OVERRIDE

When I Was a Child I Read Books

Essays

Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Marilynne Robinson has built a sterling reputation as a writer of sharp, subtly moving prose, not only as a major American novelist, but also as a rigorous thinker and incisive essayist. In When I Was a Child I Read Books she returns to and expands upon the themes which have preoccupied her work with renewed vigor.

In “Austerity as Ideology,” she tackles the global debt crisis, and the charged political and social political climate in this country that makes finding a solution to our financial troubles so challenging. In “Open Thy Hand Wide” she searches out the deeply embedded role of generosity in Christian faith. And in “When I Was a Child,” one of her most personal essays to date, an account of her childhood in Idaho becomes an exploration of individualism and the myth of the American West. Clear-eyed and forceful as ever, Robinson demonstrates once again why she is regarded as one of our essential writers.

BOOK EXCERPTS

Read an Excerpt

Wondrous Love

I have reached the point in my life when I can see what has mattered, what has become a part of its substance—I might say a part of my substance. Some of these things are obvious, since they have been important to me in my career as a student and teacher. But some of them I could never have anticipated. The importance to me of elderly and old American hymns is certainly one example. They can move me so deeply that I have difficulty even speaking about them. The old ballad in the voice of Mary Magdalene, who “walked in the garden alone,” imagines her “tarrying”

READ THE FULL EXCERPT
BACK

REVIEWS

Praise for When I Was a Child I Read Books

Praise for When I Was a Child I Read Books:

“Brilliant . . . As the credo of a liberal Christian, Robinson’s new book of essays stands on its own. But it is also an illuminating commentary on her novels . . . This collection is a rewarding reminder that the author’s faith infuses every word she writes . . . Like every good preacher, Marilynne Robinson judges others while including herself—in theory at least—in the judgment.” —Andrew Delbanco, New York Times Book Review

“With her newest book of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson affirms that my deep admiration and respect for her are well-placed. ‘Every great question is very old,’ she writes, and here, as has been the case throughout her career as a writer, the great questions concern her most. Robinson displays an exceptional gift for deciphering the zeitgeist and offering generous counsel . . . Not only is her book wise; it is full to the brim with clear, resonant, melodic prose. These essays do two things very well. First, they provide a clear, largely unflattering diagnosis of America . . . Second, her essays affirm the extraordinary meaningfulness of words . . . She wants to dig deeply into our minds, examine the history and biases that underlie our assumptions, and re-animate our consciousness . . . Every measured sentence in this book serves as a bracing antidote to the thoughtless bobble-headed chorus of consumerism, the bellicosity of atheistic scientism, and the monotonous, disorienting mantras of the economists. Robinson uses her extraordinary gifts as a thinker and writer to offer a close-up look at what our world is and how we got here, and she very deliberately complicates our assumptions . . . Robinson seeks to waken rather than enchant, and her deliberate complications shatter the simplistic, polarizing rhetoric that plays fast and loose with truth as it fumbles for sound-bite clarity . . . When I Was A Child doesn’t offer much for the earnest optimist, eager to change the world. But it thunders with love, compassion, difficult hope and extraordinary wisdom.” —Kurt Armstrong, Paste Magazine

“The Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist returns with a collection of essays that are variously literary, political and religious . . . Robinson is a splendid writer, no question—erudite, often wise and slyly humorous (there is a clever allusion to the birther nonsense in a passage about Noah Webster). Articulate and learned descriptions and defenses of the author's Christian faith.” —Kirkus

“Author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gilead, Robinson weighs in with a series of tightly developed essays, some personal but mostly more general, on the Big Themes: social fragmentation in modern America, human frailty, faith. Her project is a hard-edged liberalism, sustained by a Calvinist ethic of generosity . . . In these times of the ever-ascending religious right, in the aftermath of what she sees as the ideologically secularist-driven cold war, Robinson bravely explores the corrosive potion of ‘Christian anti-Judaism’ and what it really ought to mean to be ‘a Christian nation.’”—Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

