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When I Was a Child I Read Books

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  2,562 ratings  ·  490 reviews
Since the 1981 publication of Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Housekeeping—a stunning debut that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize—she has built a sterling reputation not only as a writer of sharp, subtly moving prose, but also as a rigorous thinker and incisive essayist. Her compelling and demanding collection The Death of Adam—in which she reflected on her Presbyterian
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published March 13th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Average rating 3.89  · 
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May 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-bought
I don't mean to be overdramatic, but each book I read by Marilynne Robinson gives me slightly more hope that we are not doomed. This book, like much of her work, is ultimately about taking human experience -- that is, the history of ourselves and our institutions of culture, religion, politics, education, and so on --seriously when we consider what and who we are. ...more
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Apr 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
I’ll go ahead and say it: Marilynne Robinson is too smart for me. I can be a lazy reader, seeking the quick answer, the easy answer.

This is not a book for lazy readers. It is not a book for simple readers.

Robinson is thoughtful and compassionate and deep. She sees past the first obvious answer and the second obvious answer and offers explanations that are unexpected and which embrace all we bring to a book. She is spiritual without being dogmatic and she is kind without leaving truth behind.

A b
Mar 02, 2012 marked it as to-read
Shelves: to-buy-and-read
I want to read this because apparently it's going to contain lines like these:

"Say that we are a puff of warm breath in a very cold universe. By this kind of reckoning we are either immeasurably insignificant, or we are incalculably precious and interesting. I tend toward the second view. Scarcity is said to create value, after all."

Thing Two
Dec 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
As you can probably tell from the number of times I posted interesting thoughts from these essays, I loved this collection! I read Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and was disappointed, not because of what he was arguing, but by the lack of research he presented with his argument. He seemed to want to say, "I'm Christopher Hitchens and here's what I think ..." and that was that. Marilynne Robinson is polar opposite from Hitchens, not only in beliefs, but i ...more
Dave Schaafsma
Jul 31, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I've read all of Robinson's fiction and am a huge fan, so when I saw this essay on audio--twenty minutes--I listened to it, and again, and again, as she is such a good writer, such a careful crafter of sentences, so thoughtful. I'll probably read the rest of it, as it is not writing that one can just breeze through.

I was attracted to this essay by the title, the same title as the book itself, because this was true for me, too, but the essay is less about herself as young reader as it is about h
Jan 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
First a caveat -- my rating is based on the 8 of the 10 essays that I understood. The first -- Freedom of Thought -- I found the most challenging and will have to read it again in order to figure out what the point is. The last -- Cosmology -- did not hang together for me. I think I got the point -- that science has not replaced God in understanding human nature -- but would have to read it again to follow the argument.

The other 8 essays I found very interesting and thought they provided much f
Mar 25, 2013 rated it did not like it
Sometimes I dislike a book and can't imagine anyone else liking it. This is not such a book. You might like it, but I didn't. I like essays, and her topics (mostly religion, intellectual history, American society/culture) are important and interesting. She teaches at U. Iowa writers' workshop, and I'm open to the possibility that I'm missing something about her writing, but whatever; i didn't care for it. Trying to analyze a little more deeply why not.....

here's a typical excerpt, re John Shelby
May 16, 2012 rated it it was ok
Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, "Housekeeping", was published in 1980, and she has written two further novels: "Gilead", which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, and Home, which won the Orange Prize in 2009. "Gilead" and "Home" contain many positive values, so "When I was a child I read books", a collection of essays, was met with anticipation and will likely arouse the interest of her readership.

Robinson has the convinced written style of an essayist. She comments on present-day North American soci
Dec 20, 2014 rated it it was ok
There's no doubt that Robinson is bright, and thoughtful. And well-read. But sometimes I think when readers feel intimidated by an author's intellect, they say "Great! Amazing! Insightful!" with the hope that others will not notice how deeply confused they are. After all, if the reader is confused by something, and there are big words present in the text, that reader often feels deeply ashamed at not having "got it" and lays on the praise extra thick in hopes of not being asked to comment furthe ...more
Mar 07, 2022 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio
It is my fault that I didn’t like this book. A lesson in reading the blurb not just the title and a quick look at the author. I was expecting a series of essays about childhood reading and instead got a collection of essays about human nature with a heavy spiritual bent. I was propelled by a couple of interesting historical analyses early on in the collection and my respect for Robinson as an author of fiction. At the end of the day there was just too much God here for me. That’s a me thing, so ...more
Jul 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
"I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of - who knows it better than I? - people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced ...more
Oct 27, 2014 rated it really liked it
A GR friend of mine, Kristen, wrote a review of this book that led me to read it. I'm about halfway through now and my attitude toward it (in terms of stars) has ranged from 2 to 5, settling for the moment at 4.

