Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read all three of her novels with enormous pleasure (I think I am the only person I know who liked Home even better than Gilead.) I knew, however, that she was also an important essayist, and I had never read anything she’d written in that line. So when Teresa read and recommended her essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, I knew it had to go on my list right away.
I’ll remind you (in case you didn’t click through to Teresa’s review — which you should) that this collection has a bit of a misleading title. It is not in any way about Robinson’s recollections of her childhood reading. I’d have enjoyed that, but I enjoyed these essays every bit as much. They are remarkably well-written, insightful, and clear-eyed pieces, all of which more or less revolve around the intersections between American history, politics, faith, academics, and intellectual values.
Several of the essays have to do with Robinson’s analysis of the way modern American political conservatism (particularly that portion of it that calls on religious rhetoric) has misused or ignored American history and, often, actual scripture. She goes into some detail about the Old Testament tradition of “liberality,” meaning generous giving to the poor, and what that meant to Hebrew culture, and then shows how this affected Calvinist tradition, which was then passed down to the (very liberal!) Puritans. Part of Robinson’s point is that you call on an American tradition of capitalism at your peril; we have certainly not always been a capitalist nation. American history may turn on you and bite you when you least expect it, if you let the facts be the facts.
Other essays have to do with faith and religion (not incompatible! What a surprise!), certain specific figures in American history, the history of democracy, and the importance of the liberal arts. I have to say that every single essay was a pleasure. Robinson must be our best apologist for these sorts of things. She’s not a curmudgeon and she’s not carking about These Kids Today; her style reminded me more — almost — of C.S. Lewis, not in his fictional Screwtape Letters mode or his conversational Letters to Malcolm mode, but in his academic The Weight of Glory or The Four Loves mode. Of course she is arguing a point, but she simply points out faulty reasoning or misused historical evidence, and allows you to draw your own conclusions, something I very rarely see in nonfiction authors any longer. (I’m sure it helped that I agreed with the point she was arguing. On the very few points where I disagreed with her, though, I still couldn’t fault her logic.) Another thing she has in common with Lewis is her essential humor and optimism, another thing you don’t find a lot in nonfiction essays on politics and religion today.
These essays were such a delight that I instantly recommended the book to several friends, ordered the book for our university library (though it turns out someone beat me to it), and bought a copy for myself. Even if they’re not about Robinson’s childhood reading (!), they are well worth your time.