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When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays by…

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

by Marilynne Robinson

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Insights on our current state of affairs, from a brilliant thinker. ( )
  Osbaldistone | Nov 10, 2015 |
The title made me curious. I hadn't intended to read the book, but just opening on a page randomly, Robinson's prose beckons. For not having heard of her before, I like her thought processes and arguments. I may even need to buy the book. ( )
  2wonderY | Dec 1, 2014 |
I knew that Marilynne Robinson was a deep thinker from reading her fiction. Characters like John Ames show Robinson's respect for those who do not seek easy answers and who have thought deeply about life's hardest questions. In this collection of essays, Robinson shares her thoughts on religion, politics, and society directly, without filtering them through the lens of fiction. The essays are dense, and I admit that I will likely find more layers of meaning when I reread this collection. But I found much to reflect on even in this first reading.

Although most of the essays in this book do not focus on reading or writing fiction, I did gain insight into Robinson as an author and a teacher from this collection. In one of my favorite passages, she notes:

"The human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe. By my lights, this makes the human mind and the human person the most interesting entity known to exist in the universe. I say this to my students because I feel their most common problem is also their deepest problem - a tendency to undervalue their own gifts and to find too little value in the human beings their fiction seeks to create and the reality it seeks to represent." (p. 144)

When I heard Robinson read from Lila a few weeks ago, I was struck by the respect she has for her characters, and for human life in general. Again, she touches on this point in her essays as well:

"Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant or we are incalculably precious and interesting. I tend toward the second view." (P. 36)

Perhaps because I was reading this collection during election season, I appreciated Robinson's views on politics (although, in all fairness, that may be because my views are closely aligned with hers). This quote, which has bipartisan implications, especially struck me:

"Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement." (P. 28)

And finally with Advent and Christmas upon us, I appreciated Robinson's insistence that religion should not be used to breed fear. In writing about the Christmas story, she notes:

"It is a story written down in various forms by writers whose purpose was first of all to render the sense of a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was understood, only after his death, to have revealed the way of God toward humankind. How remarkable. This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial Interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale. Reverence should forbid in particular its being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear." (P. 140-1)

I read these essays slowly, one or two at a time, and as I noted above, I'll likely revisit them. They made me long for more time to think deeply, and they made me thankful that Robinson has shared the fruits of her wisdom with us. ( )
1 vote porch_reader | Nov 29, 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." ( )
1 vote 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 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
Like every good preacher, Marilynne Robinson judges others while including herself — in theory, at least — in the judgment.
There is no trickery here, just a premium placed on considering all the sides, or at least many of them, before making a judgment.
rehashes a lot of old positions...you might grow slightly impatient with all this thematic repetition, despite the fact that the prose is consistently gorgeous.
The risk of her essays is that they might come off as culturally irrelevant or out-of-touch or, worse, conservative.
But I don’t mind the repetition, because if any of her thought somehow seeped out into America I think we’d be much better off for it.
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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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Chapters have been published seperately in various places. Here is a helpful summary:
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:09 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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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