Robinson's Essays Celebrate Contrarian Mind

Article excerpt

An admitted "unregenerate liberal" who also is a staunch traditionalist. A believer in the gospel of love who also fiercely defends the Puritans. An advocate of community who also champions being alone.

It's never been easy to categorize Marilynne Robinson, whose new collection of essays - the defiantly titled "When I Was a Child I Read Books" - is no exception. Each of the pieces gathered practices what Robinson preaches, combating the lazy habit of using "a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe."

Appropriately enough, Robinson opens her introduction by invoking Whitman, that self-described container of multitudes.

She closes by indicting social Darwinians and Freudians for propagating a static and limiting view of human nature that privileges selfish behavior.

In between, she works to free her readers from the "tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind," in which we "try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell."

Words like monoculture, austerity, certainty, sectarian, exclusivity and ideology take a beating - primarily because they stymie our capacity for action grounded in words like generosity, diversity, democracy and liberality.

In "Austerity As Ideology," Robinson castigates the current tyranny of the market - and the accompanying tendency to define value as money - with the fervor of an Old Testament prophet.

Invoking America's past, she insists that it wasn't capitalist. Recalling the Cold War, she claims we've forgotten that it was democracy - not capitalism - that won.

Revisiting our own recent recession, she wonders how "the ineptitude of the highly paid" became a war against society's most vulnerable.

Most provocatively, Robinson suggests that what our radical capitalists really want is to turn America into another China, where we're stripped of basic civil liberties protecting our right to protest against low wages and environmental degradation - thereby allowing us to race toward the bottom in the name of remaining economically competitive. …