When I Was A Child I Read Books

My review of Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was A Child I Read Books was the lead book piece in today’s Sunday Boston Globe. You can find the piece here, and I’ve pasted in the start of the review below.

Here’s a representative passage from one of the collection’s strongest essays, “Imagination and Community” (If you’re interested, click here to listen to a recording of entire essay, as read by Robinson in the audiobook version of When I Was A Child I Read Books):

I have talked about community as being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be. There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population. Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in spiritual free fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgements, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy or respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.” This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.

It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.

And here’s a slice of my review:

In 1980 Marilynne Robinson published “Housekeeping,’’ a novel of staggering depth and beauty. The story of two sisters raised by a procession of their female relatives, “Housekeeping’’ is simultaneously grand and intimate, mythic and grounded in the rituals of daily life, lingering on resonances between daily domesticity and broader spiritual well-being. The novel received unanimous praise and a Pulitzer nomination, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Then Marilynne Robinson stopped publishing fiction.

It’s a romantic assumption: Everyone has one novel in them. It would be more apt to say that most anyone can be induced by vanity or mania to produce a book-length manuscript. American literary history offers marquee support for this delusion, beloved books that seem solitary, brilliant flares. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,’’ Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,’’ to name but two. So it wasn’t entirely surprising when Robinson appeared destined to occupy a small, albeit ravishing, spot in American literature.

But Robinson was working. She began teaching at the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she still teaches. She contributed to magazines and newspapers, and she published two nonfiction books: “Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution,’’ a savage denunciation of the corruption that marbles British energy and welfare policy, and “The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.’’ But as the years turned into decades, Robinson the novelist seemed to be done.

Then, 2 1/2 decades after “Housekeeping,’’ Robinson began publishing fiction again, novels that were, if anything, better. In 2004 the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gilead’’ appeared. Then 2008’s “Home.’’ These intimately linked novels are written with something like a meditative urgency. The intimations of faith threaded through “Housekeeping’’ flowered fully, becoming the center of gravity of Robinson’s fiction.

Robinson has been called a “liberal Calvinist,’’ with emphasis on the former term. Generosity and open-mindedness are paramount virtues, but in a rigorous, humanist manner generally lacking in current debates about religion and society. In a 2008 Paris Review interview, Robinson neatly summarized her faith, “Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression.’’ This is faith as invitation and exploration, not faith as a defensive barrier or aggressive judgment.

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