Marilynne Robinson

When I Was a Child I Read Books

“I am vehemently grateful that, by whatever means, I learned to assume that loneliness should be in part pleasure, sensitizing and clarifying, and that is even a truer bond among people than any kind of proximity.”

Marilynne Robinson (born November 26, 1943), Pulitzer Prize winning author of Gilead, draws from her centers of consciousness including literature, Christianity, and civic-mindedness, to etch a meaningful elegy for the vulnerable state of community and democracy in America.

From her lifetime reading American literature and history (thus the title), Robinson builds the case for a community, the importance of language, and self-education on civic matters:

The old impulse that lay behind the dissemination of information and learning, the will to ensure that the public will be competent to make the weightiest decisions and to conform society to its best sense of the possible should be as powerful as it has ever been, and more powerful because of the fragility of the contemporary world. Instead, we have slack and under-financed journalism and the ebbing away of resources from our universities, libraries, and schools… This loyalty to democracy is the American value I fear we are gravely in danger of losing.

Published in 2012, When I Was a Child I Read Books anchors itself in Walt Whitman’s wisdom that “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.” Close-mindedness, an “us vs. them” mentality, and adoration of the cult of rationality are to blame:

We have entered into a period of rationalist purgation. Rationalism and reason are antonyms, the first fixed and incurious, the second open and inductive. Rationalism is forever settled on one model of reality; reason tends toward an appraising interest in things as they come.

Stars at US Embassy, photograph by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Marilynne Robinson's "When I Was a Child I read Books" in the Examined Life Library.
Sky through stars. U.S. Embassy, London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The connective tissue between learning, literature, and democracy occupies much of When I Was a Child, but there is a wonderful essay—”Imagination and Community”—that focuses on communion and connection and the positive benefits of isolation (“lonesomeness”) as it exists in the West, mythical and realized.

Robinson argues Western culture balances connectedness and a separateness (of the self-choosing, self-enforcing type) profoundly well, and they are often rooted in each other.

I am vehemently grateful that, by whatever means, I learned to assume that loneliness should be in part pleasure, sensitizing and clarifying, and that is even a truer bond among people than any kind of proximity.

"The Joy of Being Read To" by Singapore artist Marilyn Yee. Featured in Marilynne Robinson's "When I Was a Child I Read Books" in the Examined Life Library.
“The Wonder of Being Read To” by Marilyn Yee. The bonds formed in childhood between literature and our minds, families and peers forms a foundation for our connection as adults.

In forming this sense of connection and community—real and imagined—we form the link to the past and the means for the future. We also ensure our ability to carry and create profound wisdom along the way. (And we owe it to society to ensure that wisdom is not corrupted.)

We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself. We can and do make small and tedious lives as we sail through the cosmos on our uncannily lovely planet, and this is surely remarkable. But we do so much else besides. For example, we make language. A language is a grand collaboration.

Robinson is prescient to the current political climate in America but not overwhelmed by details nor looking to lay blame. She draws on reason to reflect equally deeply on herself and others. Her writing is a bit humorless but not self-indulgent. Her essays have the same otherworldliness as her fiction, someone speaking as if through memory or a distant perspective. Maybe it is her own long view, shaped through her guiding principles, that form this distance and her ability to deliver a measure of grace to all aspects of her writing.

Many writers and thinkers have long thought that a deeper connectedness to humanity occurs in solitude. From Emerson, who advised we should “look to the stars” should we feel lonely, to Rilke, who thought a “journey into self” was the ultimate way to connect.

For years I have been interested in ancient literature and religion. If they are not one and the same, certainly neither is imaginable without the other. Indeed, literature and religion seem to have come into being together, if by literature I can be understood to include pre-literature, narrative whose purpose is to put human life, causality, and meaning in relation, to make each of them in some degree intelligible in terms of the other two.

Additionally, there are many individuals like John Steinbeck, who sought that “bond of proximity” only to feel lost and disconnected when it didn’t take.

Marilynne Robinson © The Examined Life