The Avid Reader

“Two things I loved about growing up in West Point: Little League baseball and the old Carnegie Public Library,” says avid reader JOHNNY WRAY, while giving a tour of High Hope Farms, his 30-acre farm in Cedar Bluff.

Wray raises a small stock of grass-fed and antibiotic-, steroid- and growth hormone-free Limousin and Angus beef cattle.

The ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister and former executive director of Week of Compassion — the mission fund of the Christian Church that supplies disaster and humanitarian aid and establishes sustainable agricultural and economic systems — says it was always in him “to have a piece of land … a get-away place,” and after many years of living away and traveling to foreign lands, Wray and his wife, Deb, made the move back to Clay County in 2008.

Wray feels fortunate to have had teachers, first grade through high school, who encouraged him to read. However, growing up with three rambunctious brothers, he often found himself desperate for the solitude to read in peace, many times finding it in a locked bathroom, his brothers banging away at the walls.

Finding a quiet spot for reading is the least of Wray’s challenges these days. The farm is a calm respite for even the most harried of visitors, making it ideal for the small retreat Wray is constructing for those seeking a get-away place of their own.

And should one of those solitude-seekers need an inspiring or uplifting book to read while in seclusion, Wray will be only too happy to lend them one.

1. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf Upon receiving a diagnosis of incurable lung cancer in Feb. 2014, Kent Haruf returned once more to the fictitious small town of Holt, Colorado — the setting for all of his novels, including his best known, Plainsong — for what would be his final book. Our Souls is the story of Addie and Louis, two widowed souls in their 70s, who begin spending their nights together to ease their late-in-life loneliness. Haruf’s inspiration for the book was his own relationship with his wife, Cathy. The two of them loved to end the day talking quietly in bed.

2. Forty Acres and a Goat by Will D. CampbellWith his customary humor and poignancy, storyteller and “freelance civil rights activist” Will Campbell tells his own harrowing tale as a “liberal white man of God” during the racially charged 1960s. The proud Mississippian and once Ole Miss Director of Religious Studies — a position he resigned from after he received death threats for his support of integration — drew both praise and criticism throughout his life for unyielding belief that everyone, whether “dispossessor” or “dispossessed,” qualifies for redemption.

3. Jayber Crow by Wendell BerryThe sixth of eight novels set in poet, essayist and novelist Wendell Berry’s fictional town of Port William tells the story of Jayber Crow, the town barber. Beginning as WWI is about to erupt, the book chronicles Crow’s becoming an orphan early in life, his departure from Port William at age 10, and his return 13 years later. A champion of agrarian values, Berry’s own belief, that rootlessness and the industrialization of life (family farming in particular) will destroy us environmentally and economically, is reflected in Crow’s own view of the world.

4. A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar OmarA mind-boggling memoir of a childhood in ’90s war-torn Afghanistan. A book Wray, whose work with Week of Compassion took him to countless countries including Bosnia, the Balkins, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan says, “describes to a T the coexistence of extreme brutality and overwhelming humanity in Afghanistan.” Following the mujahedeen’s arrival in Kabul and the fighting that broke out across the city, Omar and his family find refuge for a time on the outskirts of the city in a 100-year-old fort called Qala-e-Noborja, for which the book is named. The story follows the family’s zigzag journey across Afghanistan while trying to outrun the spreading conflict and seeking a way out of the country.

5. Mountain Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder — Set primarily in Haiti and Boston, Kidder’s biography of physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer is “one of those books that will make you want to be a better person,” says Wray. Born in Massachusetts, Farmer overcame an impoverished upbringing in Florida to earn his M.D. and Ph.D. from Harvard. In medical school, Farmer found his life’s calling: to cure infectious diseases and bring life-saving medicine to the poorest areas of the world.