Although When I Was a Child I Read Books demands rigorous thought, Marilynne Robinson's lovely clear prose and biting sense of humor help lighten the important ideas and keep the text moving. Like her other writing, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, this essay collection is concerned with theology, religious practice, and the health of modern American society.
In the preface, Robinson asks whether modern civilization is retreating from the grand idea of democracy. She asks, "What if the cynicism that is supposed to be rigor and the acquisitiveness that is supposed to be realism are making us forget the origins of the greatness we lay claim to-power and wealth as secondary consequences of the progress of freedom, or, as Whitman would prefer, Democracy?" These questions - why are we behaving like this? Why are we abandoning our ideals, our reverence for intelligence, and our tradition of believing in something bigger than ourselves? - frame the rest of the essays.
In "Freedom of Thought," Robinson dismantles the idea that science and religion struggle for the same piece of turf. She writes about early scientific endeavors and the modern tendency to see religion as a universal part of human nature that stifles rational thought. Her sharp wit often provides a chuckle in the middle of an important idea: "...a female rat is so gratified at having an infant rat come down the reward chute that she will do whatever is demanded of her until she has filled her cage with them. This seems to me to complicate the definition of self-interest considerably…"
"Imagination and Community" is primarily about education. Educators, she says, become a community with those who come to be educated. Never elitist about people (though sometimes ideas), she writes "...when we condescend, when we act consistently with a sense of the character of people in general which demeans them, we impoverish them and ourselves, and preclude our having a part in the creation of the highest wealth, the testimony to the mysterious beauty of life we all value in psalms and tragedies and epics and meditations, in short stories and novels."
The title essay, "When I Was a Child," praises the individualism associated with Western and American myth. Robinson describes the blessings of solitude and even lonesomeness, which can allow a person to experience "the sacred poetry in strangeness, silence, and otherness." She defends the idea of a hero who lives outside society, but says "there is no inevitable conflict between individualism as an ideal and very positive interest in the good of society."
In "The Human Spirit and the Good Society," Robinson suggests that philanthropy could be part of human nature rather than supposing that people are only generous when it's self-serving. She defends the idea that humans are exceptional and have the capacity to care for each other and create just and workable societies, based on old ideas (both religious and secular) that value humans and hold them to high ideals.
The expenditure of time and intellectual energy required by When I Was a Child I Read Books will ultimately make you feel good about being human, inspire you to build community, and allow the sacred to awe and engage you. It's a fascinating look at the quick and generous mind of one of our great novelists and essayists.