In 2011, I read Marilynne Robinson’s three novels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Home, and Housekeeping. Since reading Richard B. Gunderman’s collection of essays on philanthropy, We Make A Life By What We Give, I’ve been fascinated by essays. I guess essays are to non-fiction what short stories are to fiction. As much as I enjoyed Robinson’s fiction, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she has several collections of essays. I picked up When I Was A Child I Read Books and read the title essay “When I Was A Child”.
Her essay starts out with “When I was a child, I read books…Surprising as it may seem, I had friends, some of whom read more than I did.” She goes on to talk about her childhood out west in Idaho. I love the way she states that “[r]elevance was precisely not an issue for me” in choosing what to read. In other words, she didn’t care about the perception by the world around her of what she chose to read. It seemed she found relevance for her in whatever she as an individual happened to read regardless of what others thought.
She continues to expound on this idea of “individualism” in discussing the culture of the West (meaning the western United States). She relays an incident when a man from Alabama asked her what the difference was between the West, the East and the South. Her response was “that in the West ‘lonesome’ is a word with strongly positive connotations”. From reading her works, my guess is that Robinson isn’t promoting reclusiveness or hermitage, but simply pointing out the thought that “lonesomeness” is a part of any new frontier. Being alone isn’t a sign that something is wrong. “Alone”can have strengthening benefits.
Myself being a voracious reader of things that are not always perceived as “relevant” by the world around me, I found Robinson’s essay both insightful and comforting. I thoroughly enjoyed her statement about people in saying “when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”
Another essay in this collection is called “Imagination and Community”. After reading about being “lonesome”, I’m curious what she might have to say about community. That will probably be the next essay on my list to read.
Do any other voracious readers out there feel “lonesome” – in a positive way?