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“When I Was A Child I Read Books” by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve gotten to the point where, unless I’m looking for a specific book, I don’t even visit the main stacks of the library any more. Instead, I head right for the “new books” section, and pick up a recent novel or biography.

While perusing the new book shelf during my last visit, I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s book of essays on a whim. It’s not the type of book I usually pick up, but it looked interesting enough, and short enough that I had a chance to get through it without getting majorly bogged down.

Marilynne Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the U of I. She’s probably best known for her novel Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2005. It ends up, though, that she’s published more essays than she has novels, and, if her latest volume is any indication, her essays are really good.

When I Was A Child I Read Books is a short, dense collection of essays that perhaps have less to do with reading books, and more to do with the intersection of faith and the current American religious culture. Robinson stakes out a middle ground that on one hand rejects the liberal theology of mainstream Christian denominations, while simultaneously opposing the apparent hard, uncaring line heard too often from the far right wing.

I have felt for a long time that our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull.

Robinson’s essays call us to accept and embrace the mystery and beauty of being human. She urges us to give others the benefit of the doubt, to live with compassion towards even (especially?) those who we don’t know or understand.

There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.

When I Was A Child I Read Books was slow going, but only because there was such richness to savor on every page. If you have the time for some thoughtful reading, I’d recommend this book.

One Comment

  1. Jonathan TE Jonathan TE

    You are right about Robinson’s essays — much as I love her as a novelist (tied for favorite), I think I appreciate her essays even more. This latest collection is good. For my money, her earlier collection, The Death of Adam, is unparalleled. There are some overlapping themes between the two collections, but not nearly enough to think that reading only one is sufficient.

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