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When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays by…
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When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012)

by Marilynne Robinson

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One of the most interesting, throught-provoking, and engaging books I have ever read. Beautifully written essays in which myriad important ideas are slipped in. I have to say that I was drawn to this book by it's cover, but never would have guessed that the book with this cover would have the content that does does. Robinson is well-read and articulate. The depth and breadth of her thought is remarkable. ( )
  bibliostuff | Mar 20, 2014 |
Robinson now has three novels and four books of non-fiction to her name; she might end up as the E. M. Forster of the early twenty-first century (I consider that a great compliment). Thankfully this book of essays is a step up from Absence of Mind, although not quite up to the quality of Death of Adam. WIWACIRB, hereafter WIW, is a much easier read than DoA, but that's not necessarily a good thing- much of the pleasure of her first book of essays came from the prose, which did a nice job reminding its readers that syntax can be enjoyable. WIW continues the main tasks of that book, though: an attempt to refute reductionism, particularly with reference to human abilities (a noble task), and an attempt to convince everyone that Calvinism is really great (which, honestly, seems to be to contradict the former). [Addendum: just flicked through DoA again, and it turns out that WIW is better on the ideas side. I still think DoA is more attractively written, though.]

Here Robinson argues against the reductionisms of contemporary 'rational choice' economics, scientism and the new atheism, and does it very well. As presented in popular forms, these three theories are, as she says, ideologies, and they do, as she argues, reduce our sense of wonder at ourselves in possibly harmful ways.

Her approach is often restricted to American concerns, which is fair enough, and she makes excellent points: the extreme 'patriotism' of contemporary American defenders of capitalism is probably due to the fact that America has only very rarely been a capitalist country; it's nice to know that a nineteenth century edition of Webster's defines socialism as 'agrarianism,' something that many Americans thought and think is a good thing. Also:

"Lately we have been told and told again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War."

Zing. Robinson offers some counter-weights to these reductionisms: education, particularly in the humanities; a sense of wonder; a greater immersion in history. This would be much more palatable if she wasn't so fond of saying things like "Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of liberal Christianity," which would come as news to the Anglicans/Episcopalians, Vatican II Catholics and liberation theologians she treats with so much scorn. Her 'me against the world' shtick can get tiresome, too- on what planet are abolitionists stigmatised?? Does she seriously think early Americans were fleeing religious persecution in the abstract, and if so, why did almost all of them try/succeed in setting up state churches? Does she honestly believe that the Old Testament was 'neglected and suppressed' throughout the middle ages?

Most of this can be forgiven, since the people she's arguing with are even more tendentious ('Monotheism causes war!' Um... tell that to the Greeks. And Romans. And Hindus.) What cannot be forgive is her failure to distinguish between rationalism and idealism. For whatever reason, everyone likes to cap their criticisms of other people's thinking by making a large scale procedural claim. Here, Robinson would have us believe that, say, rational choice economics is bad because it is "driven by righteousness and indignation to conform reality to theory." And yet she *praises* the Mosaic law because "the vision of the society preexisted the society itself." In both cases, reality is meant to conform to theory; but this is bad in one case and good in the other? Could it be that the problem with rational choice theory is not its procedures and methods, but its content? Alternatively, and I suspect this is what she means, economics looks only at how things are, and not how they should be; the Law looks at how they should be, not just how they are. This is not a problem of theory and reality, but of reality and ideals.

Anyway, the book is well worth reading, if only for zingers like this: "The notion that the laws ought to be ahistorical is no more sophisticated than the insistence that they are in fact ahistorical." ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
I love Robinson's novels. I love her essays. I think she's brilliant, and that she is the most thoughtful author I've ever read. I believe that no matter what she's writing, she's able to find the perfect word to describe, to convince, to explain. It's amazing.

I would love to share some of my favorite quotes from these essays, but it will have to wait. I've loaned my copy to my pastor, and I think he's reading it while on vacation. I gave him his own copy of Gilead and he loved it so much he read it three times in succession. I understand that completely.

I've got another of Robinson's books here, a book of essays, but I've been rationing it. I want to read it with someone so I can talk to them about it. I want to see if others feel the same way about her writing. ( )
  jennyo | Jul 14, 2013 |
You can read my full review at Quieted Waters.
Although Robinson spends time defending the proper use of paragraphs, sentences are the pivotal element in this book. Powerful rhetoric and a gift for memorable phrasing turn Robinson’s writing into a series of sentences begging for highlighting. ( )
  QuietedWaters | May 22, 2013 |
A wonderful collection of eloquently written and thoughtfully articulated essays. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
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For my brother David Summers, first and best of my teachers
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Over the years of writing and teaching, I have tried to free myself of the constraints I felt, limits to the range of exploration I could make, to the kind of intuition I could credit.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374298785, Hardcover)

Marilynne Robinson has built a sterling reputation as a writer of sharp, subtly moving prose, not only as a major American novelist, but also as a rigorous thinker and incisive essayist. In When I Was a Child I Read Books she returns to and expands upon the themes which have preoccupied her work with renewed vigor.

In “Austerity as Ideology,” she tackles the global debt crisis, and the charged political and social political climate in this country that makes finding a solution to our financial troubles so challenging. In “Open Thy Hand Wide” she searches out the deeply embedded role of generosity in Christian faith. And in “When I Was a Child,” one of her most personal essays to date, an account of her childhood in Idaho becomes an exploration of individualism and the myth of the American West. Clear-eyed and forceful as ever, Robinson demonstrates once again why she is regarded as one of our essential writers.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:42 -0400)

In this new collection of incisive essays, Robinson returns to the themes which have preoccupied her work: the role of faith in modern life, the inadequacy of fact, the contradictions inherent in human nature.

» see all 3 descriptions

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