When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays

Whence came Marilynne Robinson? The author of Pulitzer-winning Gilead (2004), two other novels, and a remarkable body of nonfiction bears little resemblance to anyone else writing today. Critics reach for “biblical” to describe Cormac McCarthy’s prose, but the word is more aptly applied to Robinson’s, in which complexity and clarity walk hand in hand. (Robinson herself feels a larger debt to Cicero.) A Publishers Weekly review of her new essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, remarks Robinson’s interest in “the Big Themes,” the winking capitals there to remind us that while deep curiosity about God, the soul, religion, and the significance of mankind may not be unique to Robinson, it isn’t something we ought to expect from our literature as a matter of course. Most striking of all is Robinson’s mental work ethic. She seems to be incapable of a lazy conclusion.

Because there are in any age so few minds of Robinson’s caliber, the question of her origins becomes important. In “When I Was a Child,” an essay of just nine pages, she gives a startling account. For starters, she is from Idaho. “I find,” she writes, “that the hardest work in the world — it may in fact be impossible — is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling.” The surprise here is nothing so banal as the fact that Robinson read constantly as a child, which she did. It is, rather, the way a certain idea or ideal of Westernness operated on her reading and thinking. Perhaps worked its magic on is a better way of putting it. “There was little” in her reading, she recalls, “that was relevant to my experience.” Educators, take note. “But I think it was in fact peculiarly Western to feel no tie of particularity to any single past or history.”

Robinson’s individualism, her experience of “deracination,” and the fact that “in the West ‘lonesome’ is a word with strongly positive connotations,” all underpin her ability to stand apart from human affairs and investigate them with clear eyes. She finds “no inevitable conflict between individualism as an ideal and a very positive interest in the good of society.” She regards the West, the American frontier, not only as a place or historical phenomenon but also as suggestive of an animating optimism about people and their potential. It is a shame that this superb short essay comes fifth, not first. It awakens the spirit of generosity and curiosity some readers will need if they are to derive any benefit from Robinson’s more contentious essays.

At least Robinson will not be accused of false advertising. In her introduction alone there is plenty to inflame readers of a host of political and religious persuasions. She believes that religion is central to the health of the nation but also that we must “reject participation in the bitter excitements that can surround religious difference.” She disdains all tribalisms, not only religious but also (gasp!) ethnic ones. She has hard words for capitalism as currently understood. Her concern for the public weal, encompassing everything from public education to medical and financial provisions for the vulnerable, may carry a whiff of what some have taken to calling socialism.

It cannot be any kind of picnic, in today’s America, to be profoundly religious — in fact, Calvinist — and profoundly unimpressed by the celebrity atheists while also being disgusted by the narrative of political and social decline favored by those most likely to value her religion. Of course, this is precisely where Robinson’s “Westernness” becomes indispensable: She is indifferent to alleviating her intellectual isolation, her outsider status — and what a trick, by the way, retaining outsider status despite a Pulitzer and a teaching position at Iowa — by keeping her guns holstered. Her best essays are the intellectual or critical equivalent of cleaning up some mess of a town and then riding off into the sunset.

A few examples are certainly in order. “The Fate of Ideas: Moses” is about unsavory trends in “scholarly-looking books about the Bible.” It is a skillful demolition of such books — books distinguished by their “tone of condescension toward biblical texts and narratives” — and as such can be enjoyed by those who prize demolition as well as by those who prize the Bible itself. Here is Robinson, gunslinger, projecting her air of quiet menace:

We are culturally predisposed to sheltering criticism from criticism; we have enshrined the iconoclast. If our feelings register some minor shock, or if we suppose the public might be somewhat irked, or even if we think we can discern some earnest hope on the part of a writer to irk or to offend ourselves or our neighbors, then a book is praised as a creditable effort and excused from the kind of attention that might raise questions about its actual novelty or merit.

This paragraph is, as they say, worth the price of admission. One can almost see the sweat beading on the brows of the authors Robinson has set out to corral — John Shelby Spong, Jack Miles, Jan Assmann, Regina Schwartz, and Gerd Lüdemann. To appreciate what follows, one need only value expertise in the service of truth. Robinson’s desert-dry and frequently devastating wit doesn’t hurt. She reacts to Bishop Spong’s jaw-droppingly literal, utilitarian approach to Mosaic law this way: “Perhaps the sanctity of divine law does indeed rest on its aligning itself with Episcopalian practice. We will all find out when the trumpet sounds.” By the end of the essay, Moses has been, if one accepts the premise that he needed to be, rescued and rehabilitated.

“Freedom of Thought” picks up a thread from Robinson’s 2010 book, Absence of Mind, bemoaning several tendencies in modern thought about religion and consciousness. One is to separate the spiritual and the physical. Another is to see ancient religion as a faltering attempt to fulfill the function of science. “The notion,” Robinson writes, “that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading at all…. In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that.”

If one feels no challenge from Robinson’s essays, one is not thinking hard enough. If one finds nothing in them to disagree violently with, he is perhaps overawed by her credentials. Some of what she writes about the Cold War in “Austerity as Ideology” seems willfully naive. (“Each side proposed a way of life that was claimed to maximize human happiness,” she writes. One is tempted to say that, on the strength of the evidence, only one side had a right to believe it was correct.) The “imaginative love for people we do not know” which she touts, in “Imagination and Community,” as a prerequisite of good fiction and good citizenship, can seem as reflexive as suspicion, albeit riskier. She writes that “our great public education system is being starved,” which is, unless she is talking about something other than money, preposterous. Her desire to write for the ages can nudge her style toward affectation. Surely she is aware that “those tall highway signs that usually advertise hardware sales and dinner specials” are called, by the Americans for whom she feels such imaginative love, “billboards.”

One could go on, but one’s complaints would only underscore Robinson’s great strengths: independence and eccentricity. She argues that the language of public life is impoverished, that it has lost its “character of generosity” and “largeness of spirit.” She ought to add that, straitened by caution or fear, it has lost a certain quality of strangeness, too. Robinson, though some of her views are well known, is never predictable, for her discipline is to look at every question as though she were considering it for the first time. It is impossible not to be fortified and enlarged by a few hundred pages in her company.