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When I Was a Child I Read Books
I began reading Marilynne Robinson’s book of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books way back in June. Her essay in the book, “Imagination and Community,” even prompted a post on what my books meant to me. I took so long to read the book not because it was a hard slog, but because Robinson writes the kind of densely-packed, careful and thoughtful sort of essay that demands to be read slowly and with attention or not at all. There is so much packed between the covers of this book there is no way I can tell you about all of it. You should see all the page points I have marking passages of interest in this book (sure I could take a photo so you could see, but it’s better if you use your imagination).

Robinson approaches all of her subjects from a compassionate, inclusive and Calvinist viewpoint. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Calvinism I think of John Calvin and the idea that before you are even born God has decided whether or not you are “saved.” I knew Robinson was a deeply religious woman, I did not know she was Calvinist and I was briefly thrown for a bit of a loop as I awaited some fire and brimstone preaching. I soon discovered, however, that Robinson, while of firm opinion, is not a preaching kind of gal, nor is her brand of Calvinism the fire and brimstone sort. Relieved but also chagrined at my assumptions I read on, more interested in what she had to say than in her religious affiliation.

And does she ever have a lot to say! In the essay “Freedom of Thought” she discusses the argument between science and religion. To say that there is a turf war is a mistake. Religion is not about explaining the way the world works (though some religions disavow science she is speaking broadly) but, like art and music, is about human nature, the human spirit and the mystery of being. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive and can actually be mutually supportive:

Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again [meaning returning to the true Christian narrative from which some have wandered].

With talk in Europe and the United States about austerity and debt and budget crises, Robinson’s discussion in “Austerity as Ideology” couldn’t be more relevant. Money and wealth and corruption, faith and compassion and what wealth should be used for – general human well-being and not personal consumption and power.

“When I Was a Child” is another essay that seemed to be written to draw attention to the current presidential election. Robinson discusses the American ideal of individualism. Listening to the speechifying at the Republican and Democratic conventions these past two weeks one can see a marked difference between the two parties. The Republicans were all about the “I” and the Democrats were all about the “we.” Robinson discusses the damage taking individualism to the extreme can do and remarks that when it comes down to it, “there is no inevitable conflict between individualism as an ideal and a very positive interest in the good society.”

Other essays of particular interest for me were “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” which discussed the Old and New Testaments, “Wondrous Love,” about God’s love for the world and what God’s love teaches us about how we should love one another, and “Cosmology.” In “Cosmology” Robinson wonders, “What are we, after all, we human beings?”

I very much enjoyed these essays and could reread them a good many times before all the salient points begin to really sink in. They are not light and sparkling affairs tripping along and flashing their insights here and there. Rather, they are deep, still pools that ask to be contemplated with an open mind and an open heart. The title of the book is deceptive. While Robinson mentions books on numerous occasions, the essays are not about books nor, though personal, are they memoir. They are about big ideas that affect us all both on an abstract and personal level. If you decide to read When I Was a Child I Read Books, be prepared to work and think. You will be rewarded for the effort.

Filed under: Books, Essays, Nonfiction, Reviews Tagged: Marilynne Robinson
Books  Essays  Nonfiction  Reviews  Marilynne_Robinson  GR-starred  from google
september 2012 by lacurieuse
Why I Love Marilynne Robinson : The New Yorker
"'On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.'
"Robinson discusses her conviction that the capacity to make imaginative connections with other people, familiar and foreign, is the basis of community"
mark_o'connell  newyorker  marilynne_robinson  writer  author  book  writing  style  eloquence  religion  christianity  novel  2012  2010s  gilead  morality  imagination  fiction  community  review  21st_century 
september 2012 by cluebucket
What My Books Mean to Me
Over the years I have collected so many books that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life.

Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community” in When I Was a Child I Read Books

I can’t say that I have ever thought deeply about why I keep acquiring books even though, like Robinson, I probably have more than I will manage to read especially since I keep borrowing books from the library too. Should the quantity of my books ever be mentioned, I generally make a flippant remark like, “they are my retirement savings.” Around the book blog world we like to gleefully call it an addiction we have no control over; we love books, we just can’t help ourselves.

Since earlier in the week when I first posted this quote I’ve been pondering off and on about what all my books mean to me. And when I type that out it sounds like a horrible high school essay title of the “What Happiness/Success/Love/etc, Means to Me.” I shall carry on nonetheless and you can all laugh at me if you so choose.

Not until I moved to Minnesota in 1994 did my book acquisitions begin to really take off. This is not to say that I never bought books, I did, but I was always limited by money or space, having only a bedroom in my parents’ house, a dorm room, or a small apartment and funds coming mostly from birthday and Christmas and whatever I could manage to scrimp and save. Moving to Minnesota meant a lower cost of living and the ability to save and it wasn’t long before Bookman and I bought a townhouse. Freed from the constraints of a one-bedroom apartment we started buying more books. It also helped that Bookman began working at Barnes and Noble. We moved into our current house about 13 years ago and have no intention of moving anytime soon. We have so far always managed to find more room for our growing number of books.

But do all those books mean anything? The thought of not having any books scares me. Each time in my life I’ve had to pack up all my books because I was moving I would become distinctly unhappy, short-tempered, very stressed. Upon moving into a new place, the first thing that got unpacked were the books and I’d immediately feel better, I was home. Which would mean that books must represent a sense of home and stability, comfort and safety for me. As long as I have books, everything will be alright.

At the same time that books mean home, my books also represent freedom and escape. Open a book and the every day world melts away. I can travel around the world, to the past and future, even into deepest space. And, I let go of myself and become someone else, an elf or a scientist, a horse or a Victorian lady, a boy or a villain. I was going to say all from the safety of my sofa, but while the sofa is safe, the reading is not. Like Jeanette Winterson, I believe that reading is dangerous because when I come back from my book-travels, I might see my world differently.

I used to believe that my books represented who I am and who I want to be, but I don’t believe that so much anymore. The books I have read and want to read don’t really tell you anything about me other than my reading tastes. Sure there are certain things you could figure out, I’m a feminist, a vegan, a gardener, etc, but that doesn’t tell you anything more than the broadest things. Yes, there are certain books I own that I am very attached to, that I have instilled with emotion and memories, but those books don’t tell you anything more about me other than I really like them. I think being able to let go of the idea that books reflect who I am has allowed me to read even more widely, to take more chances in my reading choices and to enjoy what I read even more because I’m not tied up with what the books say about me.

I do fully intend to read every book I buy eventually and here is probably where a bit of magical thinking enters the equation. Because I own so many books I have not read yet I can’t possibly die until I at least read most of them, right? The knowledge of all the unreads will keep me going. They are hope and optimism on a shelf.

And that, my friends, is what my books mean to me. Ask me again in ten years and they may have evolved a different meaning. But for now, this will do.

How about you? What do your books mean to you?

Filed under: Books, Reading Tagged: Marilynne Robinson
Books  Reading  Marilynne_Robinson  from google
june 2012 by lacurieuse
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson – review | Books | The Observer
Robinson teaches creative writing in Iowa City. She was raised a Presbyterian, became a Congregationalist and is a great defender of Calvinism (as in her previous essay collection The Death of Adam). In all her writing, her unrushed relationship with time – and to the past – is crucial (and I don't mean the 24-year gap between her first and second novels). This book is scholarly closework, as painstaking as a Victorian sampler but more subtle. She is determined never to undervalue or oversimplify. There is a sense that to be meditative is a necessary part of being alive. She is especially clear on the absurdity of seeing religion and science as adversarial. She urges fearful believers to "subscribe to Scientific American for a year" to extend their wonder at God's grandeur.
Marilynne_Robinson  When_I_Was_a_Child  Book  Review  2012  Religion  Kate_Kellaway 
march 2012 by caliban

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