REPRISE: A rare experience for the soul (assuming, of course, that you have one)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MAY 15, 2012. This is a spiritual journey suitable for a Christmas day.

I’ve read many good books, many bad books, and many mediocre books over the course of my lifetime. There is a fourth category, however, which I call “Books-That-Stir-Your-Soul” (BTSYS). You know, the ones that start something warm coursing down your chest, speaking to you in a way you never knew possible, and making you conscious in a new way. Books in this category are few, but include Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Faulkner’s Light in August and As I Lay Dying, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Your list will probably differ, but you get the idea.

There is now an addition to my BTSYS list, a novel by Marilynne Robinson called Gilead(Picador, New York, 2004). This is not a new book, but I only encountered it upon reviewing Marilynne Robinson’s recent book of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books.  In the process, I found myself in awe of Ms. Robinson’s ability to express the ineffable with words that wrap themselves around you and then pull tight the knots of meaning in an unforgettable way.

Marilynne Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Gilead won her a Pulitzer, and her latest book — When I Was A Child I Read Books — has been reviewed on this site. Her message goes against the grain in a society that only believes what it can verify empirically.

The book’s title refers to a place, a small community in Iowa, not far from the Kansas border. The time frame is the early 1950s. The narrator is a man named John Ames, a seventy-six (soon to be seventy-seven) year old Congregationalist minister. The entire book is a letter to his six-year old son.  John’s heart is giving out, and he will soon die. In the letter, he is telling his young son—born of a late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman—about himself, his life, his family, and his faith.

In this letter, Ames confronts his family’s history. He is the son of a preacher, whose grandfather was an abolitionist preacher during the years of “Bloody Kansas.” His grandfather hovers over this story and reminiscences abound about how the old man rode with John Brown and how he sometimes stood in the pulpit with a pistol and bloody clothing. These were the stories John Ames heard from his father, but all he remembered about Grandpa was the way the old man would look at him, as if knowing what was in his mind, and how he had a habit of just taking stuff from other people. The people around Gilead just came to accept the old man’s idiosyncrasies.

The love story between Ames and his wife, who showed up at a service on a Pentecost and who seemed to be taken by the much older man’s kind and gentle ways, is the reredos behind the story: the curtain is parted only slightly in his portrayal of the woman, but she remains largely a mystery to us. We do know that she loved John enough to give him a child in his old age and to fill his life with love long after he lost his first wife and child. When the ne’er do well son of his closest friend, a Presbyterian minister he grew up with, arrives back in Gilead John begins to notice that his wife and son seem taken by the younger man and John’s creeping mortality begins to work on his fears for the future.

The themes that streak though this novel include respect, something people had for one another in earlier times; and light. Images are constantly appearing about the light, and it intrudes upon life in the most unexpected moments, such as when his young son and a friend are playing in the sprinkler:

The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine. That does occur in nature, but it is rare… I’ve always loved to baptize people, though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and splash involved in the way we go about it. Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people  ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.

The phrase “in the way we go about it” refers to the fact that John’s denomination baptizes by sprinkling, not immersion. This issue and many other religious questions pop up in his letter, only to make very evident that there is a real difference between his faith lived and that same faith observed from outside. This is why atheists as well as Christians should read Gilead. Much of what those who attack Christianity base their attacks on are misunderstandings. For example, when confronted with a sincere question about salvation, particularly the famously Calvinist notion that God has pre-determined who is saved and who is damned before they are born, John addresses this question with a startling lack of dogmatism and comes down decidedly on the side of a merciful God.

John Ames is not a man who bases his life on dogma. He is a believer who understands the intricacies of faith and does not rest on its supposed certainties. And, in spite of the fact that Christianity is often seen as a life-denying faith, John’s statement in this letter to the child he will not see grow up makes it quite clear that his faith is anything but. In fact, faith is the element in his life that adds the sparkle to existence.

“Remembering my youth,” writes John, “makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it…Oh, I will miss the world!”

This is a book to ponder, to read and re-read, and to carry through life as we grow older and find ourselves feeling the need to explain why we are the way they are to those we are about to leave behind. Most people don’t really think about it, however. What a shame. Letters like this from parents a just might help to make our children better human beings.

Unfortunately, the notion of what a “better human being” is may seem strange to a world that demands empirical demonstrations for every concept. If you are among those, don’t read this book. Unless you want to rethink some of your basic assumptions.

Rating (5/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

When I Was A Child, I Made Half-Hearted Attempts

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.

Rating (4/5)