This week the New York Review of Books published the first of a two-part conversation between President Barack Obama and Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson, in which Obama completely fanboys out on the author.
…And so we had this idea that why don’t I just have a conversation with somebody I really like and see how it turns out. And you were first in the queue, because—
Marilynne Robinson: Thank you very much.
The President: Well, as you know—I’ve told you this—I love your books. Some listeners may not have read your work before, which is good, because hopefully they’ll go out and buy your books after this conversation.
In the discussion, which took place in Iowa in September, Obama talks literature and Robinson talks politics and they both talk faith and the whole thing is very cool. It makes you wish the primary debates would pose the question of which author the 2016 candidates would most want to sit down with and fawn over.
Read the full conversation here.
Robinson has a new book due out this month, which you can read more about here.
Foreground: Baby. Background: Books.
I became a parent in the Spring of 2014. Which is a wonderful thing, but it means that I spent my severely reduced reading time with books like The Happiest Baby on the Block Guide to Great Sleep (useful, but a pretty excruciating read); Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads (useful, and an enjoyable read); and The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree (still a classic).
I did manage to pull off one half-assed review about a book I hadn’t finished reading, but for the most part my 2014 was spent dreaming of all the cool looking books I had no time to enjoy. Needless to say, this has left me woefully underqualified to make any kinds of judgments, even subjective ones, about the Best Books of the last 12 months.
And yet, I remain undeterred — what is the end of a year without a list of things? And while I may not have a top 10, I’m sure I can come up with something that fits our habit of doing odd and unorthodox year-end lists.
So here is my list of
Top Ten Books [I had Time to Read] This Year. Continue reading
Marilynne Robinson is one of the few voices of true wisdom around today. She recently shared some thoughts on Christian fear, modern life and more with Religion News Service. You can read the full interview at Huffington Post, but here are some highlights…
On same-sex relationships:
“There has never been a period in world history where same-sex relationships were more routine and normal than in Hellenistic culture at the time of Christ. Does Jesus ever mention the issue? …if you choose to value one or two verses in Leviticus over the enormous, passionate calls for social justice that you find right through the Old Testament, that’s primitive.”
On “religious controversies”:
“I wish I could go to the Supreme Court every time I saw somebody trying to cut food stamps, or pre-K, or any of these other things. These people that are so attentive to babies that don’t exist yet, and so negligent of babies that need help. It’s part of the narrowing of the culture, so that only certain things are considered to be religious controversies. It’s a religious controversy, to me, that we would think of cutting back on help for the poor.”
I have tried to avoid talking about Marilynne Robinson’s Christianity, but it’s not going to work. To do that would be to pretend that her faith is not almost immediately encountered in When I Was a Child I Read Books — or her other books, for that matter — so acknowledging it is inevitable. Marilynne Robinson is a Christian. She is also a writer, and may perhaps be a “Christian Writer,” whatever that means. But rest assured that she is not pictured smiling and looking dynamic on her dust jackets, and her writing bears no resemblance to thinly veiled self-help. Like the Bible, her work offers no assurances that Jesus wants you to be rich, quick or otherwise.
Some readers may be more comfortable with the title of Theologian, but Robinson is not exactly that either. While she mentions Christianity early and often, her essays are not focused on that single subject, and When I Was a Child is not exclusively or explicitly a Christian book. Her faith is more akin to armor than insulation, equipping her for taking on issues like economics, history, education and democracy. Much like Reinhold Niebuhr, her nearest predecessor in a line that traces back to Whitman and Emerson, Robinson is deeply fascinated with the nature and destiny of human kind, and what we tell ourselves about those things at our moment in history. I worry about calling her a Christian writer out of a reasonable fear that readers will hear it and deny themselves this thoughtful, exceptional, and important book.
FOR THEIR CHRISTMAS DAY ISSUE, the New York Times Sunday Book Review is running an essay by Marilynne Robinson, author of “Gilead” and “Home,” about “What Literature Owes the Bible.”
You don’t need to be a particularly pious or especially bookish to see what Robinson sees in both the Good Book and good books:
There is a cosmic irony in the veil of insignificance that obscures the new and wonderful. Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them: aliens, the enslaved, people themselves utterly unaware that their lives would have consequence. The great assumption of literary realism is that ordinary lives are invested with a kind of significance that justifies, or requires, its endless iterations of the commonplace, including, of course, crimes and passions and defeats, however minor these might seem in the world’s eyes.
The “aliens, the enslaved, people themselves utterly unaware that their lives would have significance” are the heroes (and anti-heroes) from Salinger, Franzen, Kate Walbert, James Joyce, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan and of course Robinson, among others (not to mention Star Wars and Harry Potter). David Foster Wallace may not adhere strictly to literary realism, but few authors are more focused on the significance Jesus’ “the least of these.” More:
The great problem for Christianity is always the humility of the figure in whom God is said to have been incarnate, and the insistence of the tradition that God is present in the persons of the despised and rejected…In its emphatic insistence that the burden of meaning is shared in every life, the Bible may only give expression to a truth most of us know intuitively. But as a literary heritage or memory it has strengthened the deepest impulse of our literature, and our civilization.
Read “The Book of Books” by Marilynne Robinson.