“There is more food for thought in one of Robinson’s well-turned paragraphs than in entire books. Esteemed for her award-winning novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), Robinson is a consummate and clarion essayist. In her third and most resounding collection, she addresses our toxic culture of diminishment, arguing that as our view of society shrinks, public discourse coarsens, corruption spreads, education is undermined, science denigrated, spirituality and loving kindness are siphoned from religion, and democracy itself is imperiled . . . Intellectually sophisticated, beautifully reasoned with gravitas and grace, Robinson’s call to reclaim humaneness beams like the sun breaking through smothering clouds . . . The great success of Robinson’s novels will ensure interest in her brilliant reflections on the most urgent questions of our lives.” —Booklist (starred review)

“The indomitable Marilynne Robinson radiates genius in her collection of essays.” —Vanity Fair

“[When I Was a Child I Read Books] is the equivalent of an uncommon library ticket, an admission to the subjects that most obsess her: the frail human enterprise, faith and its absence, mysteries that elude language. . . 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 . . . Robinson is adept at studying the small print and reading between the lines but she never forgets to look up at the stars.” —Kate Kellaway, The Guardian

When I Was a Child, by far Robinson's most political work to date, turns her old questions to the problems now directly confronting us. The book is a defense of what she considers the grand traditions of American democracy—generosity, hope, and a radical openness to new experience—waged against a society that seems to believe itself in irreversible decline . . . Robinson’s great virtue as an essayist is her ability to combine a deep knowledge of this country’s literary, intellectual, and religious canon with a demotic, impassioned tone that is American in the highest sense . . . Robinson is a representative of the grand tradition of liberal Protestantism, still carrying the flame for the likes of Jonathan Edwards and Paul Tillich . . . For those who prefer their liberal American dream in the language of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, Robinson has, for the past three decades, been the standard-bearer.” —Charles Petersen, Bookforum

“The greatest pleasures of this book are its provocations, which are inseparable from its prose. Ms. Robinson channels the cadences of Emerson and Whitman and says that she owes the stately shape of her sentences to her school-days reading of Cicero. ‘I seem to know by intuition a great deal that I cannot find words for,’ she writes, ‘and to enlarge the field of my intuition every time I fail to find these words.’ On the evidence of language itself, she marvels at the capacity of human perception. She describes the wonder expressed by a group of French students about the number of English words that describe light—glimmer, glitter, glisten, glean, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine—which testify to a human need for distinctions beyond the bare essentials. Words like ‘grace,’ ‘soul’ and ‘miracle,’ she suggests, speak to registers of experience that even the most secular among us are reluctant to relinquish. When I Was a Child I Read Books may seem like a book addressed to Christians—some of the essays have the whiff of the pulpit—but Ms. Robinson’s church is exceptionally broad. Her essays are psalms to an indivisible America.” —Thomas Meaney, The Wall Street Journal

“At her best she’s a wise, droll and incisive essayist. These pieces concern faith, education, family, writing and reading, and . . . they’re enlightening and a pleasure to read . . . Some of the most effective and immediate essays in the collection deal with Robinson’s decision to become a writer and how she approaches her craft . . . These pages will be of great interest to her many devoted readers and would-be novelists alike.” —Kevin Canfield, The Kansas City Star

“It’s never been easy to categorize Marilynne Robinson, whose new collection of essays . . . is no exception. Each of the pieces gathered here practices what Robinson preaches, combating the lazy habit of using ‘a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe’ . . . she works to free her readers from the ‘tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind,’ in which we ‘try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell’ . . . When we are alone, Robinson suggests, we’re best positioned for a ‘meditative, free appreciation of whatever comes under one’s eye’—including other people, who we’re otherwise apt to misread. As this collection makes clear, Robinson’s own eyes read widely—and well.” —Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Robinson’s penchant for complex sentences and lofty subjects mirrors the thoughtfulness of what she wants to say. And while she may be an old-fashioned stylist, she is also a progressive thinker who yokes rigorous scholarship with profound attention to her subjects . . . Her new essay collection, ‘When I Was a Child I Read Books,’ may best be served with a straight-back chair and a mug of piping-hot black coffee. But I say, strap yourself in. Robinson’s words, girded by a scholar’s seat and a stimulant, will sharpen you up . . . Having read these essays, I have a better understanding of the sort of mind that could create ‘Gilead,’ a novel of quiet grace, and ‘Housekeeping,’ a book so beautiful and other-worldy that at times it threatens to float away altogether.” —Maggie Galehouse, The Houston Chronicle

