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Likely Stories - When I Was A Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

Thought provoking story of a writer’s window into her life.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

According to the jacket, “Marilynne Robinson has built a sterling reputation as not only a major American novelist but also a rigorous thinker and an incisive essayist.” I first fell in love with her first novel, Housekeeping, and her third, When I Was a Child, I Read Books is one of my favorite essays from her collection.

The essay begins, “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.” I was pleased to discover I did the same thing! To continue, “Surprising as it may seem. I had friends, some of whom read more than I did. I read 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” (85).

To continue, “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 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 illusions that would have been available to my narrator, Ruth, if she were me at her age, more or less” (85-86).

Finally, “As an aspect of my own intellectual life as a bookish child in the far West I was given odds and ends—Dido pining on her flaming couch. Lewis and Clark mapping the wilderness—without one being set apart from the other as especially likely to impress or satisfy anyone. We were simply given these things with the assurance that they were valuable and important in no specific way” (87).

Marilynne Robinson is a writer of the first class. Her novels—as well as her essays—Like When I Was a Child I read Books were thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. 5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.