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When I Was a Child I Read Books - Marilynne Robinson

(Virago, £8.99)

The latest offering from Pulitzer prize-winning American novelist Marilynne Robinson is a collection of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books. 

The title is wonderfully indicative of one of Robinson’s most deeply-held beliefs: in the power of literature. For the writer books are a way that people can exercise ‘the most complex organism in the universe’, the human brain, and ponder about what lies at the source of human existence.

Marilynne Robinson, born in Idaho but now living, writing and teaching in Iowa, includes several essays in her collection that address specifically ‘American’ issues. Such issues include the perception of ‘the West’ in American society and how this definition is misplaced and reductive. 

Also, the second essay in the collection, ‘Austerity as Ideology’, is verging on inaccessible for the casual reader who does not have a working knowledge of American political history and philosophy. 

Nonetheless, one of the great triumphs of this book is its accessibility. Robinson writes in a way that is erudite, sophisticated and often beautiful, but never gets too pretentious. This is a substantial achievement in a book that grapples with such lofty topics as cosmology and Calvinism.

The essay entitled Wondrous Love, in particular, is a marvel.  Robinson, a Christian writer, a storyteller, uses the language of some of her favourite hymns as a route into a discussion about the electrifying story of Jesus. That the story of the greatest person who ever lived is preserved and proclaimed across the ages in the form of a written narrative is important, says Robinson. In a world governed by technology, the gospel narratives about Jesus remain timeless and powerful.

While many of the essays in When I Was a Child I Read Books could stand alone and are not necessarily linked by any continuous thread, there is an implicit message present in most of the essays.  This is that Christianity has conceded too much intellectual ground and the author is on the offensive for a large part of this book trying to reclaim some old terrain.

In her final essay Cosmology, Robinson offers a reasoned, compelling and, at times, acerbic refutation of macro-evolution and how it is now accepted as simple fact. One cannot emerge from this essay, which challenges so many notions that are taken for granted in mainstream society, without feeling that they have had their convictions re-calibrated and tested. This is a healthy feeling, one that is sobering and should be experienced often.

For Marilynne Robinson the way to question and probe the issue of human existence is through books, through the many writers down through the ages who have recorded human experience in all its terrific variety. 

Books are not the only way. Even a conversation in the street that is in any way earnest or edifying, says Robinson, can reveal something about the significance of human residence on this planet. However, books are one way of pondering this mystery. 

Reading this convincing and, often dazzling collection, I’d certainly agree with her.

Alistair Shand

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