“The latest turn in Robinson’s thinking is toward politics, specifically her strong intuition of political crisis in America. She’s talked politics before, but it’s never been quite this intense or urgent . . . Besides the essays’ tone, which is consistently heartfelt, moving from grave (‘We do not deal with one another as soul to soul.’) to joyful (‘I love the writers of my thousand books.’), her political concerns give the book a kind of informal unity . . . She includes almost zero references to TV, movies, Facebook, celebs, or anything to do with pop culture. Her lonesome distance from the mainstream is eccentric, but it’s also what gives her essays their strange power to diagnose America’s discontents. It’s a perspective that’s simultaneously alienated and engaged, public and personal . . . if any of her thought somehow seeped out into America I think we’d be much better off for it.” —Alex Engebretson, The Millions

“It is difficult not to quote Ms. Robinson at length, so finely calibrated are her sentences. Here, it’s a tonic to see a rhetoric of such righteous anger turned, for once, against those who believe it is virtuous to attempt to deprive their fellow citizens of aid and succor . . . these essays represent what Robinson calls ‘an archaeology of my own thinking, mainly to attempt an escape from assumptions that would embarrass me if I understood their origins.’ This is what education is for, and this book is a tool for those who would be archaeologists of their own thinking. Even when one disagrees with her, Ms. Robinson is always worth reading because she is as gifted a stylist as the English language has at present. Sentence after sentence demands to be reread for the pleasure the mind takes in well-made things . . . Anyone who has read Housekeeping (1980) or Gilead (2006) knows that she is a great novelist. It’s time to recognize that Ms. Robinson is also a thinker of the first order, one of the finest we have ever had.” —Michael Robbins, The New York Observer

“In an age when such American politicians as Michele Bachman display an astounding ignorance of the history of her own country . . . Robinson’s essay collection [is] a valuable contribution to public discourse in the United States.” —Philip Marchand, The National Post

“Robinson’s country is at a political and moral crossroads, so she wants to remind her readers of its history, what it stood for and how far away it has moved from its founding principles . . . Her rhetoric is of the gentle, thoughtful kind that nevertheless hides a rapier, which she unleashes just when she needs it. Mary Wollstonecraft was once insultingly called a ‘hyena in petticoats’ by a man who felt threatened by her intellect. Like Wollstonecraft, Robinson’s intellect, too, is threatening. And if it can threaten us into action, is all the greater for that.” —Lesley McDowell, The Independent

When I Was a Child is a broadside defense of literature and classical liberalism that demands we include the unfashionable Old Testament as a foundation of both. Through rigorous citation and deep personal reflection, Robinson builds an excellent case . . . Over the book’s 10 essays, Robinson systematically marshals text-based evidence that upends popular beliefs about faith, America and their uneasy commingling—all themes explored in her novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home as well . . . When I Was a Child feels progressive in its belief that humanity has written stories that hold their virtue over millenniums. And her commitment to those texts is ultimately humble before all that we don’t know.” —August Brown, Los Angeles Times

