One of the joys of reviewing books is encountering writers I have never heard of before. The book I am reviewing here, a collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson titled When I was a Child I Read Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; March 13, 2012), is one of those discoveries that will lead me to read more by this remarkable woman.
This is a collection of personal and critical essays that can be read leisurely, but should never be read lightly. Robinson, whose novel Gilead (Picador, 2006) won her a Pulitzer Prize, is an intelligent woman whose articulate use of language is admirable and enviable. She is also a deeply religious person, and her insights reveal her connection to Calvinist thinking that she applies to life as we live it today in ways that are compelling.
The word “essay” tends to send chills up and down the spine of those of us who remember hearing those dreaded words in high school or college: “compose an essay on the subject of….” I later learned that the word “essay” means “an attempt,” and many of my “essays’ were poor “attempts” at best. The challenge of saying something meaningful in a brief and well-organized manner, which is what one attempts to do in an essay, is indeed an effort of the spirit. And if your spirit isn’t in it–and what high school or college kid’s was?–it just isn’t going to work. In time, however, I came to appreciate this vehicle, especially as I began to write for publications. And I also came to appreciate some of the classical essayists, like Sir Francis Bacon, Charles Lamb, and Jonathon Swift. In fact, my favorite is Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which he sets forth a way of dealing with the number of poor children in Ireland. His solution: eat them!
But a book of essays is not standard fare in publishing today, which is why Robinson’s book is such a unusual treat. This collection contains ten essays, ranging in subject matter from freedom of thought to the origins of American liberalism (which she traces to Moses). Of course, the eponymous essay is the one that caught my attention, since Robinson is a near-contemporary (she is only 2 years older) and since I, too, could say the same thing. Reading began for her, and for me, as a treasured practice and memory of childhood.
Among the issues she raises is the current vacuousness of public life, and the brevity of historical memory, which seems to characterize our educational system and our public discourse.
I have spent most of my life studying American history and literature…. The magnanimity of its greatest laws and institutions as well as its finest poetry and philosophy move me deeply…. But the language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.
Such observations coming from a woman her age might be dismissed as sour grapes, as a humorous sort of “When I was a kid, I walked 5 miles a day to school, uphill both ways” sort of screed. But her observations about life in America today resound with truth. If anyone wants to listen. This is especialy true in her observations about fiction, or what passes for fiction in this day and age (as a writer, I perked up at this!). She writes, “We inhabit…a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small.” The experiences we have in life from what we perceived, believe or assume, are what we must somehow place into a narrative that causes them all to flow together with an enhanced self-awareness. “I suspect,” she adds, “this self-awarenes is what people used to call the soul.”
Here her religious take on life becomes clear:
“So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.”
Reading Ms. Robinson should make us aware of how our perceptions of life, and of ourselves, have changed—in some ways for the worst—through the years.
Robinson writes from the perspective of a Christian believer—she was raised Presbyterian and is now a member of the Congregational Church (United Church of Christ), but readers with little or no religious belief will find her observations about freedom, American attitudes, and human aspirations enlightening on many levels. Her religious focus gives a depth to her secular observations, a depth that is often lacking in many commentators on modern life.
This is a great book to read in those quiet moments. You can read an essay at a time, and you can pick and choose from among them. She is a master craftsman with words, and this book has inspired me to pick up one of her novels, which I hope to read soon. I can’t help thinking she might have that same effect on anyone who reads this collection of her thoughts.