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review: essays

Author Marilynne Robinson at home in Astoria, New York.

A reader comes to a collection of essays to explore the contours of its creator's mind. The very best essays, though their sentences are burnished bright, retain a hint of the fight to write them, an urgency that arises from the struggle against the writer's own limits and assumptions.

In her new collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson calls this kind of exploration "an archeology of [her]own thinking," and the metaphor is characteristically just: Hers is a careful, measured, patient excavation that acknowledges – even glories in – the dirt and obscurity that attends the act of digging up something meaningful. She, who is so marvellously eloquent, is suspicious of her own opinions and language, and fights to retain space for all that is mysterious, immense or unnamed.

When I Was a Child I Read Books is Robinson's seventh book, her fourth of non-fiction. Those who are familiar with her previous books, including the classic novel Housekeeping and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Gilead, will recognize what a privilege it is to be invited to stay for a time in the author's wondrous brain, with its intricate web of literary and historical reference and warm-hearted faith in humankind. Here, as in her previous work, are her familiar fascinations, played like musical themes: John Calvin, community, loneliness, the West, Moses, books, language, God.

Though the essays' topics differ, the book's foundation is a recurring argument for greater generosity. Robinson's defence of the Old Testament against those who assume that the text is cruel, The Fate of Ideas: Moses, shows the great kindness toward the vulnerable in biblical law, and contrasts it to devastating effect against small-hearted current thought.

She discusses Edgar Allan Poe's prescient vision of the origins of the universe in her essay Cosmology, to puncture scientific certainty, neo-Darwinism, the small-bore vision of those who chalk up human motives to the mistaken belief that we are little more than primates. Poe was able to anticipate the findings of physics because he had the gift of a "human mind at its mystifying work, endlessly, sometimes brilliantly, fitting myth and reason to reality, testing them against reality, just for the pleasure of it."

Solely scientific viewpoints, Robinson argues, ignore the mysteries of the human soul. She writes, "The meteoric passage of humankind through cosmic history has left a brilliant trail. Call it history, call it culture. We came from somewhere and we are tending somewhere, and the spectacle is glorious and portentous. The study of our trajectory would yield insight into human nature, and into the nature of being itself."

Though Robinson can invoke a satellite's all-seeing view of history, and she is at home equally in Carthage or 17th-century Massachusetts, she is also a prescient and sharp-tongued critic of the contemporary world. Her Imagination and Community defends democracy, heterogeneity, liberal arts and the sense of community against people who see the United States through a pinched, tribal, utilitarian viewpoint. Her generosity here is that of the imagination: "Community," she says, "at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly." She reminds us what we forget at our peril, that "the great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another."

In the essay Wondrous Love, Robinson tells us that old American hymns "move [her]so deeply that [she has]difficulty even speaking about them." I read those words and experienced a sharp emotional echo; in truth, what Marilynne Robinson feels about hymns, I feel about Marilynne Robinson. I read When I Was a Child I Read Books slowly, not only because I was savouring the books' gorgeous language, but also because I had to ride out the swells of wonder that another human soul could express ideas as crystalline and beautiful as those in her book. Her intellectual landscape is so vast and gently peopled, her humanism so clear and overarching that, at times, she can render one wordlessly overcome.

Because Robinson is a ferocious defender of all that language cannot express, its ability "to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said," I suspect she would find this quiet and deeply felt response to be a welcome one.

Lauren Groff's most recent novel is Arcadia.

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