“Robinson offers her essays in the face of this confusion, as ‘night thoughts of a baffled humanist’ . . . She aims to defend both religion and humanism from their not-quite-so cultured despisers, many of whom may be found self-identifying as ‘religious’ or as ‘humanists.’ . . . Robinson takes aim . . . at those who would diminish the human person . . . Whatever else these new essays are—and they are many wonderful and interesting things—they are Robinson’s determination not to diminish mystery, not to make foolishness of the world or the human person by forcing theories to limit our wonder at God, the human brain and mind, the cosmos. The essays are tonic for our adoration-starved religious and scientific cultures, bracing in their critique and hope-giving in the alternative way of seeing that they open up for us.” —Wesley Hill, Books & Culture

“This is a rare writer about America and one it seems to me we need. Desperately. Whether writing about Jefferson or Johann Friederich Oberlin or ‘the dark gorgeousness’ of the mind of Edgar Allan Poe, Robinson is a self-described ‘humanist’ who says ‘the presence of human consciousness is a radical qualitative change in the natural order’ . . . Her imagination of other lives, in these essays, defines an imperiled democracy to which, she says, we need to remain loyal . . . One of the year’s stealthy great books.” —Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

“[Robinson] questions accepted opinion and helps us think through its implications and its reasonableness . . . Be ready to have certain assumptions challenged and to think through important issues while enjoying a master of prose.” —Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle

“Most striking of all is Robinson’s mental work ethic. She seems to be incapable of a lazy conclusion . . . Robinson’s great strengths [are] independence and eccentricity . . . Robinson, though some of her views are well known, is never predictable, for her discipline is to look at every question as though she were considering it for the first time. It is impossible not to be fortified and enlarged by a few hundred pages in her company.” —Stefan Beck, The Barnes and Noble Review

“A provocative—and deceptive—plainness is a constant feature of Robinson’s work, which asks us to accept the hidden richness of the mundane . . . [When I Was a Child I Read Books is] the fascinating expression of a rooted and contrary mind.” —John Broening, The Denver Post

“In a climate increasingly averse to compassion and unappreciative of curiosity, Robinson has published When I Was a Child I Read Books, a glimmering, provocative collection of essays, each a rhetorically brilliant, deeply felt exploration of education, culture, and politics . . . When I Was a Child is a brutally, beautifully intelligent jeremiad on the cynical state of American culture and politics, but Robinson is rare today in that she uses the language of faith to advance the most cultivated humanistic values all in an attempt to defend what she sees as an imperiled American greatness . . . When I Was a Child strives to burn off the blather and tame the wolfishness that currently bedevils our society.” —Michael Washburn, Boston Globe

“These rich, uncompromising essays are not for everyone but—to make a Robinson-like distinction of my own—their rewards should be for anyone, of any faith, who cares to dive deeply into a distant world.” —Emily Stokes, Financial Times

“What this collection does contain in abundance, though, are intelligent discourses on contemporary intellectual culture . . . Robinson . . .  illuminates the cobwebbed corners of her mind. The effort required to relish the collected works presented here will be worth it.” —Noori Passela, The National

“If there is any fear that the fast-moving world of the Internet and the iPhone has destroyed our powers of concentration, or our ability to think lucidly and beautifully, or to create surprising and powerful designs from philosophical concerns, that fear will be put to rest by Marilynne Robinson’s new book of elegant essays . . . Robinson’s voice is thoughtful and intimate, but she does some thundering, too, on ancient, complex and important subjects . . . Her ideas are unconventional, and she sees the world in surprising ways . . . Taut, eloquent and often acerbically funny, these essays present a formidable response to slack scholarship, an indignant refutation of the policies of punitive frugality toward the poor and a challenge to anyone who denies the power, mystery and significance of the human soul. Robinson’s language is elegant and her reasoning precise, and reading these essays is like taking a draught of water from a cold spring. They offer us something rewarding, deeply essential and long-sought, even if we only realize it now.” —Roxana Robinson, The Washington Post

