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Reading Robinson feels like sitting down for a conversation with one's most widely read and psychologically insightful friend, a person whose wit is surpassed only by the lucidity of her language.

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It is that same range and eloquence that makes When I Was a Child I Read Books move sporadically between being deeply insightful and irrefutably maddening, sometimes on the very same page. Much of what makes Robinson's nonfiction a challenge to digest can be understood in terms of its profound stylistic difference from her fiction. In her Pulitzer-winning novel Gilead, her character Reverend John Ames works out a limited number of themes--grace, forgiveness, fatherhood--with a slowness that reflects the s small-town Iowa that surrounds him.

Conversely, Robinson's pace is rapid in her topically broad nonfiction. As a result, the text can feel disjointed in its movements between stories and theories, and sometimes it seems as though the thesis has been left behind. Nevertheless, When I Was a Child does have a set of uniting concerns. One of these is Robinson's distaste for our tendency to interpret the past in the shadow of our deepest prejudices.

In the essay "Who Was Oberlin? By drawing from primary sources as though they are old friends, Robinson exposes Sharlet's misreading of the reformers Charles Finney and Jonathan Edwards, demonstrating how such mistakes guide his misdiagnosis of the conservative Christian political landscape.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson – review

It is a masterful essay, and one that displays Robinson's ability to reveal the hidden and destructive logic of the stories we tell ourselves. When I Was a Child also expands the thesis of Robinson's book Absence of Mind by continuing to differentiate scientism as a godless ideology from science as a tool to understand God's world in a way that healthily circumvents the typical science-religion babble.

These reformers, she notes, were extreme in nothing more than their hatred of chattel slavery. But are the Abolitionists really in need of Ms. Robinson's rescue? Perhaps no group of radicals finds more favor with Americans across the political spectrum. Abolitionists were strong champions of a free labor market but also advocated one of the greatest surges of state power in American history. The problem, however, is that the Abolitionist spirit often took rigid, dangerous and even inhumane forms. Robinson argues that the historical ties between evangelicalism and Abolitionism should increase our hope for the former's reformist potential.

Yet she glides over the possibility that the most analogous group to the Abolitionists today may well be violent fringe movements—such as anti-abortion terrorists—for whom politics and the law are impediments to ridding the world of evil.

Summary and reviews of When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

In another inconvenient irony, defenders of slavery were among the most vocal critics of crass Northern capitalism—the very sort of critique that Ms. Robinson wishes to revive in her earlier chapters on Calvin and Moses. The greatest pleasures of this book are its provocations, which are inseparable from its prose. 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.

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.


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Robinson's church is exceptionally broad. Her essays are psalms to an indivisible America. Meaney is a doctoral student in history at Columbia and a co-editor of the Utopian.


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  • All Rights Reserved. Many of our most secular citizens—and some French people—may enter the kingdom of heaven before tight-fisted Christians. Dow Jones, a News Corp company. News Corp is a network of leading companies in the worlds of diversified media, news, education, and information services.

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