PUBLICATION DATE: MARCH 13, 2012
n her novels, Marilynne Robinson crafts vivid settings and uses the voices of her characters to relay stories that tackle serious themes such as grace, redemption, and the complexities of relationships. Through her non-fiction, Robinson speaks directly about these topics as well as a myriad of others- from theology, to economics, to philosophy. This Pulitzer prize winning author’s latest work, When I Was a Child I Read Books, explores questions of the soul alongside questions regarding the American experience. Robinson uses 10 essays as the vehicle to speak on modernism, generosity, and her Christian experience.
Fans of Robinson’s fiction will be pleased to gain insight into her creative process in the opening essay “Freedom of Thought”. Here Robinson questions “where [fiction] comes from, and…why we need it”
As she describes her process for character development. This is a part of a larger discussion of religion, science, and the way modernity deals with the ancient world. Robinson proves that she is just as comfortable discussing the practical side of writing as she is with exploring the history, philosophy, and spirituality that influence her craft. This breadth of knowledge is necessary, for she views her role as a writer as an “attempt to make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said”.
Moving into the realm of current events, the third and fourth essays deal with austerity, economics, and generosity. Robinson explores “the current passion for Austerity” as she worries if “we are now losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization.”
She views the current economic crisis through the eyes of her personal experience- a mid-Westerner, working at a public university, who is a Protestant. However she does not find herself confined to popular, narrow definitions such as red state/blue state. Instead, Robinson takes great pains to trace the origins and meaning of being ‘liberal’ and the sociological implications of this on American society from Colonial times to present day.
Robinson’s most autobiographical moments come in the title essay, “When I Was a Child” as she describes her education as well as some of the influences behind her acclaimed novel Housekeeping. Her love of books and of reading are wrapped up in her fascination with the American West and the connection it holds to the mysterious idea of ‘lonesomeness’. Robinson effortlessly connects such seemingly disparate ideas as she weaves together connections from history, literature, and her own experience. She concludes, “Only lonesomeness allows one to experience…radical singularity, one’s greatest dignity and privilege.”
The rest of the essays continue to dance from topic to topic, but each contain Robinson’s characteristic dry wit and ability to connect the past with the present. She explores musical verse and the concept of grand narratives in “Wondrous Love”. In “Who Was Oberlin” she discusses the First and Second Great Awakenings, Charles Finney, and modern political conspiracies in light of the legacy of the abolitionist movement. The collection ends with “Cosmology” wherein Robinson uses Edgar Allan Poe and the New Atheist Movement and shows that she can spar not just with literary critics, but with philosophers as well.
Overall, When I Was a Child I Read Books provides the reader with ten enjoyable, challenging essays. However, coming in at just over 200 pages, one wishes it could have been a bit longer. One does not need to share Robinson’s worldview to appreciate her even-handed musings on each topic. This approachability (evidenced in her quoting everyone from St. Paul to Walt Whitman, from Calvin to Freud) allows the reader to settle into each essay as if it is a chat with an old friend (albeit a brilliant friend) over coffee.