When I Was a Child I Read Books

by Marilynne Robinson

Hardcover, 2012




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2012.


In this new collection of incisive essays, Robinson returns to the themes which have preoccupied her work: the role of faith in modern life, the inadequacy of fact, the contradictions inherent in human nature.

Media reviews

Like every good preacher, Marilynne Robinson judges others while including herself — in theory, at least — in the judgment.
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There is no trickery here, just a premium placed on considering all the sides, or at least many of them, before making a judgment.
rehashes a lot of old positions...you might grow slightly impatient with all this thematic repetition, despite the fact that the prose is consistently gorgeous. The risk of her essays is that they might come off as culturally irrelevant or out-of-touch or, worse, conservative. But I don’t mind
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the repetition, because if any of her thought somehow seeped out into America I think we’d be much better off for it.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member debnance
I’ll go ahead and say it: Marilynne Robinson is too smart for me. I can be a lazy reader, seeking the quick answer, the easy answer.

This is not a book for lazy readers. It is not a book for simple readers.

Robinson is thoughtful and compassionate and deep. She sees past the first obvious answer
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and the second obvious answer and offers explanations that are unexpected and which embrace all we bring to a book. She is spiritual without being dogmatic and she is kind without leaving truth behind.

A book I need to read again. More slowly next time.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
The kinds of books that Marilynne Robinson read as a child were “old and thick and hard.” She was raised in Idaho, where “lonesome” is “a word with strongly positive connotations.” She learned Latin, and fell in with Horace and Virgil and especially Cicero, at what must have been a
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substantial high school, an adequate preparation for later attending Brown University. One gets the impression she was studious, and serious, and thoughtful, and just the slightest bit cynical about cynicism itself. In a word: wise. Was and is, if these essays are anything to go by. She was also raised in a Christian household (Presbyterian) and her Christian community (later she became a Congregationalist) has imbued her thinking and life every step of the way. Indeed, almost all of the essays in this volume speak to and from that base.

Even for those who are not co-religionists, Ms Robinson’s essays will impress, with their cogent and elegant prose, historical rootedness, and clear thinking. With witty and subtle turns of phrase she punctures the gaseous arguments of unthinking economists, ahistorical political scientists, illiberal liberals, and inhuman anthropologists. She urges us, in her arguments, to return to the historical record, to revisit the meanings of terms as they were used at the time they were used, to not accept blithely the cant of economists concerning human nature. A healthy drop of cynicism, perhaps, might be the curative to restore a bit of hope into our outlook. Perhaps.

She is especially good on the origins of American liberalism and the notion of community. Unless you are already extremely conversant with non-conformist religious theology of the 17th, 18th and 19th century, you will almost certainly learn something from the sources she draws upon. And even a passing familiarity with her line of thought might make one less burdened by dismay when looking at what passes as intelligent discussion in America.

And yet, I find I am at a loss as to what to make of these essays. “Make” in the sense of how they might lead my thought onward. For surely if one does not grant the religionist premise of her arguments, they amount to little more than curlicues. So, gently recommended for those for whom the arguments herein might hold substantive value (I’ll assume you know who you are), and otherwise gently recommended for an insight into the thought of one of America’s fine novelists.
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LibraryThing member lycomayflower
Huh. This. I can't say I enjoyed this at all. First I had to get over my expectation that this book would be a collection of personal essays, probably focusing on books and reading. My fault, that expectation--should have read the flap more closely (but the title, see?). Once I reconciled myself to
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the idea that these essays would have a more historical, political, philosophical, or religious bent, I thought I should probably still enjoy the collection. I like that sort of bent; from what I remember of Housekeeping and what I've heard about Robinson's other novels, I thought I probably like Robinson's writing. But I just couldn't get into these essays. I have to say I was mostly bored or irritated (or bored and irritated) while I read them, and the most frustrating thing about that, perhaps, is that I can't quite figure out why I was either.

