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'When I Was a Child I Read Books' by Marilynne Robinson

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When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson was published in March 2012
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 202 Pages
Are you tired of a culture of soundbites, status updates and 140-character summary statements? Are you tired of simplistic arguments and contentiousness? Look no further. Marilynne Robinson provides exercise for the mind and encouragement for the soul in When I Was a Child I Read Books, a series of essays.

In the preface, Robinson quotes Walt Whitman: "But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant...it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them" (ix). Reading these words in the midst of a disheartening presidential election, on the very first page of Robinson's book, I had the sense that her essays might be just the antidote I need to the 24-hour news cycle. Indeed, they are. They are also, however, dense. There are sentences that need hours or days to be chewed. While I commend the essays to you, I warn you that this is not a quick read, and it is the type of book where you can easily read a page and realize you have comprehended nothing -- there is no ability to think about other things while skimming the essays. They reminded me of something you would be required to read for school, but in a good way.

So what are these essay about? I found it hard to pin a topic to each one as Robinson's stream of consciousness moves from here to there and back again in her writing. It is easier to pinpoint themes -- democracy, community, truth, and flaws in modern tendencies toward God and the sacred.

In "Freedom of Thought," Robinson writes "At a certain point I decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty" (5). Here she discusses life as an academic and delves into the relationship of faith and science. It is not so much an argument to move you to a certain side as a series of observations and an appreciation for those things Robinson finds so easily dismissed.

In "Imagination and Community," Robinson links her fiction writing to her ability to love. She writes, "I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of -- who knows better than I? -- people who do not exist...I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification" (21).

In "When I Was a Child," Robinson explores community further, focusing on her childhood in the West and reflecting on domesticity. She writes, "At a certain level housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together, make the world salubrious, savory, and warm. I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental. It is the sad tendency of domesticity -- as of piety -- to contract and of grace to decay into rigor and peace into tedium" (93).

These quotes are a few of the sentences I felt inclined to underline. Throughout the essays, there is a tone of hopefulness and encouragement in the beauty of common life and observation. Most of the essays have been previously published, but Robinson's fans will surely enjoy having them in one place.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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