REVIEW by Philip Maughan

NWR Issue 97

When I Was A Child I Read Books

by Marilynne Robinson

In his recent collection of essays on the subject of higher education reform, Stefan Collini makes a self-consciously vague stab at defining ‘the humanities’. They are:

that collection of disciplines which attempt to understand, across barriers of time and culture, the actions and creations of other human beings considered as bearers of meaning, where the emphasis tends to fall on matters to do with individual or cultural distinctiveness and not on matters which are primarily susceptible to characterization in purely statistical or biological terms.

Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer and Orange Prize-winning novels Gilead (2005) and Home (2009), as well as four essay collections, writes in opposition to assumptions, commonly biological and statistical, which denigrate the ‘actions and creations’ of many as ‘anomalous clutter’ — interestingly, the word Richard Dawkins uses in his God Delusion when referring to the creation myths of the indigenous Australians, known as ‘Dreamtime’.

Robinson, in these new essays collected in When I Was A Child I Read Books takes as her subject ‘the uses to which the past is put’. She elegantly battles oft-peddled beliefs about, among other things, the founding fathers, the ‘jealous’ God of the Hebrew Bible and the ubiquitous transformation of a crisis in the private financial system into ‘a tale of slovenly and overweening government that perpetuates and is perpetuated by a dependent and demanding population.’

In response to attitudes both ancient and modern, Robinson, like Collini, makes a robust yet humble argument for the imagination and the intellect. She argues for community and liberal generosity, and against the maginalization of ‘the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, anything in any way lofty’ by ideologues, conservatives, and dogmatic atheists and believers alike, all of whom spread potent assumptions about human nature in order to ‘trim the living creature to fit the dead shell.’

Any and every page of this book glimmers with rhetoric and revelation. Take, for example, the following passage:

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes ‘soul’ would do nicely.

Robinson clearly has an axe to grind. She warns against ‘retreating from the cultivation and celebrating of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down... by condescending,’ in the manner of Saul Bellow’s final protagonist, Abe Ravelstein. Being a professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Robinson speaks to the world’s economists, preachers and educators in terms familiar to creative writing. She writes: ‘When we condescend, when we act consistently with a sense of the character of people in general which demeans them, we impoverish them and ourselves, and preclude our having a part in the creation of the highest wealth.’


previous review: This September Sun
next review: The Marriage Plot


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