Review

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays

by Marilynne Robinson

Whenever I despair about the quality of our public discourse, I remind myself that ours remains a society inhabited by people like Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson (GILEAD, HOME). Generous, humane and occasionally witty, her point of view is an antidote to the partisan screeds that pass for political argument today, and her new essay collection is a bracing display of all those character traits in abundance.

"Whether one agrees with Robinson or takes strong exception to her incisive arguments, it’s impossible to put this book aside without the invigorating feeling that comes with the exercise of our intellect and a renewal of our faith in the power of reason."

From the outset, Robinson makes clear (in beautifully-chiseled prose that’s hard to resist quoting at length) her displeasure at some persistent features of our current American political and cultural lives, denouncing those who advocate the “return to traditional values” that “seems to mean, together with a bracing and punitive severity toward the vulnerable among us, the establishment of a kind of religious monoculture we have never had and our institutions have never encouraged.” Instead, she urges on us “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.”

Typical of Robinson's wisdom are these trenchant observations, in “Imagination and Community,” of the damage flowing from the "excitements that come with abandoning the constraints of moderation and reasonableness:"

"Those whose work it is to sustain the endless palaver of radio and television increasingly stimulate those excitements. No great wonder if they are bored, or if they suspect their audiences might be. But the effect of this marketing of rancor has unquestionably been to turn debate or controversy increasingly into a form of tribal warfare, harming the national community and risking always greater harm."

In “Austerity as Ideology,” she bemoans the ideological cast of mind that has created a “climate of generalized fear” in this country, while pointing out how our obsession with a market-centered view of the world “has shown itself very ready to devour what we hold dear, if the list can be taken to include culture, education, the environment, and the sciences, as well as the peace and well-being of our fellow citizens.”

But for all its passionate views on the flaws of American society, at its heart, Robinson's collection is more a religious than a political book. Classifying herself as a religious humanist, if anyone is capable of giving Calvinism or the fiery preaching of Jonathan Edwards a good name, it is Robinson.

One of her dominating concerns appears to be the mistreatment the Old Testament has received at the hands of Christians. In "Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism," she recognizes it is "usual to see the Old Testament treated as a sort of dead weight on Christianity, if not a positive embarrassment to it, by scholars as well as clergy." That's the jumping-off point for a close textual analysis of Chapter 15 of Deuteronomy and its "recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality...on being kind and liberal...and enjoying the great blessings God has promised to liberality to the poor."

To similar effect is "The Fate of Ideas: Moses," where she chides popular theological writers like Bishop John Shelby Spong (WHY CHRISTIANITY MUST CHANGE OR DIE) or Jack Miles (GOD: A BIOGRAPHY) and displays this exceptionally humane disposition toward the Old Testament: "It is often said that Europeans learned religious intolerance from the Old Testament," she writes. "Then how did we happen to skip over the parts where the laws protect and provide for the poor, and where oppression of them is most fiercely forbidden?"

The title essay, and the collection's most personal, is a loving portrayal of Robinson's childhood growing up as a "bookish child in the far West" (more specifically, Idaho), where she received both a fine classical education ("my style is considerably more indebted to Cicero than to Hemingway") and an inculcation into the fierce individualism that’s native to that region.

That rigorous education means this is no book to crack open under a beach umbrella. Robinson typically spins out a complex argument that's rich with biblical, historical and literary references over the span of 20 pages or so, and you likely will find yourself stopping from time to time to reread a challenging passage. She's fond of words like "tendentious," "epiphenomenal" and “alembic,” and unless your vocabulary is extensive, you would do well to keep a dictionary close at hand. 

But that occasional diversion is a small price to pay for the time spent in the company of this truly original thinker. Whether one agrees with Robinson or takes strong exception to her incisive arguments, it’s impossible to put this book aside without the invigorating feeling that comes with the exercise of our intellect and a renewal of our faith in the power of reason.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 17, 2012

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays
by Marilynne Robinson

  • Publication Date: March 13, 2012
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • ISBN-10: 0374298785
  • ISBN-13: 9780374298784