Marilynne Robinson is best known for her first two novels, Housekeeping and Gilead, which appeared 20 years apart. Reviews of Gilead (2004) were rapturous, yet readers sometimes wondered: what took so long? Robinson’s latest collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, offers a satisfying answer. The book reveals an agile mind formed by decades of deep reading. A committed Christian and American, Robinson calls upon believers and citizens alike to live up to their highest ideals.
When I Was a Child takes up a number of disparate subjects. Robinson writes about Thomas More, Cicero, Jack Miles, Moses, cosmology and Johann Friedrich Oberlin with equal enthusiasm. The essays are surprisingly, and refreshingly, political. Robinson admits to being an unabashed liberal, and offers an extended critique of capitalism, a word, she notes, which never appears in America’s founding documents despite its widespread invocation today. Citing Walt Whitman, she writes that as a country “we have never fully achieved democracy,” and that we must recommit ourselves to its flourishing and not be distracted by the pursuit of “power and wealth.”
Robinson makes an erudite case for the good of public institutions. She revisits influential but misunderstood figures in support of her argument. It is often said, for example, that we live in a Calvinist society, which prizes an individual work ethic. Yet John Calvin was by no means neglectful of the common good, Robinson writes; he emphasized that we must do “good to our neighbors” and not “seclude them from our abundance.” A similar ethic can be found in the law of Moses, which has often been erroneously contrasted with the law of Christ. “The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor,” Robinson tartly notes. “Why do we not know this yet?”
Readers of Robinson’s novels may be surprised by her essay style. Compared to the concise prose of Gilead, the writing of When I Was I Child can seem labyrinthine. Robinson acknowledges this plain fact: “I think anyone can see that my style is considerably more indebted to Cicero than to Hemingway.” Readers daunted by her prose may wish to start with the more accessible essays, like “Wondrous Love” and the title selection, a lovely reflection on the elusive spirit of the West.
But by all means, read the whole book, slowly if need be. Don't be surprised if you find yourself underlining furiously:
“Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom.”
“Writing consists very largely of exploring intuition.”
“Our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull.”
“Lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said.”
Marilynne Robinson may not be a prolific as some writers, but the rewards offered by her body of work are rich indeed.
Maurice Timothy Reidy
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