Reviewed by Julie Lane-Gay
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2012
Hardcover, 206 pages, $27.99
When I Was a Child I Read Books is one of those titles that calls out to you like a club password. Some of us want to raise our hand and quietly call out, “Yes! Me too!” Its connotation grabs at that sensibility that the world is changing too fast and you’re worried about living in a world where Charlotte the Spider, Huck Finn and Frodo are no longer the agreed-upon heroes.
Pulitzer Prize winning author (Gilead, 2005) Marilynne Robinson’s newest collection is not a look back at the pleasures of childhood reading but a thoughtful stare at disturbing changes in our post-modern world. Topics of these essays are varied, ranging from Moses, to growing up in the American West (where as a child, she read books), to scientific presuppositions. They are unified by the constants of Robinson’s deep thinking (this is one to read on a quiet evening, not a hot summer day), exceptional knowledge and exquisite writing. While many originally appeared in lauded journals such as Commonweal and The Nation, all these essays circle the fences surrounding the ever-increasing need for thoughtfulness, community and generosity.
When I Was a Child I Read Books is Robinson’s fourth collection of essays. She is also author of three works of fiction, Housekeeping (1975), Gilead and Home (2009), all of which are deservingly bestsellers. Robinson is a professor at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa, and while she has a doctorate in English, it is hard to believe she doesn’t have additional PhDs in History, Philosophy, Life Sciences, and Systematic theology. In recent years, Robinson has become an enthusiast of John Calvin – almost allowing herself to be cast as his chief cheerleader. If God has given the Calvinists Robinson to champion their ideology, he must really like them.
Another of Robinson’s favourites is Moses. Two essays in the collection concern his teaching and its gifts to us. In “The Fate of Ideas: Moses” she interacts with modern Biblical Criticism, while clarifying and exegeting Moses’ teaching with impressive skill and analysis. She writes:
In fact, the laws of Moses establish a highly coherent system for minimizing and alleviating poverty, a brilliant economics based in a religious ethic marked by nothing more strongly than by anxious solicitude for the well-being of the needy and the vulnerable. (p. 103)
Several of the essays have almost a devotional impact. In her essay, “Wondrous Love,” she looks at some of her favourite hymns:
The old ballad in the voice of Mary Magdalene, who “walked in the garden alone,” imagines her “tarrying” there with the newly risen Jesus, in the light of the dawn which was certainly the most remarkable daybreak since God said, “Let there be light.” … Who can imagine the joy she would have felt? And how lovely is it that the song tells us the joy of this encounter was Jesus’s as well as Mary’s. Epochal as the moment is, and inconceivable as Jesus’s passage from death to life must be, they meet as friends and rejoice together as friends. This seems to me as good a gloss as any on the text that tells us God so loved the world, this world, our world. (p. 125)
Such Scriptural reflections are scattered throughout these essays, falling on readers to mull and to treasure. Robinson asks, “What gives them [the hymns] their power? They tell us that there is great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings.” (p. 127)
In the essay entitled “Imagination and Community,” Robinson works through her notions of the responsibilities of communities to foster imagination, and the need for imagination to enliven and strengthen communities. She posits:
… there was a moment in which Jesus, as a man, a physical presence, left that supper at Emmaus. … Presence is a great mystery, and presence in absence, which Jesus promised and has epitomized, is, at a human scale, a great reality for all of us in the course of ordinary life.
I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. … I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification. (p. 20-21)
While these stimulating and educational essays will have broad appeal, some readers will find them distinctly American. One essay tracks a strand of Protestantism in America in the 19th century focusing largely on Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney and Theodore Weld. Another, “Austerity as Ideology,” looks at value, capitalism, austerity and the Cold War. Still, in essays such as “When I was a Child,” Robinson reflects on growing up in the American West, and many in Canada’s Western provinces will relate instantly (and those in the Eastern provinces might learn something new).
This is not light reading, yet it is not overly complex. Even if you don’t find every essay easy to interact with, find its pearls. Sentences like “When we accept dismissive judgments of our communities we stop having generous hopes for it (p. 30)” or “If the purpose of the law is the righteousness of the individual, its purpose is also the goodness of the individual and communal life.” (p. 105) are embodiments of the very generosity Robinson is eager for us to restore. TAP