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). She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

When I was a child I read books. My reading was not 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, and 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 what ever 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.”

In a way Housekeeping is meant as a sort of demonstration of the intellectual culture of my childhood. It was my intention to make only those allusions that would have been available to my narrator, Ruth, if she were me at her age, more or less. The classical allusions, Carthage sown with salt and the sowing of dragon’s teeth which sprouted into armed men, stories that Ruthie combines, were both in the Latin textbook we used at Coeur d’Alene High School. My brother David brought home the fact that God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. I never thought to ask him where he found it. Emily Dickinson and the Bible were blessedly unavoidable.

There are not many references in Housekeeping to sources other than these few, though it is a very allusive book, because the narrator deploys every resource she has to try to make the world comprehensible. What she knows, she uses, as she does her eyes and her hands. She appropriates the ruin of Carthage for the purposes of her own speculation. I thought the lore my teachers urged on me must have some such use.

Idaho society at that time at least seemed to lack the sense of social class which elsewhere makes culture a system of signs and passwords, more or less entirely without meaning except as it identifies groups and subgroups. I think it is indifference to these codes among Westerners that makes Easterners think they are without culture. These are relative differences, of course, and wherever accident grants a little reprieve from some human folly it must be assumed that time is running out and the immunity is about to disappear.

Excerpted from WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS, by Marilynne Robinson, published in March 2012 by Farrar,Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Marilynne Robinson. All rights reserved.
See Also:
Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist,” The Nation
A Common Faith,” Guernica