Marilynne Robinson. When I Was a Child I Read Books. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.

In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, the Reverend John Ames observes that “you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience”—much less that of others.1 In her new essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson applies the idea with rigor. There is sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life,” she says (xiv). In view of that mystery, we must “forget definition, forget assumption, watch” (7).

These essays are not for the faint of heart. Readers of her novels will find some of the unhurried pace and lyrical prose they expect, but only those familiar with her past essays will be unsurprised at her incisive, pointed language and depth of argument. Both kinds of readers, however, will recognize consistency in her views of humanity and culture. In all her writing, Robinson calls for stepping back, gauging circumstances with an outsider’s gaze, and then acting in love toward others. “When we accept dismissive judgments for our community,” she says, “we stop having generous hopes for it” (30). Dismissive judgment is not something Robinson will allow; generous hope is not something she will cede.

These are ideas that Robinson has been developing for several decades. In her early novel Housekeeping, life is experienced in new and unexpected ways by characters who live outside the boundaries of traditional American expectations. The more recent Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead and its companion novel, Home, are an experiment in otherness, as the characters learn, or don’t learn, to move beyond their assumptions of each other. In her nonfiction, Robinson approaches these same ideas with an unapologetic directness. Her initial collection, The Death of Adam, and her more recent Absence of Mind develop her imperative that we must rethink what we think we know. Even her Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, which at first glance seems substantially different from her other work, is essentially a call to look at a difficult situation with new eyes.

Robinson is uniquely informed about learning to see things from many sides. She is a child of the American West, which she celebrates for its outsider identity. She has also been deeply influenced by the civil rights movement and its upheaval of so many prescriptions, assumptions, and expectations. She knows what it is to be an outsider within her own academic community, as well; she not only confesses a Christian faith that is strongly Calvinistic, but, in her analyses of society and culture, she often arrives at a uniquely liberal stance by means of that Calvinism’s very tenets. And she is an unapologetic historian; her knowledge of many histories and literatures plays a large role in, as she says, her “perspective on this civilization” (xiv). She approaches her topics from a position of sociohistorical awareness that cultivates an open-handed generosity to experiences different than her own.

Now Robinson’s careful, calculated vantage informs her new collection, as she brings a broad historical perspective to bear on her critique of entrenched American social, political, and cultural ideologies. In these ten essays, some previously published, some new, Robinson looks again to the past for instruction as she addresses the dangers of assumption. In the first several essays, she considers such modern concerns as education, the religion versus science debate, and American capitalist culture. In “Open Thy Hand Wide,” she melds political critique with biblical criticism, exploring the connection between a Calvinistic liberalism and the development of America’s social thought. After the title essay, her focus grows even more intimately, personally Christian, as she discusses Old Testament law, the gospel of Christ as narrative, and the role of religion in determining human rights. Even so, her application always turns to modern culture, with very practical and pointed implications for a political climate that NPR recently described as particularly vicious and polarized. Throughout, Robinson’s Calvinist faith and history together provide the lens through which she even-mindedly perceives such pressing issues as religious patriotism, government assistance, and the evolution of modern science.

Then there is the title essay. It is no accident that “When I Was a Child” is central to the collection. There, Robinson gets personal and grows more lyrical as she recalls her childhood landscape. History and economics and modern culture still find their way in. This is, after all, an essay about the American West, but it is also about Robinson and her home. And what she appreciates about her Idaho upbringing is the loneliness it fostered, specifically, the intellectual clarity that came by way of a solitary education: “I think it was in fact peculiarly Western to feel no tie of particularity to any single past or history, to experience . . . the meditative, free appreciation of whatever comes under one’s eye” (85). The result is a singular individuality that is beautiful, near sacred. Amid a culture that has lost the capacity to question itself, the benefit of this outsider position is that it provides a clearer perspective on self and others. This, in turn, enables a posture of humble generosity, both intellectual and material. If this entire collection is the outworking of Robinson’s philosophy of “looking at things from a little distance,” this essay explains how that outsider identity developed in her (90).

From a critique of finance economics to a description of the library she frequented as a child, it is no small feat that Robinson’s topics are both expansive and precise. And it is not unintentional. In these essays, her inquisitive, inductive stance expands out into the cosmos and deep into the warring history of the world. She begins her critique of modern capitalism, of all things, with a meditation on the planet Mercury, pondering the universe’s vastness as a telescopic view to the value of individual human life. “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” (36). This perspective that is both broad and personal illuminates the value of putting ourselves in others’ shoes, whoever that “other” may be: Stalin or Churchill, Cold War Russia or present-day China, colonial Puritans or the unknown neighbor in need. In international relations, in understanding ourselves, always graciousness and objectivity: “Indeed, graciousness might be the most valuable consequence of objectivity” (44). The world is full of glories, mysteries, ambiguities, and, according to Robinson’s Christianity, sin. And so the “straight-edge ruler” of clear-cut, simplistic answers based on entrenched ideologies will not work (49). She surmises that when we are able to step outside of ourselves and hold others in sympathetic imagination, we will care for each other in a way that sustains culture and betters the world.

