Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What We're Reading: Essays

When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (Gilead 2004) and a teacher at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This book of essays may be the first time we have noted a book of essays in this blog. The essay is not an especially popular reading genre, and that’s unfortunate because it has communicative strengths that are particular to the form. An essay seems to be the best place to communicate opinion and ideas (as opposed to historical scholarship or factual exposition) and the best place to construct a polemical argument for a particular point of view. Essays are one of the most direct forms of communication, but curiously, they often achieve that directness through a discursive way of approaching their subject, a method that seems to emulate the process of thought itself. It is this constructed simulation of thought, our witness to an apparently extemporaneous unfolding of ideas and values, that causes us to read what the author has to say to us with an unusual sense of intimacy, and perhaps receptiveness. An essay seems to be one of the most selfless forms of communication, one prompted by a sincerity--and struggle--of the author to clearly express something that he or she feels a desperate need to say to us. It is a generous act of writing. The ideas presented in an essay spur us to intellectual thought, but the form also has a way of suggesting that the author’s views on the subject at hand are but a particular efflorescence of a more comprehensive and integrated world view, to remind us that the essay models as well a particular author’s way of obtaining knowledge, of processing experience, and of making meaning. That adumbration seems to raise the stakes for what is being said and to connect us on an emotional level as we reference our own habits of mind, beliefs and values, as we consider what the author has written.

The title of this book might suggest to some readers that it is a book about childhood reading, or the importance of books, and so it is important to make it clear that this is not the case. Robinson does discuss her childhood reading in one of the essays, but these essays are concerned primarily with the devaluation of religious tradition in our modern world, and more particularly with the permutations and misrepresentations of that tradition that have become pervasive and commonplace. She argues against the widely accepted view of the Old Testament God as vindictive and angry, and that the moral law of the Old Testament was harsh and uncharitable. She examines the Puritan and Calvinist traditions, looking at the writings of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards (wonderful English prose writing), and finds their notions of community and charity to be not only different from their present caricatures as harsh and unforgiving but more generous than our contemporary sense of justice and duty. Other essays look at the divisive war between religion and science that we take in these times as a matter of faith. She finds the easy dichotomy to be false and imaginatively confining for both. Robinson is concerned about the current notion of national “decline,” an idea that she believes has given rise to calls for austerity, an austerity she fears is being used to unburden us of our obligations of charity to those in need and our sense of commitment to community. These notions of troubled times and discounted aspirations she believes are causing us to doubt our own value and that of others, are diminishing our appreciation for the wonder and exceptional nature of human beings in the world.

Her point of view is what we generally characterize as “humanism,” and the relevance of the humanist tradition with its religious underpinnings is what she argues for so eloquently here. Readers will find in these essays an optimism that is bracing, a belief in the power of reason, and a determination to defend tradition against obfuscation and devaluation in order to allow a place for mystery and wonder in our lives. The generosity she advocates and the vision of community she describes has at its foundation the belief that “The significance of every human destiny is absolute and equal.” You don’t have to be a believer and you don’t have to be an atheist (nor one of the muddled masses between) to find these essays of a congenial interest, for they address in imaginative and important ways the feeling of our times. They are about the fundamental ideas that frame our hope or despair about the future, those thoughts we forever sift and knead in our tenuous pursuit of happiness.

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