I began reading Marilynne Robinson’s book of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books way back in June. Her essay in the book, “Imagination and Community,” even prompted a post on what my books meant to me. I took so long to read the book not because it was a hard slog, but because Robinson writes the kind of densely-packed, careful and thoughtful sort of essay that demands to be read slowly and with attention or not at all. There is so much packed between the covers of this book there is no way I can tell you about all of it. You should see all the page points I have marking passages of interest in this book (sure I could take a photo so you could see, but it’s better if you use your imagination).
Robinson approaches all of her subjects from a compassionate, inclusive and Calvinist viewpoint. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Calvinism I think of John Calvin and the idea that before you are even born God has decided whether or not you are “saved.” I knew Robinson was a deeply religious woman, I did not know she was Calvinist and I was briefly thrown for a bit of a loop as I awaited some fire and brimstone preaching. I soon discovered, however, that Robinson, while of firm opinion, is not a preaching kind of gal, nor is her brand of Calvinism the fire and brimstone sort. Relieved but also chagrined at my assumptions I read on, more interested in what she had to say than in her religious affiliation.
And does she ever have a lot to say! In the essay “Freedom of Thought” she discusses the argument between science and religion. To say that there is a turf war is a mistake. Religion is not about explaining the way the world works (though some religions disavow science she is speaking broadly) but, like art and music, is about human nature, the human spirit and the mystery of being. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive and can actually be mutually supportive:
Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again [meaning returning to the true Christian narrative from which some have wandered].
With talk in Europe and the United States about austerity and debt and budget crises, Robinson’s discussion in “Austerity as Ideology” couldn’t be more relevant. Money and wealth and corruption, faith and compassion and what wealth should be used for – general human well-being and not personal consumption and power.
“When I Was a Child” is another essay that seemed to be written to draw attention to the current presidential election. Robinson discusses the American ideal of individualism. Listening to the speechifying at the Republican and Democratic conventions these past two weeks one can see a marked difference between the two parties. The Republicans were all about the “I” and the Democrats were all about the “we.” Robinson discusses the damage taking individualism to the extreme can do and remarks that when it comes down to it, “there is no inevitable conflict between individualism as an ideal and a very positive interest in the good society.”
Other essays of particular interest for me were “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” which discussed the Old and New Testaments, “Wondrous Love,” about God’s love for the world and what God’s love teaches us about how we should love one another, and “Cosmology.” In “Cosmology” Robinson wonders, “What are we, after all, we human beings?”
I very much enjoyed these essays and could reread them a good many times before all the salient points begin to really sink in. They are not light and sparkling affairs tripping along and flashing their insights here and there. Rather, they are deep, still pools that ask to be contemplated with an open mind and an open heart. The title of the book is deceptive. While Robinson mentions books on numerous occasions, the essays are not about books nor, though personal, are they memoir. They are about big ideas that affect us all both on an abstract and personal level. If you decide to read When I Was a Child I Read Books, be prepared to work and think. You will be rewarded for the effort.