This concept of imaginative sympathy is deeply rooted in Robinson’s faith. And it is at the unexpected convergence of her faith and her politics that she grows most emphatic and unyielding. It would be easy to pigeonhole Robinson based on her theological standing, and she, of course, addresses that. She confesses the Bible and the gospel of Christ; she identifies herself as a Calvinist. Since Calvinism was the purview of the Puritans, it is easy to think of those more exacting American founders as harsh or unjust, but Robinson is quick to identify those notions as preconceived. In one of the essays, she reconsiders the Puritan faith as particularly lenient and generous. She details the Old Testament laws that make provision for those in need: “Thou shalt open thy hand unto thy brother, to thy nedie, and to thy poore in the land” (68). And she clarifies that Old Testament and Puritan punishments, especially those for crimes committed out of poverty and need, were far more just and fitting to the crime than those in later history, or even in America today. It is only assumptions that have led us to think otherwise. The Calvinist faith, in fact, prompted our forebears, as it might prompt us, to a more-than-equitable dealing with others. She quotes John Calvin: “The Lord makes them truly kind and bountiful, so that they no longer seek their own convenience, but are ready to give assistance to the poor, and not only do this once or oftener, but every day advance more and more in kindness and generosity” (67).

Consequently, Robinson’s particular brand of Calvinist faith leads to a strikingly liberal and humanist response. One pervasive strain of American thought says we own what we earn. Robinson looks back to the beginnings of American history and deeply into Calvinist theology and finds a contrasting perspective. According to Thomas Jefferson, every human being is sacred, and justice is a right that should be given to all, not earned by some; according to the likes of John Calvin, the best way to live is to hold our belongings with an open hand. And so Robinson approves responses like government funding for the poor: “In my Bible, Jesus does not say, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.’” (139). She urges Americans to set aside narrow notions of individual gain. She hopes we might instead be willing to sympathetically imagine and understand the circumstances of others, thus moving toward a liberal care for each other, even to a sacrificial degree. Her essays are an exercise in perspective.

It isn’t always easy going. To say these essays require a close reading would be an understatement. As in her other nonfiction, Robinson’s writing style is as complex as her theological and political views. She has a syntactic tendency to shift between opposing ideas, and she depends on the reader to make the proper distinctions and interpretations. And the density of her arguments, alongside some very specific topics and references, capitalist ideology, for example, or World War II history, may lose some who prefer the simpler, contained worlds of Gilead or Fingerbone. Robinson also seems to make some assumptions herself about her readers’ previous knowledge of, say, John Winthrop or Sigmund Freud or a host of other historical theologians, classical philosophers, and Puritan preachers. This is a compliment to the reader. Robinson’s prose might be dense, but it is shot through with a radiance that reflects a glorious hope for humanity, all the while applying an invigorating reason.

Admittedly, in her essays, as in her fiction, Robinson is comfortable taking time and care to develop her arguments. Her essays must be read with patience, taking in all the information, waiting for what will surely come: the grand climax of her strong, incisive response. There is no trickery here, just a premium placed on considering all the sides, or at least many of them, before making a judgment. The book’s very title echoes Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” He goes on: “When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Robinson reminds us that we “know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:11-12, ESV). And so she presents a grown-up approach to thinking about other people and about the governance of them. It is a mature, informed, and fair-minded approach. Her final conclusions are resolute, but they are arrived at by way of careful consideration.

In Gilead, Home, and Housekeeping, Robinson tells and retells stories of gracious forgiveness and love, and she personifies that lonely, living landscape of the American West. All of these threads are woven throughout When I Was a Child I Read Books. The result is a pervasive theme of perceptive, hopeful generosity, whether considering Stalin’s position in World War I, Charles Finney’s abolitionism in the mid-1800s, or the poor and needy in America today. Robinson’s social critique is direct and sometimes bracing, but her theology and her patriotism are actively optimistic.

To be fair, Gilead’s Reverend Ames does not always practice the grace, that is, the approach from an admitted lack of understanding, that he preaches. Against all Robinson’s advice, he makes fear-based assumptions about others. He demonstrates endless understanding toward his closest friends and family, but when adversity comes in the form of his best friend’s profligate son, he assumes the worst about the young man’s meanings and intentions. Still, he is growing. “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration,” he says. “You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”2

That is Robinson’s hope for us all. When faulty assumptions are put aside, “we are instructed in the endless brilliance of creation” (11). It is no small hope.


Editor’s Note: Listen to Marilynne Robinson read a section from her audiobook When I Was A Child I Read Books (audio courtesy of Macmillan Audio):


1. Robinson, Gilead (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 95.

2. Robinson, Gilead, 245.