Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays is entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books. Here’s the opening of the title essay:
When I was a child I read books. My reading was indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and hard. I made vocabulary lists.
Surprising as it may seem, I had friends, some of whom read more than I did. I knew a good deal about Constantinople and the Cromwell revolution and chivalry. There was little here that was relevant to my experience, but the shelves of northern Idaho groaned with just the sort of old dull books I craved, so I cannot have been alone in these enthusiasms.
Relevance was precisely not an issue for me. I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture, and beyond that the world where I was I found entirely sufficient.
It may seem strange to begin a talk about the West in terms of old books that had nothing Western about them, of naive fabrications of stodgily fantastical, authoritative worlds, which answered only to my own forming notions of meaning and importance. But I think it was in fact peculiarly Western to feel no tie of particularity to any single past or history, to experience that much underrated thing called deracination, the meditative, free appreciation of whatever comes under one’s eye, without any need to make such tedious judgments as “mine” and “not mine.”
I went to college in New England and I have lived in Massachusetts for twenty years, and I find that the hardest work in the world — it may in fact be impossible — is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling. On learning that I am from Idaho, people have not infrequently asked, “Then how were you able to write a book?”
Once or twice, when I felt cynical or lazy, I have replied, “I went to Brown,” thinking that might appease them — only to be asked, “How did you manage to get into Brown?” One woman, on learning of my origins, said, “But there has to be talent in the family somewhere.” (85-86)
A great blessing of literature is discovering something of one’s own life in the text of another. Amazon will tell you that Kindle puts the world within reach of your mouse. Problem is, your mouse needs to know where to sniff. When I was a child, the Hardy Boys led me to the Tom Swift, Boy Inventor series, but only because they occupied adjacent shelves in my hometown Kansas library. That’s certainly the only excuse I can muster for taking on the Cherry Ames nurse series. (I remember looking up seersucker in the dictionary and still not understanding what sort of nursing uniform Cherry wore in the tropics.) And I list some of the series, because I no longer remember individual titles, books the sheer serendipity of shelf display delivered to me. In Richard Ford’s new novel Canada, a family is on the run from the police. The mother tells her young son Dell, the narrator, “Put what you’re taking in this.” She hands him a pillow case.
“I put my balsa-wood box of chess men, my Chess Master magazine, my Chess Fundamentals, and my Bee Sense book I’d checked out of the library and meant to return. I put in two volumes of the World Book — the “E” and the “M,” which were thick ones and held more information. I put in a pair of socks, Jockey underpants, a T-shirt, and nothing else, since my father said we’d be back” (148). I’ve never packed for flight from the police, but I do remember taking naps on hot summer days with World Book volumes.
I once heard a rather mediocre cognitive psychologist say that he didn’t need to believe in God, because the magnitude of the universe, the intricacies of the sub-atomic world, and the steady marvels of scientific advance provided him with a lifetimes’ worth of wonder. I reckon so, but more astounding for me than genetic sequencing, string theory, or the newly exposed Higgs boson — the particle that imbues elementary particles with mass — is the infinite depth of meaning that humans have managed to birth into language. Our human world never stops growing. What dusty volume, on a library shelf in Idaho, made Marilynne Robinson a writer? Of course the wonderment is that no single book could claim the credit; it’s the incalculable combination of them. One can understand why the prophet Ezekiel would explain his life by simply writing, “the spirit entered me and set me on my feet” (2:2).
What nettles me in reading popularizes of science is their rather sad little goal of one day explaining the entire world. The drive to know is a perfect expression of the human spirit. It’s the end I find poorly conceived. Once you’ve defined reality itself as a closed mechanism, how excited do you expect the human spirit to become by the discovery of one more cog in the machine? What I love about the humanities is knowing that the world itself expands enchanted with every new play, every novel, every painting.
Perhaps this is one way to understand the sense of the word “God”: the infinite swell of meaning and intelligence upon which our humanity surfs. We read biographies, thinking we’ll discover the moment when someone like Churchill became himself. But to produce Shakespeare you would have to reproduce every page, every person, every encounter with meaning that he experienced, and, even though that list wouldn’t be endless, the recombinant variables of his life would be. To love history and the humanities is ever to ask, with the hometown folk of Nazareth, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!” (Mk 6:2)
The world and God have this in common. If the world can be circumscribed and explained — granted, not today but on some fulsome future day — then truly there is no God, because there is no such thing as infinity, real infinity. And humanity isn’t transcendent, because there’s no such thing as transcendence, no unlimited fecundity. There are only dark, enclosed regions to explicate and later download.
God might not be needed to explain the origin of the world, but God is surely required to decipher its destiny. We live in a world that rightly reveres science, but it is also a world that desperately needs to rediscover theology, because only the later can reverence what will happen when a little girl in Utah, reaches up to the top shelf in some library for her next good read.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein