When I Was a Child I Read Books

Let me begin with some expectation management. Some of you no doubt are seeing this cover and are thinking “Marilynne Robinson wrote a book about books! Must get it now!” Before you shut down your computer and run to the bookstore, let me tell you that this is not exactly a book about books. It’s more of a book about ideas found in books. The essays in this collection grapple with ideas related to theology, politics, history, and philosophy with rigor and intelligence.

I’ve tried to read some of Robinson’s essays in the past, but I found them too difficult to follow. I think part of the problem was that I was attempting to read them online, and I have trouble focusing well enough to follow complex arguments when I read online. This time, however, I was reading in print, and I’d just come from reading Kierkegaard, which was far more difficult. So I ended up enjoying these essays very much, so much that I might end up buying a copy because I wanted so badly to underline favorite passages and make comments in the margins, as I often do with books that fully engage my mind.

The essays take on a variety of topics, but all of them share a common interest in how history and religion inform our present-day lives and how we might better learn from our own past. The essays focus primarily on the United States and on U.S. Christianity, which may limit the book’s appeal in other nations, but many of the ideas Robinson explores are universal, or at least of some interest to those outside her primary audience.

What I loved most about these essays is that Robinson avoids the kind of simplistic polemical arguments so common in political debates today. It’s not possible to pin her down as a card-carrying representative of the typical liberal or conservative view. In the essay “Wondrous Love,” she says that “until there is evidence that ideology mattered to Jesus, it will be of no interest to me.” Amen to that, I say. At times, she strikes a patriotic tone, albeit a quiet one, and expresses frustration at the cynicism we Americans direct against ourselves when we have so much to celebrate. But she also offers a rather harsh critique of capitalism, which so many consider foundational to American life. She marvels at the wonders of science while stating that there are limits to the kinds of truth that science can reveal. She is herself Christian and defends Christianity against its detractors, but she has no desire to return to a time before secularism. She defends such unpopular historical figures as John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Finney by showing how their thinking was more complex and less mean-spirited than is so often assumed. Finney, for example, is probably best known today as one of the early influences on American Christian fundamentalism, but he worked for the abolition of slavery and promoted the rights of women, not causes we tend to associate with the fundamentalist movement.

It’s difficult to boil down any of Robinson’s arguments to a few sentences because she defies so many of the usual categories we use to define where people stand. The overall feeling I got from her essays is that she’s a curious person who questions everything. And then she looks for answers—or at least the glimmers of answers—in history and in the many books she’s read. The answers she finds cannot be easily expressed as sound bites. In fact, I’m finding it difficult to find a short quote to share so that you can get a sense of her style. Her arguments build on and wind around themselves, drawing in ideas from so many other thinkers that it’s almost impossible to see the full implications of what she’s saying when you take her statements out of their context. This passage, from the essay “Wondrous Love,” is among my favorites:

I am the sort of Christian whose patriotism might be called into question by some on the grounds that I do not take the United States to be more beloved of God than France, let us say, or Russia, or Argentina, or Iran. I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world. If belief in Christ is necessary to the attaining of everlasting life, then it behooves anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian, any institution that calls itself a church, to bring credit to the faith, at very least not to embarrass or disgrace it. Making God a tribal deity, our local Baal, is embarrassing and disgraceful.

She goes on to decry the misuse of the phrase “shining city on a hill” to describe America as a beacon of hope. It’s more that our failings are visible to all. She continues:

And to the extent that we are associated with Christianity we run the risk of defacing it in the world’s eyes. I know there are those who feel it is unpatriotic to care what the world thinks. But just as discredited institutions close the path to Christian faith for many good people, undignified, obscurantist, and xenophobic Christianity closes the path for many more. I have the impulse, though not quite the confidence, to say, Woe unto those by whom the offense comes. I personally would not be surprised to see the secular enter into heaven before them. I know I presume in speaking in such terms.

If you’re at all interested in these kinds of ideas, I recommend this book, even if it’s not quite what the title might lead you to expect. If you’re curious about Robinson’s style as an essayist, previously published versions of the essays “Freedom of Thought, Imagination and Community,” and “Austerity as Ideology” are available online.

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16 Responses to When I Was a Child I Read Books

  1. rebeccareid says:

    Hmmmm. It doesn’t sound quite like what I though it was! I loved the title! Thanks for this post so I could get a better idea what she’s writing about.

  2. alenamurguia says:

    I’m in complete agreement. And I’m so glad I read these essays, even though I had to readjust my expectations to do so. Robinson provided some deeper historical context for ideas and positions that are much maligned these days. I also liked that she included some humor and optimism. One of my favorite quotes:
    “I am so unpatriotic as to believe that most Americans are good people, committed to living good lives, and that the expansions of freedom that have been achieved by us and for us in the last few decades have been a very great moment in our history and in human history.”

  3. Sara says:

    I couldn’t love Robinson more if i tried, and this collection is right up my alley. The title may not be literally reflective of the book, but I think it is perfect. Thanks for reminding me of this one.

  4. florinda3rs says:

    I agree that the title of this one might be a bit misleading, but the content sounds like something right up my alley–thanks!

  5. Jeanne says:

    I heard Robinson speak in the 1980’s when I was at University of Maryland, College Park, and she was a disappointing speaker for the reasons you say it’s hard to quote from this book. I think you’ve derived what kind of person she is from her writing very accurately: “The overall feeling I got from her essays is that she’s a curious person who questions everything. And then she looks for answers—or at least the glimmers of answers—in history and in the many books she’s read. The answers she finds cannot be easily expressed as sound bites.” She is non-obliging in person–and, evidently, a continuously thoughtful writer.

    • Teresa says:

      I heard her speak a couple of years ago, and she was fine, but she kept her actual remarks brief and mostly read from Home, which I’d already read, so it wasn’t my favorite author event ever. But her thoughtfulness makes her a stellar writer.

  6. So jealous you’ve read this already. I love her essays and always feel reading as if I have fallen right into her thought processes or she into mine (or mind).

    • Teresa says:

      I put myself on the hold list at the library before it came out–as I was listening to an interview with her on NPR. I’m going to try to get some more of her essay collections.

  7. litlove says:

    I confess that I have struggled with Robinson’s fiction (nearly abandoned Housekeeping, did abandon Gilead) but I would very much like to read her non-fiction. I think I would like her digressive voice so much more when it is turned towards questions for which there are no easy answers. And I am interested in all of these topics.

    • Teresa says:

      Have you tried Home? I think it’s the most accessible of her novels (although Gilead is my favorite). The nice thing about an essay collection, though, is that you can dip in and out, which is nice if her voice doesn’t work for you in large doses.

  8. Stefanie says:

    I did request the book from the library a month or so ago because of the title and since I am number 100 and something in line for the book I’ve not gotten it yet. I am disappointed to hear it isn’t about books or reading, but it still sounds interesting so I will keep my hold request for it. I’ve tried to read her essays online too and haven’t had success either. I’m glad I’m not the only one!

    • Teresa says:

      I was initially disappointed too and worried that I wouldn’t get through it because of my struggles reading her essays online. But these essays, in print, were marvelous.

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