What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.
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We readers love our authors and when their books are truly great, we feel a kinship. That can be truly frustrating when authors simply won’t let you know them, like Marilynne Robinson does here. When I Was A Child I Read Books is a collection of essays that successfully strike a balance of scholarly depth and conversational approachability, and the conversation is rich. Lucky us.
I read this book as supplementary reading to Housekeeping and pounced on the passages that illumined her fiction. It felt a little like a cheat sheet and the guilty pleasure reminded me of dialing up Dr. Robinson at night to discuss Ruthie and Sylvie after dinner.
I had a Chinese student once who wrote movingly about a colony of exiles to the frontier of Mongolia who were treated as enemies of the people because they were mathematicians, or because they played the cello. This was done in the name of democracy. I hardly need to mention to this audience that if such standards had been applied at the time of the American Revolution, our democracy would have deprived itself of that whole remarkable circle we call the Founding Fathers, and your own Mr. Jefferson would have been the first to suffer denunciation.
The Constitution, to which appeal is made so often these days, could never have been written. We are profoundly indebted to the learnedness, in fact the intellectualism, of the Founders, and if we encouraged a real and rigorous intellectualism we might leave later generations more deeply indebted still. But the current of opinion is flowing in the opposite direction. We are in the process of disabling our most distinctive achievement—our educational system—in the name of making the country more like itself.
Odd as the notion might sound, it is well within the range of possibility.
To cite only one example, I have seen trinkets made from fragments of Ming vases that were systematically smashed by Mao’s Red Guard. If we let our universities die back to corporate laboratories and trade schools, we’ll have done something quieter and vastly more destructive.
The book, of course is much more than a commentary on Housekeeping. Marilynn Robinson is unmatched for her ability to take a clear eyed look at Christianity and humanism and find integrated roots in the common tree. She brings context to seismic geopolitical and socioeconomic current realities by forcing the noisy topics into a thoughtful, integrated conversation. She is a living testament to the value of a broad liberal arts education.