When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 224 pages)
In the title essay of this collection, Robinson reflects on the culture of the western United States, the way that it shaped her childhood, and subsequently, her fiction. She believes that in the west, “lonesome is a word with strongly positive connotations” (88). This theme is carried throughout the collection as Robinson meditates on the elusive distinctiveness of human nature and the inherent value and mystery of each individual who bears this nature. Paradoxically, the majority of these essays deal with the question of what makes a good society. Robinson does a remarkable job of showing how the two concerns are interwoven.
In “Imagination and Community,” Robinson argues that the imaginative skills needed to write good fiction are some of the same skills needed for the proper functioning of a democratic state. Her definition of democracy is well worth quoting: “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” (280). “Austerity as Ideology” bemoans a current political and economic trend of reducing human beings to purely rational consumers at the expense of funding for education and other endeavors which speak to the depths of the human experience. Following one of her favorite approaches to contemporary cultural issues, Robinson reexamines old and, to her mind, misread texts in order to mine traditional wisdom to address current problems. In this volume it is Moses, the Old Testament, and the laws that make up much of the Torah which she looks to, upending the modern view of these texts as violent, severe, and outdated in order to demonstrate that they exhibit a vision of a society that requires generous provisions for the poor, the alien, and the disadvantaged.
Each one of these essays is both challenging and beautiful as Robinson brings her learned perspective to religious, political, scientific, and cultural questions. She has a knack for combining particular and detailed historical sketches, metaphysical and poetic meditations, and personal experiences to form trenchant critiques of contemporary culture. However, in shaping these criticisms, she also manages to convey a sense of the beauty and mystery of the world we live in and the collective human capacity to navigate it so remarkably and yet so fallibly.
This collection will be of particular interest to those who have read and appreciated Robinson’s fiction. It grants the opportunity to see how the concerns and themes of a novelist are honed and shaped. However, even those who haven’t read Housekeeping, Gilead, or Home will appreciate these essays, so long as they bring an interest in the big questions of what it means to live well as both individuals and as a society.