As I mentioned in a comment under Kristen's review, I find Robinson's writing a bit dense. I consider this my fault, pretty much a consequence of my vocabulary and literary background being less robust than Robinson's. The obvious solution to this problem is for me to read the book with d
Oct 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
My favorite of this collection of essays was "Freedom of Thought." It gave me a real interest in seeking out some ancient literature--a genre which has never before interested me. Virgil's Aeneid and the Epic of Gilgamesh, in particular, and maybe City of God...I'd like to read now. Creating a new curiosity is always a good thing.

I respect Robinson's careful style---she has a very direct and absorbing feeling about her as a narrator.

Just one of the many sections I enjoyed:

"Religious experienc
Roy Kesey
Dec 29, 2013 rated it it was ok
Marilynne Robinson has written three of the great novels of the last forty years. Her first novel, Housekeeping, is on my Indispensables shelf with Jesus' Son, Invisible Cities, Rayuela, At Swim-Two-Birds, et al. So it gives me little pleasure to write about When I Was a Child I Read Books--even less than it gave me to read it.

Starting with what is surely one of the worst titles in titular history.

What else. The tone ranges from arrogant to airless (with rare glints of a grim sort of academicky
Dec 12, 2020 rated it it was ok
This book was a real disappointment. The title is very misleading-the book wasn't about reading, her childhood or fiction.
It was a collection of long-winded essays and made for a tedious read.
Even the cover was misleading.
Jarrett DeLozier
If I had a million dollars I would be greatly tempted to spend it all on copies of this book to give to everyone I see.

Justin Evans
Mar 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays
Robinson now has three novels and four books of non-fiction to her name; she might end up as the E. M. Forster of the early twenty-first century (I consider that a great compliment). Thankfully this book of essays is a step up from Absence of Mind, although not quite up to the quality of Death of Adam. WIWACIRB, hereafter WIW, is a much easier read than DoA, but that's not necessarily a good thing- much of the pleasure of her first book of essays came from the prose, which did a nice job remindi ...more
Blair Hodges
Jul 06, 2015 rated it liked it
3 1/2, really, but it ranks this low because it was one of the weaker of Robinson's outstanding books in my very subjective view. Out of ten essays I loved 2 and liked 4 more, the other 4 were either so-so or uninteresting/weave-y. It's a collection of pieces exploring contemporary politics, religion, and thought about human nature and our place in the cosmos, with some asides about her background, writing, and teaching. She's definitely not satisfied with the status quo in today's politics, edu ...more
Apr 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I have heard many a recommendation for Robinson's book "Housekeeping", yet for one reason or another I never had an interest, & have placed it low on my list of other books to read. Lately all my interest is in poetry and non-fiction; fiction has held a place in my heart in times past, but it seemed as though I had "moved past" the unreal, didn't have time for it. (Although you know, reality and shit, what is it really? Everything's a fiction in one sense, I get it.) Anyway when I found out abou ...more
Dec 09, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is that rare breed, a thoughtful book by a Christian writer; too often books by Christian writers turn into "Christian books," and lose the "thoughtful" part. As a woman of faith myself, I share most of her assumptions without necessarily sharing her conclusions; this makes her writing particularly challenging and thought-provoking. Also, Robinson regularly calls cultural assumptions, from several different "corners" of culture, into question. (One such assumption is that human beings are m ...more
Oct 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
As I write this review, I am purposely not allowing myself to go back and look at all that I underlined. There is no shortage of brilliant sentences to share, but it strikes me as more important to consider what I have retained without the assistance of the text.


Listen, the lovely thing about this book of essays is that it nails so many things in our culture so concisely and so intelligently that it will make like-minded readers feel less alone in this world.

