Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review of Marilynne Robinson's "When I Was a Child I Read Books"

It’s tempting to say that as an essayist, Marilynne Robinson is a great novelist. Of course, no matter what the first clause of the sentence is…Robinson would still be a great novelist. Her 2004 novel, “Gilead” won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and sold a whole lot of copies. And I liked it, a lot. 1980’s “Housekeeping” and 2008’s “Home” are also great works of fiction.***** Some of the essays in this collection are bring history, theology and insight together and allow the reader (at least me) to look at things in a whole new way. And some of the essays have the air of an academic journal that is only read when it’s assigned. My favorite essay in the book is the last, “Cosmology” which begins puzzling on how Edgar Allen Poe in his work, ’Eureka’, seemed to anticipate 20th century physicists ideas about the Big Bang. She uses this as a starting point to assert that the human mind has tools beyond science to consider the big questions of life. She bemoans that students rely only on the theories of Darwin and Freud to understand the human condition. She argues that not only does that limited perspective lead to a poorer life, it leads to poorer fiction.***** I appreciated her defense of great Christian leaders of American history, such as Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, whose intellectual, social and moral achievements are belittled by modern historians who have different theological perspectives (or believe mistakenly believe they have no theology.) As the father of a Knox College student, I was happy to read Robinson give honor to many of the small Midwestern colleges that stood up for the rights of women and enslaved African Americans. (This in the essay, “Who Was Oberlin?”)***** But there were essays that made intellectual leaps and bounds that I couldn’t follow. Maybe it’s because I’m not bright enough (certainly well within the realm of possibility) but I think Robinson at times leaves dots disconnected.***** And there are times where I think she just gets things wrong. In the essay, “Austerity as Ideology”, she ponders Winston Churchill’s famous Iron Curtain Speech. She seems to argue that the speech hurt the tender feelings of Joe Stalin, still hurting for WW II, and was the reason for the Cold War. No where in the chapter does she talk about the military aggression of the Soviet Union, or their oppression of the people of Eastern Europe (let alone the slaughter of their own people.) She seems to subscribe to a moral equivalence between the East and West of that period that strikes me as morally bankrupt.***** In the same chapter, she frets about those that call for austerity in government budgets, that might cut education budgets. (She seems to feel academics are holy creatures that never waste money.) She seems to think the two wars of the Bush and Obama years were the only budgetary challenges of the 21st decade and yet she never mentions vast majority of government spending goes to entitlements.***** Marilynne Robinson does have a great mind, but at times I think she buys into the group think of the academic world. But in the area of the church and theology, she fights the received Ivy League wisdom and come up with true and powerful thoughts. Reading everything Robinson writes is a worthy endeavor. But it would probably be best to start with the fiction.***** (And frankly, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t at least one chapter about what she read as a child. Was she more of a May Alcott or Ingalls Wilder fan?)

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