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Editor’s Choice: ‘The Givenness of Things’ by Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 292 pages, $26. It isn’t every living writer who can not only number the president of the United States among her friends but among her biggest fans. Here is Barack Obama interviewing – yes, interviewing – Marilynne Robinson at the State Library of Iowa in September: “One of my favorite characters in fiction is a Pastor in Gilead, Iowa named John Ames who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the travails his family goes through. And I was just – I just fell in love with the character, I just fell in love with the book.”

The book was Robinson’s novel “Gilead.” In this new book of essays by Robinson, the most convincing protestant intellectual in literature since John Updike, she writes an essay about the Reformation that praises “the fine colleges founded in the Middle West when it was still very much a frontier – Oberlin, Grinnell, Knox and so many others – (which) offered demanding curricula from the very beginning, assuming that the young men and women who found themselves on the prairie would want to be educated to the highest standards. It seems that these days ... the right to bear arms is considered by some a suitable remedy for the tendency of others to act on their freedom of speech, press and assembly, and especially, of religion, in ways and degrees these arms-bearing folks find irksome. The generosity to the generality of people that gave us most of our best institutions would be considered by many pious people now to be socialistic.”

“We are,” she says, “more inclined to speak of information than learning, and to think of the means by which information is transmitted rather than of how new learning might transform and be transformed by the atmospheres of a given mind.” To her, “artificiality and insensitivity ... saturate the conversation we have among and about ourselves.” As a result, for instance, “those who hate Fox News are as persuaded by its representation of the country as are its truest devotees.”

Our president has now publicly demonstrated well-developed literary taste. A new book of essays by Robinson is a major American literary event. – Jeff Simon