Although at times I felt that the
Corinne Wasilewski
Apr 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
At a time when people’s thoughts are reduced to 140 characters, instant gratification is the norm, everybody’s talking but nobody’s listening, and culture is reduced to the lowest common denominator, enter Marilynne Robinson. (Robinson rides into town with guns blazing). Now, here is a woman who stands out from the crowd. Wise. Articulate. Bold. A woman of discernment. A straight shooter. And probably most important of all -- a woman who reads. And just what is Marilynne reading, you ask? The l ...more
Sep 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
It's weird, reading Robinson as a Calvinist. Some of her defense of our tradition includes ideas I'd reject, but I'm glad to admit her broader arguments. For instance, despite my stronger emphasis on the distinction between law and Gospel, it's a pleasure to feel so at home in her argument for Calvin's and Moses' liberality. I feel similarly about her humanism -- she's more optimistic than I am (I probably have that "...“liberal” or “progressive” tendency—both words in quotes—to give the past aw ...more
Jan 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays
This book is exceptional.

Here are a few reasons why I recommended this book to a friend:

Reason 1: She writes beautifully, imaginatively, in an engaging way and most lucidly.
Reason 2: This book is a compilation of essays on formative subjects such as community, imagination, politics, religion and tribalism, to name but a few. She explores these concepts through the lens of English literature, morality and being. For this reason, her writing is suffused with careful analysis of culture and it's a
Jan 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Shelves: essays
What an amazing, thoughtful, intelligent, direct writer!! I was so impressed with the thought put into her various essays/arguments. She has some strong opinions and backs them up with powerful well thought out verbal stands. She is obviously well read and informed and is a compassionate person concerned about the current state of affairs of the human race. I recommended this book to everyone, but take it slowly!
Apr 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
These essays are among the deepest and most beautifully written that I’ve come across. They are also some of the most complicated I’ve ever read. The density and complexity reminded me of philosophy texts I read in college. This collection is definitely intended to be read slowly and thoughtfully instead of being rushed through. Marilynne Robinson is perhaps the most astoundingly intelligent person whose thoughts I’ve ever been privileged to read. What she has to say about patriotism and governm ...more
Dean Anderson
Jul 18, 2012 rated it liked it
It’s tempting to say that as an essayist, Marilynne Robinson is a great novelist. Of course, no matter what the first clause of the sentence is…Robinson would still be a great novelist. Her 2004 novel, “Gilead” won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and sold a whole lot of copies. And I liked it, a lot. 1980’s “Housekeeping” and 2008’s “Home” are also great works of fiction.
Some of the essays in this collection are bring history, theology and insight together and allow the reader (at least
Nathan Marone
I did not read this book. I listened to Marilynne Robinson read it. That distinction is important to me, because Robinson's voice, so gentle and yet unwavering, is a source of great comfort to me. It is not just the timber of her voice, but the content of her words that I fine incredibly reassuring. The experience of listening to her is one of wonder.

The title may dupe you into thinking that this is a memoir of sorts, sweetly looking back at Robinson's Idaho upbringing as she romantically read
Sophy Kohler
Reviewed for Business Day WANTED: Better known for her novels, among them award-winners such as Housekeeping and Gilead, Marilynne Robinson tackles the universe, humanity and everything else besides in her newest and most earnest essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books.

While niche readers like the Archbishop of Canterbury have declared these pieces to be “pure gold”, they make for some truly laborious reading, that is, for those of us less aroused by phrases like “Austerity as Ideolog
Buz Trevor
Aug 04, 2013 rated it it was ok
I Had been recommended this book. I am an atheist but I do not like some of the anti theological polemic by people like Christopher Hitchens. The friend who recommended the book said that I would find Marylynne Robinson's essays to be an expression of what a thoughtful Christian brought to the world. I guess you would say a humanistic approach.

I found the essays frustrating much of the time. The style consists of complex sentences wherein I sometimes lost the thread of the argument.

The book wou
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Marilynne Summers Robinson (born November 26, 1943) is an American novelist and essayist. Across her writing career, Robinson has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, National Humanities Medal in 2012, and the 2016 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. In 2016, Robinson was named in Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people.[2] Robinson be ...more

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