On the face of them, each of the essays seems like it should be something about which I ought to be able to muster up at least a partial interest. But mostly Robinson's prose took on a droning, sometimes preachy quality. And every essay gave me the sense that there was some flaw in the reasoning behind it, some infelicitous use of evidence, that I could point out if only I could bring myself to pay better attention. I jotted down some snarky marginal notes in the first essay ("One cannot say of a widely held theory that it does not bear scrutiny and then fail to discuss why not. Come on." "Why can't mythology do the work of both science and religion? Why must it be one or the other, as she claims it is today? Why not a dualism, as she discusses (in other terms) on pages 8 & 9?"), but after that I wasn't even inspired to respond. A disappointing read, and one I almost certainly would have given up on after the first two or three essays if I had not felt a little bad about impulse-buying a $24.00 hardcover. Still can't quite decide if the collection is less than good, if it was just not my cuppa, or if I simply failed to rise to the occasion. I wish I hadn't read When I Was a Child I Read Books, but not really because the time put into it felt ill used, but because I fear this bad experience will return to me every time I consider picking up Gilead or Home and steer me away from them. And that, I am sure, is too bad.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
I knew that Marilynne Robinson was a deep thinker from reading her fiction. Characters like John Ames show Robinson's respect for those who do not seek easy answers and who have thought deeply about life's hardest questions. In this collection of essays, Robinson shares her thoughts on religion,
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politics, and society directly, without filtering them through the lens of fiction. The essays are dense, and I admit that I will likely find more layers of meaning when I reread this collection. But I found much to reflect on even in this first reading.

Although most of the essays in this book do not focus on reading or writing fiction, I did gain insight into Robinson as an author and a teacher from this collection. In one of my favorite passages, she notes:

"The human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe. By my lights, this makes the human mind and the human person the most interesting entity known to exist in the universe. I say this to my students because I feel their most common problem is also their deepest problem - a tendency to undervalue their own gifts and to find too little value in the human beings their fiction seeks to create and the reality it seeks to represent." (p. 144)

When I heard Robinson read from Lila a few weeks ago, I was struck by the respect she has for her characters, and for human life in general. Again, she touches on this point in her essays as well:

"Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant or we are incalculably precious and interesting. I tend toward the second view." (P. 36)

Perhaps because I was reading this collection during election season, I appreciated Robinson's views on politics (although, in all fairness, that may be because my views are closely aligned with hers). This quote, which has bipartisan implications, especially struck me:

"Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement." (P. 28)

And finally with Advent and Christmas upon us, I appreciated Robinson's insistence that religion should not be used to breed fear. In writing about the Christmas story, she notes:

"It is a story written down in various forms by writers whose purpose was first of all to render the sense of a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was understood, only after his death, to have revealed the way of God toward humankind. How remarkable. This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial Interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale. Reverence should forbid in particular its being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear." (P. 140-1)

I read these essays slowly, one or two at a time, and as I noted above, I'll likely revisit them. They made me long for more time to think deeply, and they made me thankful that Robinson has shared the fruits of her wisdom with us.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
Robinson now has three novels and four books of non-fiction to her name; she might end up as the E. M. Forster of the early twenty-first century (I consider that a great compliment). Thankfully this book of essays is a step up from Absence of Mind, although not quite up to the quality of Death of
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Adam. WIWACIRB, hereafter WIW, is a much easier read than DoA, but that's not necessarily a good thing- much of the pleasure of her first book of essays came from the prose, which did a nice job reminding its readers that syntax can be enjoyable. WIW continues the main tasks of that book, though: an attempt to refute reductionism, particularly with reference to human abilities (a noble task), and an attempt to convince everyone that Calvinism is really great (which, honestly, seems to be to contradict the former). [Addendum: just flicked through DoA again, and it turns out that WIW is better on the ideas side. I still think DoA is more attractively written, though.]

Here Robinson argues against the reductionisms of contemporary 'rational choice' economics, scientism and the new atheism, and does it very well. As presented in popular forms, these three theories are, as she says, ideologies, and they do, as she argues, reduce our sense of wonder at ourselves in possibly harmful ways.

Her approach is often restricted to American concerns, which is fair enough, and she makes excellent points: the extreme 'patriotism' of contemporary American defenders of capitalism is probably due to the fact that America has only very rarely been a capitalist country; it's nice to know that a nineteenth century edition of Webster's defines socialism as 'agrarianism,' something that many Americans thought and think is a good thing. Also:

"Lately we have been told and told again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War."

Zing. Robinson offers some counter-weights to these reductionisms: education, particularly in the humanities; a sense of wonder; a greater immersion in history. This would be much more palatable if she wasn't so fond of saying things like "Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of liberal Christianity," which would come as news to the Anglicans/Episcopalians, Vatican II Catholics and liberation theologians she treats with so much scorn. Her 'me against the world' shtick can get tiresome, too- on what planet are abolitionists stigmatised?? Does she seriously think early Americans were fleeing religious persecution in the abstract, and if so, why did almost all of them try/succeed in setting up state churches? Does she honestly believe that the Old Testament was 'neglected and suppressed' throughout the middle ages?

