Beginning With a Diminished Thing: Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books

robinsonReviewed in this essay: Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012).

Part social and cultural critique, theological dialogue, and literary exegesis, When I Was a Child I Read Books is comprised of ten short essays Marilynne Robinson refashioned from lecture tours and lessons over the past decade. Long-time readers of her work will take pleasure in her meditations on the writing process, character development, and her relationship to her novels. New readers will marvel at her ability to move seamlessly between topics as disparate as cosmology, the 2008 financial crisis, Oberlin, and Moses. Both will appreciate her extensive thematic concerns, unified through two central questions what is the state of social life in the United States? How can people put themselves on the path to political and moral flourishing, rather than rush headlong towards destruction? Answering these questions is obviously no easy task, yet Robinson speculates on some feasible solutions, beginning with a re-evaluation of critical American institutions: education, the state, and the Church.

She spends considerable time criticizing the current status of various Christian churches. Raised Presbyterian, she currently belongs to the Congregationalist denomination and takes issue with the relationship these organizations foster between members and scripture. Specifically, she laments the time and energy devoted to “dumbing down” religious texts, an effort she feels actually hinders the public’s ability to participate actively in the word of God. No doubt, this critique also extends beyond the sphere of religion and into popular and political culture at large: Why have a democratic institution if you are certain that the people are ill-prepared to identify and manage their own interests? In the preface, she asks: “What if we have ceased to aspire to Democracy, or even democracy? What if the words ‘Democracy’ and ‘America’ are severed, and no longer imply each other?” While the easy mixing of the secular and the theological in public discourse might be unsettling for some, leftists and liberals should note that Robinson’s theology turns on the good of the people. For instance, in “Open thy Hand Wide” she argues that in Moses’s injunctions about treatment of the poor we find the roots of American liberalism.

Mixing old and new, her literary style also draws heavily from American Transcendentalism, and her essays abound with literary references to Whitman, Dickinson, Thoreau, and Emerson, to name a few. At one point in her first essay, “Freedom of Thought,” she decries that “we do not deal with one another as soul to soul.” Such reflections have been criticized by some as “Olympian” and esoteric and echo familiar reproaches against Emerson. Yet if cryptic phrases about soul-to-soul dealings seem out of place in our current political climate, it must be because they are not the stuff of virulent polemic. Ardent or high-minded, it is this feature of Robinson’s magnanimous tone and dealings with contemporary social and political affairs that is so refreshing, however anachronistic it may at first seem.

Quoting Robert Frost’s famous sonnet “The Oven Bird,” she intimates that the titular subject’s dilemma is also our own: “The question that he frames in all but words/Is what to make of a diminished thing.” For Robinson, the question is undoubtedly a genuine and important one, and the majority of Books returns to biblical and literary texts in an attempt to construct some kind of meaningful answer. Frost’s poem answers its own question, perhaps arguing that one can’t help but make poetry and beauty in despairing circumstances. Robinson’s book champions a similar sentiment, and Books is a promising read for anyone willing to imagine that after devastation, there could still be splendour.

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