If you’re a regular or long-time reader of this blog, you’re probably aware that I’m a tremendous fan of the work of Marilynne Robinson. I’ve read and loved all her novels, and I marveled at her 2012 essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books. I consider her one of America’s greatest living writers. So I’m disappointed to tell you that this essay collection didn’t entirely work for me.
I will accept some of the blame myself. When I was reading this collection, I was having trouble focusing on anything, and these essays require focus. And when I was able to focus, I found that at times she was taking on topics that I’m simply not knowledgeable about. Some discussions of ontology and cosmology just went over my head. And I wasn’t quite interested enough to try to look things up and figure it out. (I blame my distracted state in part for this. I just didn’t want to work hard on my reading.)
However, I also think there were some problems within the essays themselves. I’ve seen some reviews that complained at her tendency to paint certain disciplines, notably neuroscience, with a broad brush. I’m not knowledgeable enough about this to make a judgment one way or another, but I was at times frustrated by Robinson’s lack of specificity when critiquing certain elements of contemporary thought. For example, several times she mentioned higher criticism of scripture, a discipline that can be fruitful but has its limits. Her view, however, seemed wholly dismissive, and I wanted to know which trains of thought trouble her. And because Robinson is a thoughtful and curious person, widely read, but not a specialist, I wondered how accurate some of her comments were. In one essay, she notes that the concepts of original sin and predestination have always been universal across Christian theology, which is not accurate unless you’re defining those terms very broadly.
However, all that said, I did find much to appreciate in this collection, as I always do when reading Robinson. Before ever reading this book, I already admired the essay “Fear,” as I had previously read it in the New York Review of Books. I also loved her insistence on God’s comprehensive and stubborn grace, a topic that comes up again and again, as in the essay “Theology”:
If [Jesus’s] presence in the Creation asserts the human as a uniquely sacred and intrinsic aspect of Being, and his presence on earth underscores this, then how are we to believe that he, call him Christ, call him God, would sweep almost the whole of our species out of existence, or into some sort of abyss, because of historical accident, or because of the terrible and persistent failures of our churches and of those who have been smug or cruel or criminal in his name. Granting all complexities, is it conceivable that the God of the Bible would shackle himself to the worst consequences of our worst behavior? Reverence forbids. Is it conceivable that the reach of Christ’s mercy would honor the narrow limits of human differences? It might be that the Christ I place at the origin and source of Being would be called by another name and would show another face to all those hundred of billions who are or were not Scots Presbyterians or America Congregationalists or anything remotely like them. This is my devoutest hope, not least because it promises our salvation, too. Maybe his constant blessing falls on those great multitudes who lived and died without any name for him, for those multitudes who know his name and believe they have only contempt for him.
Robinson is at her best here when she gets specific, as in the essay “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” where she digs into the Gospels to find meaning in Christ’s divinity (a doctrine I happen to cherish a great deal). I always enjoyed her explorations of Shakespeare, particularly the theme of reconciliation, which she discusses in the essay “Grace.” The fact that this collection didn’t live up to my expectations doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. It just means that my standards for Robinson are very high.