of joy and earthly human pleasure either.  It is a post-fossil fuel world, and therefore much, much larger – humans do not travel thousands of miles in a day any longer.  Governments have, for the most part, collapsed along with the great powerful corporations that have come to dominate our landscape.  There is effectively no interstate commerce.  Agriculture based on human and animal power is the dominant feature of daily life for most people.

There is a rise in human suffering, but a massive decline in human population, and during the period in which these novels are set, relatively soon after the collapse of modern civilization, there is a great deal of rediscovery of the tools and methods on which human life was built over the many centuries preceding the 21st.  There are still many who remember how things were, and their beings are marked by what they knew, and lost, and now, as they are relearning how to live, by rediscovery of a different set of values.  The younger generations know nothing directly of the world we now take for granted.  Their lives have always been slower than ours, more physically challenging, and much more about adaptation to one’s direct physical environment.   In addition to the daily necessities, it is personal relationships, family, community and local culture that this world revolves around.  It is a world made by hand, and sometimes much rougher and more painful for being so, but there is a palpable sense of redemption and concern for what is good and right that underlies the world that Kunstler has imagined, that gives meaning to the struggles his characters must face throughout these two books.

Kunstler is a terrific writer and storyteller. These are fully imagined characters living in a plausible future.  I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, and since it won’t be published for some time, I have been reading Kunstler’s older novels (most of which are sadly, out of print).  When we talked, I had not read The Long Emergency, so our conversation is focused solely on the two novels which followed it.  I’d recommend to anyone who has not read these books to start with the fiction as I did, and then go back to the nonfiction.  It’s important for us to have an understanding of where we are headed, and I think it helps us to face the difficulties ahead if we can imagine ourselves into a better place, just as Jim Kunstler has done with A World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron.

Do visit Jim’s website, which continuously presents valuable information about where we are and what we can do about it.  Make sure you take a side trip to the mini-site for these novels, which is a beautifully put together experience in and of itself.  A great author biography here. We had a fantastic wide-ranging conversation about the novels, the world they are set in, and how these characters and their stories illustrate the future Kunstler has so beautifully imagined and portrayed.

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10 Responses to “James Howard Kunstler: World Made by Hand”
  1. Rick says:

    Great interview. JHK is great, and follow him like crazy.

  2. Gary says:

    I’ve read World Made by Hand, and it is a wonderful book. It is inspiring and believable take on where we are heading as a society. I also recommend The Geography of Nowhere, another of Kunstler’s non-fiction works. It will change the way you look at the suburbs, America, and the world around you, perhaps giving form to suspicions you’ve had your whole life.

  3. Matt says:

    I have been referring to him as “The Prophet Kunstler” since I read The Long Emergency back when it first came out. The man just gets it like few others.

  4. B Tidwell says:

    I have read City in Mind, The Long Emergency, and World Made by Hand. They are all incredibly well written. JHK’s words just flow from the page and his characters are well formed and entirely believable. For the first time in years, I wish an author were not so good. I would dearly love to dismiss him as a crackpot. I find them far too optimistic, though. World Made by Hand portrays what is probably the very best possible outcome available to less than one percent of people in the US. Where did all of those wood burning cook stoves come from and how do people heat twentieth century houses with no gas or electric? How many towns actually have reservoirs magically providing water without modern technology?

    Even taken as it is,it is a bleak and horrible future we face. While Western civilization did produce a lot of cultural garbage in the late 20th century, it also produced the greatest efforts of humankind ever. For every TV show that goes off the air without a tear of regret, we also lose the opera, the symphony, the ballet, the movies, museums of breathtaking art whose buildings are uninhabitable and will doubtless be looted anyway. Great palaces and masterpieces of architecture will crumble along with the strip malls. Even the simple pleasures like morning coffee and an afternoon soda and bag of chips will be a memory, not to mention esoteric luxuries like champagne and gourmet chocolate. God only knows what most people will end up eating. even being an accomplished cook I can’t imagine turning out a decent meal without access to the majority of ingredients in my pantry. Food as an art and pleasure will fall by the wayside as well, replaced by utilitarian meals whose sole purpose is nutrition, not pleasure.

    The outlaws are not likely to be near as civilized as the ones in Union Grove and life will not be as easy. Perhaps, in Witch of Hebron, JHK fully faces the necessities of frontier justice that he side stepped with the paranormal ending of World Made by Hand. I’ll not be reading Hebron, it’s too depressing. Watching civilization fall into a new dark age of provincial peasantry is a tragedy to great to bear for all but lower class anti-establishment snobs who have always hated the achievements of fine arts and culture. Only those who worship mediocrity and find beauty in the ragged awkward efforts of amateurism will find anything to embrace in the future we seem doomed to suffer.

  5. Beau says:

    Great conversation. I wish more of my countrymen could ignore all of their awesome cell phones and have real conversations like this. Then maybe this country could be on a way to a real recovery.

  6. Liberty says:

    I just reread my copy of “The Long Emergency”. Which is now a 10 year old book. And I loved it all over again. Kunstler is a great writer and thinker. And I’m going to order his latest book.
    With that said. I disagree with many of his conclusions, and certainly his main theme of “Peak Oil”. The last 10 years have proven Peak Oil is a false concept. And the last 40 years of this developing concept keeps getting a new end date. (Okay be angry. Your very heavily invested in the Peak Oil theory.)
    But lets get back to the areas where we agree. Trouble is coming. Big trouble. And Kunstler is so right on how badly people will behave when they are hungry. And he has thought so deeply about how difficult and dark life will be during the hard times to come.
    Kunstler just out thinks the rest of us, and presents the world in the most realistic possible way. Our future is bleak, yet there is hope.

  7. Anne says:

    I go back to re-read the World Made by Hand novels when I need to feel soothed… and I disagree with critics who suggest that they are dystopic. Dystopia describes the situation we have now.
    Apart from the beautiful, pared-down prose and the peace of a future without machinery, there is a sense of spiritual, magical realism in the stories that is unique to American fiction and leaves the reader with a satisfying sense of feeling – but not knowing – everything that matters.
    I love these books and look forward to the next one.


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