Most of this can be forgiven, since the people she's arguing with are even more tendentious ('Monotheism causes war!' Um... tell that to the Greeks. And Romans. And Hindus.) What cannot be forgive is her failure to distinguish between rationalism and idealism. For whatever reason, everyone likes to cap their criticisms of other people's thinking by making a large scale procedural claim. Here, Robinson would have us believe that, say, rational choice economics is bad because it is "driven by righteousness and indignation to conform reality to theory." And yet she *praises* the Mosaic law because "the vision of the society preexisted the society itself." In both cases, reality is meant to conform to theory; but this is bad in one case and good in the other? Could it be that the problem with rational choice theory is not its procedures and methods, but its content? Alternatively, and I suspect this is what she means, economics looks only at how things are, and not how they should be; the Law looks at how they should be, not just how they are. This is not a problem of theory and reality, but of reality and ideals.

Anyway, the book is well worth reading, if only for zingers like this: "The notion that the laws ought to be ahistorical is no more sophisticated than the insistence that they are in fact ahistorical."
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LibraryThing member 2wonderY
The title made me curious. I hadn't intended to read the book, but just opening on a page randomly, Robinson's prose beckons. For not having heard of her before, I like her thought processes and arguments. I may even need to buy the book.
LibraryThing member Sullywriter
A wonderful collection of eloquently written and thoughtfully articulated essays.
LibraryThing member jennyo
I love Robinson's novels. I love her essays. I think she's brilliant, and that she is the most thoughtful author I've ever read. I believe that no matter what she's writing, she's able to find the perfect word to describe, to convince, to explain. It's amazing.

I would love to share some of my
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favorite quotes from these essays, but it will have to wait. I've loaned my copy to my pastor, and I think he's reading it while on vacation. I gave him his own copy of Gilead and he loved it so much he read it three times in succession. I understand that completely.

I've got another of Robinson's books here, a book of essays, but I've been rationing it. I want to read it with someone so I can talk to them about it. I want to see if others feel the same way about her writing.
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LibraryThing member exitfish
I love MRs fiction dearly. Gilead is one of my all time favorites. But the essays are too often mucked-up with mushy efforts to justify religion, defenses of the Old Testament and arguments for a return to a time when religion wasn't so nasty (when?). I admire her religious feelings, and she often
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writes beautifully about them and how they touch on many things public and private, yet I'm unimpressed with her particular cherry-picking of the Bible and I especially wish she would resist the urge to try to defend religion from a perceived but unspoken threat from science. Choose other battles.

On the other hand, one of the strengths of the essays is her writing on American civics. She has some exceptional things to say for public life in America, and offers a reminder that there's a deep human value in public institutions. I loved, too, what she has to say about life in the American West and her meditations on "lonesomeness".
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LibraryThing member steller0707
These thought-provoking essays are not about books, but about big questions of civilization, politics and our human nature. Drawing on a wide set of resources, which includes such disparate sources as the Old Testament, Greek and other ancient texts, the writings of Walt Whitman, and even CNN.com,
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Marilynne Robinson demonstrates that her reading informs her ability to think clearly. The essays are dense with these references, and are profoundly wise and spiritual.
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LibraryThing member LordKinbote
This is the first I've read of Marilynne Robinson. In some respects, I can see why she is so well-regarded. She writes with elegance and lyricism, which makes me suspect I would enjoy her novels. However, I found this book a struggle.

I did enjoy the essays that didn't turn into some kind of
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religious crusade, those that did were occasionally terrifying and often infuriating. There is a sense of aggressive defensiveness running throughout these pieces. Robinson creates straw men against whom to level her "defences", but her arguments were unable to convince me that these issues even exist. If anything, they were actually off-putting. At other times, I just did not care. Probably not terribly generous of me.

It has occurred to me that I should give this book another read, sometime when I can read each essay in a single sitting but I cannot bring myself to do so right now. Maybe one day. Maybe.
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LibraryThing member nmele
I am glad Dr. Robinson never taught me--she is razor sharp and very clear about her desire to shine light on the truths we cover up for our comfort/convenience. These essays are erudite, pointed, witty, and exacting. Most uncover hidden assumptions and contradictions common in our intellectual and
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even civil discourse and counter them with arguments that are based on solid research and reflection on the matter at hand, whether it be the cult of Austerity, the popular perception of Calvinism as a dour strain of Christianity, or the use of Darwin to argue against religion. This one stays in my library.
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LibraryThing member a_forester
A pleasure to read, stimulates ideas and gives voice to so many of my own intuitions. Inspiring.
LibraryThing member Osbaldistone
Insights on our current state of affairs, from a brilliant thinker.



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