Marilynne Robinson is not only an award-winning novelist but an outstanding essayist. Her newest book collects ten incisive essays on an array of topics, though common themes thread their way throughout, including education, religion and the nature of humanity.
When I read a book for review, I underline passages that strike me with their insight, the beauty of their language or their troublesome nature. Typically, by the end of my reading I’ve underlined a dozen or two passages at most. My copy of this book, however, is filled with such markings. There are few spreads without something underlined.
Such a plethora of insights and apt sentences make it difficult to do justice to the book. Any quotation will represent a small sample of what could be quoted.
In the book’s first essay, “Freedom of Thought”, Robinson notes what will become evident throughout the book, that she tries to free herself of constraints and not simply accept the standard approaches to certain areas of knowledge.
She writes that the tendency of much of what she took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics and cultural history “was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty.”
Over and over, Robinson questions the assumptions made by so-called scholars that see human nature as simplistic, reductionist. She points out that often “the most important aspect of a controversy is not the area of disagreement but the hardening of agreement, the tacit granting on all sides of assumptions that ought not to be granted on any side.” One example, she notes, is “the treatment of the physical as a distinct category antithetical to the spiritual.”
She writes, “We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small.” Then, adopting her role as a teacher of fiction writing, she adds, “Fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true.”
She challenges assumptions about religion or ancient peoples (“The Babylonians used quadratic equations.”) and points out the limits of science.
She concludes that essay thus: “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.”
In “Austerity as Ideology”, she applies this failure to see the mystery in humanity to current views of economics. She note that “market economics … has shown itself very ready to devour what we hold dear, if the list can be taken to include culture, education, the environment and the sciences, as well as the peace and well-being of our fellow citizens.” She also shows that “America has never been an especially capitalist country.” Meanwhile, “our wealth is finally neither more nor less than human well-being.”
In the title essay, we get a glimpse of what has already become evident: the wide and extensive range of Robinson’s reading. We also gain some insights into her fiction. She writes, “In a way Housekeeping (her first novel) is meant as a sort of demonstration of the intellectual culture of my childhood.” Remarking on her study of Latin in high school, she notes that her “style is considerably more indebted to Cicero than to Hemingway.”
She discusses her growing up in the West (Idaho) and the kind of individualism that often inheres there. However, she writes, “there is no inevitable conflict between individualism as an ideal and a very positive interest in the good of society.”
In “The Fate of Ideas: Moses”, Robinson defends the integrity of the Old Testament against critics who want to write it off. She pulls no punches in her interaction with Jack Miles’ God: A Biography, calling it a “dumbed-down pseudo-syncretism.” She calls some of the thinking behind such criticism “the flip side of fundamentalism” and concludes with: “Whether he was a rabbi, a prophet or the Second Person of the Trinity, the ethic (Jesus) invokes comes straight from Moses.”
In spite of these punchy quotes, Robinson’s style is more formal and florid, more — as she writes — Cicero than Hemingway. And she often includes a smile, if not a laugh. For example: “I have never heard anyone speculate on the origins and function of irony, but I can say with confidence that it is only a little less pervasive in our universe than carbon.”
She questions accepted opinion and helps us think through its implications and its reasonableness. In “Cosmology”, her concluding essay, she takes on scientism and atheism: “The difference between theism and the new atheist science is the difference between mystery and certainty. Certainty is a relic, an atavism, a husk we ought to have outgrown. Mystery is openness to possibility, even at the scale now implied by physics and cosmology.”
If you read When I Was a Child I Read Books, be ready to have certain assumptions challenged and to think through important issues while enjoying a master of prose.