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When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays Hardcover – March 13, 2012

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First read by millions worldwide in The New York Times. Gratitude brings together four essays written over the last two years of Sacks' life. Check out "Gratitude". | See more by Oliver Sacks
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* There is more food for thought in one of Robinson’s well-turned paragraphs than in entire books. Esteemed for her award-winning novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), Robinson is a consummate and clarion essayist. In her third and most resounding collection, she addresses our toxic culture of diminishment, arguing that as our view of society shrinks, public discourse coarsens, corruption spreads, education is undermined, science denigrated, spirituality and loving kindness are siphoned from religion, and democracy itself is imperiled. What has made America great, she reminds us, is our “heroic” focus on and investment in the public good. In the brilliantly corrective “Austerity as Ideology,” Robinson looks back to her Cold War childhood, during which America’s response to crisis was to ramp up our commitment to art and science. Now she fears that our obsession with “market economics” is putting us in danger of “losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization” as public schools, universities, libraries, and the free press come under siege. In “Imagination and Community,” Robinson lucidly and movingly explains how the imagination is the wellspring of healthy communities, and how profoundly reading enhances our capacity for sympathy. Intellectually sophisticated, beautifully reasoned with gravitas and grace, Robinson’s call to reclaim humaneness beams like the sun breaking through smothering clouds. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The great success of Robinson’s novels will ensure interest in her brilliant reflections on the most urgent questions of our lives. --Donna Seaman

From Bookforum

When I Was A Child I Read Books, is by far Robinson's most political work to date, and is a defense of what she considers the grand traditions of American democracy—generosity, hope, and radical openness to new experience—waged against a society that seems to believe itself in irreversible decline. Robinson's great virtue as an essayist is her ability to combine a deep knowledge of this country's literary, intellectual, and religious canon with a demotic, impassioned tone that is American in the highest sense. —Charles Petersen

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (March 13, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374298785
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374298784
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #141,614 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the bestselling novels "Lila," "Home" (winner of the Orange Prize), "Gilead" (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and "Housekeeping" (winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award).

She has also written four books of nonfiction, "When I Was a Child I Read Books," "Absence of Mind," "Mother Country" and "The Death of Adam." She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

She has been given honorary degrees from Brown University, the University of the South, Holy Cross, Notre Dame, Amherst, Skidmore, and Oxford University. She was also elected a fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

137 of 141 people found the following review helpful By las cosas on March 14, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This book consists of ten essays, mostly revolving around aspects of the Bible and Christianity. I would not have purchased the book had I known this, but found the essays deeply thought provoking. This is a book I will reread. The author is a thoughtful and believing Christian, and her understanding of what this means is the core belief from which she widely and deeply explores both the New and Old Testaments, and the nuance of language as understood by herself and others. There are entire sections of rigorous analysis when she sternly criticizes several recent Christian commentators of the Old Testament. And her sternest criticism is the lack of charity on the part of these critics, their willful blindness to the beauty of the language and unwillingness to read it on its own terms. Christians can reject, but not denounce, the Old Testament, which is not theirs to denounce. Show some respect, she insists.

And she shows enormous respect for both the New and Old Testament. There are close readings of various translations of the Bible, showing for example instances when charity is translated as love and reminding us of the incredible historic importance of making the Bible available in the local vernacular, a task which caused more than one translator to be killed by a jealous church.

Today in the western Christian world, and particularly in the United States to which the author largely addresses this book, words are a much devalued currency. Millions of words blabbing along daily, immediately replaced by another million. The result is an unavoidable cheapening of words, wherever we find them. The author uses a minimum of words in her essays. She is sparse, which in some cases results in an obliqueness.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Debnance at Readerbuzz on April 22, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I'll go ahead and say it: Marilynne Robinson is too smart for me. I can be a lazy reader, seeking the quick answer, the easy answer.

This is not a book for lazy readers. It is not a book for simple readers.

Robinson is thoughtful and compassionate and deep. She sees past the first obvious answer and the second obvious answer and offers explanations that are unexpected and which embrace all we bring to a book. She is spiritual without being dogmatic and she is kind without leaving truth behind.

A book I need to read again. More slowly next time.
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46 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Stephen T. Hopkins VINE VOICE on April 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I read each of the ten essays in Marilynne Robinson's collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, in a single sitting on separate days. I needed to engage my wits to follow her thorough and thoughtful arguments, and then needed a rest afterwards to absorb what I read. She must be the kind of teacher for whom alert students should schedule free time after her class for recovery. In many respects, she comes across as a writer's writer, with her careful choice of words and deliberative style. There may not be a better contemporary description of liberal Christianity and its sources and demands. Readers of her novels will gain insight from these essays and may consider re-reading the novels in light of the revelations from these essays. Any reader who appreciates fine writing and cogent reflection should consider reading the book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Ian Gordon Malcomson on November 5, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the better collection of essays I have read that tackles the metaphysical issues of life in such a personal and intelligent way that it caused me to take stock of my own failings as Christian. While this book is primarily addressed to Christian believers, much of what it seeks to teach us is meant for the greater good of humanity: charity, fairness, goodness, love and tradition. According to Robinson, a very accomplished writer of popular prose, we live in a world where values are often framed by ideological and institutional beliefs that go contrary to what God intended for us as his creation. I have never seen, in all my years of reading, studying and teaching, a writer powerfully tackle some of the cherished humanistic views the way Robinson does it with history, theology and philosophy on her side. For instance, classical language used to describe our dependency on social values, supernatural awareness, eternal truths and personal creativity has over the centuries given way to a political culture that uses words to claim, complain and defame. The freedom that democracy once gave us in allowing us to learn how to act appropriately in a bigger world by growing in knowledge and wisdom has become a curse because it fails to connect individuals in a greater context. We truly have gone astray in our thinking, every man to his own way, as the ancient psalmist said in the Old Testament. Instead of inquiring after the ancients, the prophets, the great thinkers and God himself in the Bible, we have bought into the modern culture of what is in it for me.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Whenever I despair about the quality of our public discourse, I remind myself that ours remains a society inhabited by people like Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson (GILEAD, HOME). Generous, humane and occasionally witty, her point of view is an antidote to the partisan screeds that pass for political argument today, and her new essay collection is a bracing display of all those character traits in abundance.
From the outset, Robinson makes clear (in beautifully-chiseled prose that's hard to resist quoting at length) her displeasure at some persistent features of our current American political and cultural lives, denouncing those who advocate the "return to traditional values" that "seems to mean, together with a bracing and punitive severity toward the vulnerable among us, the establishment of a kind of religious monoculture we have never had and our institutions have never encouraged." Instead, she urges on us "the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them."

Typical of Robinson's wisdom are these trenchant observations, in "Imagination and Community," of the damage flowing from the "excitements that come with abandoning the constraints of moderation and reasonableness:"

"Those whose work it is to sustain the endless palaver of radio and television increasingly stimulate those excitements. No great wonder if they are bored, or if they suspect their audiences might be. But the effect of this marketing of rancor has unquestionably been to turn debate or controversy increasingly into a form of tribal warfare, harming the national community and risking always greater harm.
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