“For Robinson, human beings—and especially, readers—must collectively imagine humanity, because imagination creates moral communities. It is through language—silent, personal, and solitary experiences of language — that we engage in an ‘amazing human conversation,’ one that delivers us to ‘place[s] across millennia, through weal and woe.’ . . . [An] illuminating collection . . . What . . . ring[s] true in When I Was a Child are the intimate notes . . . In the title essay, Robinson writes lovingly about her childhood encounter with solitude that attuned her to mystery. It is this repeated emphasis on mystery that most differentiates this set of essays. ‘When I see a man or a woman alone,’ writes Robinson, ‘he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.’ Robinson's religious faith is learned and self-reflective, rooted in a lonesomeness that ‘allows one to experience . . . radical singularity, one's greatest dignity and privilege.’ Robinson’s form of religious faith requires relentless introspection and loneliness. It’s a faith that rejects easy platitudes and easy answers.” —Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu, The Los Angeles Review of Books

“Whether writing fiction or nonfiction . . . Robinson displays a compelling blend of intensity and austerity . . . In some of the  . . . best moments [in When I Was a Child I Read Books], Robinson describes her life as a reader, with ‘my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience.’ She expresses gratitude for the books which have ‘taught me most of what I know....and trained my attention and my imagination.’ And in the title essay, she recalls herself as a ‘bookish child in the far West.’” —Carmela Ciuraru, Biographile

“Readers . . . have come to expect a blend of acute observation, deep learning, courageous assertion and compelling prose. Happily, Robinson’s new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, provides readers with all of this and more: a rare combination of wisdom and beauty that transforms our vision of our current cultural moment . . . Robinson’s book urges Americans to stop our herding and our name-calling, to refuse to engage in wolfishness and blather and to nurture the radical power of the individual self through the agency of the word—in short, to drop everything and read.” —Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, America

 

Praise for Home

“The language of Home ... enables [Robinson] to render relationships with a new depth. As the characters circle one another, the story moves from moment to moment of direct, gathered feeling . . . [Robinson] rules her fictional domain with absolute authority. Of the soul, and its wanderings, and its struggles to find a way home, she is a modern master.” —William Deresiewicz, The Nation

“[Home] is a stunning novel, meditative and compelling, incantatory, breathtaking and ultimately devastating. Who knew that novels could still be like this?” —Nicola Barr, The Guardian

Praise for Gilead

“At a moment in cultural history dominated by the shallow, the superficial, the quick fix, Marilynne Robinson is a miraculous anomaly: a writer who thoughtfully, carefully, and tenaciously explores some of the deepest questions confronting the human species . . .  Poignant, absorbing, lyrical . . . Robinson manages to convey the miracle of existence itself.” —Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“So serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Praise for The Death of Adam

“One of Robinson's great merits as an essayist is her refusal to take her opinions secondhand. Her book is a goad to renewed curiosity.” —Roger Kimball, New York Times Book Review

“Robinson's thinking is all in the service of humanity's survival, spiritually and environmentally.” —Charles Baxter

In the Press

Guernica / A Common Faith
'Marilynne Robinson looks to the stars for clues about our nature. By Marilynne Robinson'
- Guernica Magazine
Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist | The Nation
Punitive yet salvific, austerity is the ideology of a country that has turned against its own culture.
- The Nation
Work in Progress » Blog Archive » Marilynne Robinson: When I Was a Child I Read Books
Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Housekeeping (FSG, 1981), Gilead (FSG, 2004), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Home (FSG, 2008), and three books of nonfiction, Mother Country (FSG, 1989), The Death of Adam (1998) and Absence of Mind (2010).
- FSG's Work in Progress
BACK

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Marilynne Robinson

  • Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Housekeeping (FSG, 1981), Gilead (FSG, 2004), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Home (FSG, 2008), and three books of nonfiction, Mother Country (FSG, 1989), The Death of Adam (1998) and Absence of Mind (2010). She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

  • Marilynne Robinson Kelly Ruth Winter
    Marilynne Robinson
BACK

BUY THE BOOK

Available Formats and Book Details

When I Was a Child I Read Books

Essays

Marilynne Robinson

New York Magazine Best Books of the Year, The Economist Magazine Books of the Year
BACK

FROM THE PUBLISHER

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

BACK