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When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays
Marilynne Robinson
Virago Press, 224pp, £16.99

Almost inadvertently, between essays on Moses and imagination and austerity, Marilynne Rob­inson reveals herself:

Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my windows, forgetting to call my mother because one of my non-beings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience.

She makes the distinction between "non-beings" - the fictional characters who populate her novels (there have only been three: Housekeeping, Gilead and Home) - and "witnesses", the authors of the books in her library. Judging by her references, they are a forbidding bunch - her beloved Calvin, Homer and Emerson, to name but a few. She writes about these long-dead, learned men as though they sit by her side, her closest friends in the world. Even her intellectual opponents in the collection, such as the improbably named Bishop Jack Spong, come alive as she wrestles with them on the page. The writers on her shelves, she says, are her "community". Reading them and writing about them are not merely her work but her whole life.

The essays here are, in essence, a continuation of Robinson's previous collection Absence of Mind and share the central preoccupation of almost all her work. She is defender-in-chief of the mysteries of humankind, of the unknowability and lonesome (a very Robinson word) beauty of the soul. Her enemies are many and varied - militant atheists, scientists who believe they have all the answers, a political system that sees everything in terms of economic value, a government that commits the arch-crimes of closing libraries and filleting universities.

As she addresses these adversaries, marshalling her evidence in rich, flowing paragraphs and circuitous sentences that she wryly concedes owe more to Cicero than Hemingway, you realise that her thoughts are not just the product of an engaged mind but of one that is entirely consumed by the state of her nation. She writes in "Austerity as Ideology" of the "sleepless nights" she endures when she "falls to wondering about the present state of my culture". The world of ideas is so real to Robinson that it drives her to insomnia.

In her depiction, the US has forgotten what it once was and what made it great. She observes that the idea of a public sector is now condemned by many Americans as "socialism", a stance at odds with the civic principles on which the country was founded and the many great works once performed by the state for its people. Echoing a sentiment of Rowan Williams, she decries the self-destructive obsession with economic growth: "Our wealth is finally neither more nor less than human well-being."

Robinson has the wisdom of someone who knows history and knows that countries rise and fall but she runs the risk of tipping into golden-ageism, especially when she reminisces about her childhood, when the US was apparently a kinder, more soulful place. Luckily, she also has a sense of humour. In the title essay - a moving piece of memoir - she describes how her favourite books as a child were "old and thick and hard" and she liked to make vocabulary lists. "Surprising as it may seem," she adds, "I had friends."

The light relief is welcome in arguments that are burdened at times by their high style and religious obfuscation. You can't ignore the two Moses essays that are hard work for readers not easily engaged by formidable close reading of the Bible and a passionate defence of the Old Testament; and there are moments when Rob­inson's ardent faith (if not shared by the reader) is enraging: "My point is that lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said."

The irony is that though her faith infuses her work, Robinson often says essential things without reference to religion at all. Her chief love and guiding question is humanity. As she asks in "Cosmology": "What are we, after all, we human beings?" The reason she can go on and on answering this question, and the reason it is worth reading every word, is that the answer remains elusive - this "great mystery of being" is, for her, a source of childlike wonder and no other writer in English can write wonder like she can.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible