Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind

I finished Marilynne Robinson’s short collection of essays, Absence of Mind, which are based on lectures she gave regarding the conflict between religion and science.  While she is no doubt making a case for religion, this is not a creation versus evolution debate. Her thought process goes much deeper than the “sound bytes” one hears in the news (for either side).  She spends her time discussing what constitutes the human mind and the human soul.  For anyone who has read much of her work, they understand that she is well-read not just in history, literature and religion, but science, as well.  As I’ve mentioned before, I have difficulty writing about essays and it’s no different with this collection.  I probably read these essays too quickly.  Robinson’s work in general usually takes  a little more effort for me.  However, a couple of her points interested me.

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

First, she confronts this idea of being “modern”.  According to Robinson, the idea that all things ancient cannot compare to our modern way of thinking doesn’t hold water:

Another factor  that seems to me to be equally important is the great myth and rationale of “the modern,” that it places dynamite at the foot of old error and levels its shrines and monuments.  Contempt for the past surely accounts for a consistent failure to consult it.

Second, the popular view of science, according to her, has taken out the mystery of the world and the universe.  From her viewpoint, true scientists are those that continue to explore, continue to wonder – who haven’t decided that now we know completely how things really work.  When reading her ideas about science, an excitement comes off the page that I rarely expect to encounter in one who is discussing religion.  While Robinson’s point regarding science seems valid to me, I have to admit that religious people can be equally good at taking the mystery out of the world – sometimes they think they have it all figured out, too.  Perhaps this is why Robinson is one of my favorite writers:  whether writing about science, history, religion, philosophy or literature, she never takes the wonder and mystery out of the world.

For anyone interested in science – especially psychology, sociology and anthropology – this could be a challenging read, even if one didn’t come to the same conclusions that she does.  Her collection When I Was A Child, I Read Books probably would appeal to a broader spectrum of readers.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Make Me Think

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books that make me think.  In some cases, it’s easier to come up with an author that makes me think as opposed to one book, but here goes in no particular order other than when they popped into my head:

1.  The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

2.  Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

3.  Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

4.  The Stranger by Albert Camus

5.  Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

6.  Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

7.  The Chosen by Chaim Potok

8.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

9.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

10.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books Read During The Lifespan of My Blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  So far it’s been a fun way to find out what others are reading and get some good ideas on books to read in the future.  This week the topic is Top Ten Books Read During the Lifespan of Your Blog.   Even though my blog is less than a year old and I haven’t read as many books compared to some blogs I’ve visited, it was still difficult to determine exactly which books I would include in my list.  Here’s what I came up with (not in any particular order):

1.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

2.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

3.  Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

4.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

5.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

6.  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

7.  Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

8.  For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

9.  White Fang by Jack London

10.  11-22-63 by Stephen King

When I Was A Child I Read Books

I finished Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays When I Was A Child I Read Books.  I find her thought process fascinating.  I end up having to read her essays slowly so that I can think about all that she says.

Marilynne Robinson

One aspect that I appreciate about her writing is that she does not “pigeon-hole” herself into any specific political or ideological category.   She does not hide the fact that she embraces the Christian faith and takes on Victor J. Stenger’s The New Atheism in a critical debate.  At the same time, many of her ideas about generosity and aleviating poverty could put her on the liberal side of politics.

Her knowledge of science, religion, philosophy, literature and history is amazing.  She has a fondness for sixteenth century theologian John Calvin, old church hymns, and Edgar Allan Poe:

Edgar Allan Poe began to matter to me in what might fairly be called my childhood, my early adolescence.  I more than forgave him his febrile imagination.  In fact I loved the dark gorgeousness of his mind, and the utter, quite palpable, almost hallucinatory loneliness of it.  His elegance and learnedness were his defenses, ironic, conscious, and pure for that reason.  I have always thought of him as a man waiting out the endless night of his life with a book in his hand, some quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, noting the smell and feel of the leather binding, the pretty trace of gilding on the spine, almost too moved by the gratuitous humanity of the thing to open it and put himself in the power of whatever old music still lived in it.  Runes and rhymes, labials and sibilants, trying the sound of them under his breath, while the long hours passed.  I read everything I could find of his, at some point even the essay – or as he would have it, the poem- called Eureka.

I’m now going to have to read this poem by Poe.

“…old Homer, whoever he was…”

I read two more essays by Marilynne Robinson from her collection When I Was A Child I Read Books.  One was titled “Freedom of Thought” and the other was “Imagination and Community”.  Both touched on similar philosophical and sociological themes that revolved around the process of writing fiction.  Her essays give me much “food for thought” as well as someone who can express my thoughts about reading much better than I can.  I also learn new words when I read her essays.  The new word this time around was “apophatic” meaning “involving a mention of something one feigns to deny”.  Robinson uses this word to discuss the concept that there are ideas worth writing about that do not necessarily have words to describe them or “reality that eludes words”.

She looks at her own life as a writer with some wonder and a little disbelief.  I enjoyed her description of a day in her life when she forgets to call her “real-life” mother because she is involved with a dilemma one of her fictional characters needs to work through.

She writes a wonderful paragraph in which she illustrates the concept of community by using her book shelf:

I love the writers of my thousand books.  It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent.  I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle.  All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millenia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.

At one point, Robinson asks the question “Why write fiction?”  Her answer is simply “I don’t know”.  I would venture an anwer to that question using some of the ideas she talks about:  there are ideas and concepts in the world we live in that are best described in stories as opposed to text books.

“Relevance was precisely not an issue…”

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?