The humane imagination

One of the great pleasures of the reading life is buying the latest book of a loved living author. This is a rare pleasure for me, as there are only about four living authors I like. But it’s a keen one. Knowing a new book is coming, finding out the day of its release, calculating how soon it could be found in one’s local bookshop; then seeing it, laying hands on it, feeling the weight and texture of it, purchasing it, taking it home and cracking it open, placing it on the shelf next to its brethren, watching the loved collection grow, ever so slowly, book by book. 

I had that pleasure last week, when I bought Marilynne Robinson’s new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Fans of Robinson’s fiction usually have a longer wait than most; there were twenty-four years between her first novel and her second. Her non-fiction, though, is getting faster. It’s only two years since her last offering: Absence of Mind: the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. The new collection, as its title suggests, is somewhat more personal and colloquial than its predecessors, but it lacks none of her characteristic cogency and authority. It’s based on lectures she’s given over a lifetime, but it feels very current, a wise and lucid rebuke to the various social and political and philosophical afflictions of present-day America. 

I haven’t got to the title essay yet, but I’m utterly persuaded by an early essay called “Austerity as Ideology.” This is a brilliant though mild fulmination against “the march of Austerity”: the economic dogma that has grown up in the wake of the financial crisis, and in spite of all its most obvious lessons. Blame for the disaster has somehow been shifted from the shoulders of highly paid capitalists onto governments and the wider population; venerable public institutions and services are being sacrificed to a hyper-capitalist ideology that bears little relation to the facts of recent history or the culpabilities of recent events. 

Robinson points, I suspect in all the essays more or less, to a present “dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.” The capacity to imagine and embrace the other, even when radically different from oneself, is the engine of democracy. Democracy today is threatened by the preeminence of the new economics, and by a perverse politics that claims to value America’s history and founding doctrines, but takes no account of the deeply-rooted collectivism that has in fact made America great. It is instead divisive and ignorant, unable to imagine its others, intent on tearing up the roots of America’s rich common life. 

Democracy, community, humanity. All these are under attack in America and ailing elsewhere. Robinson is their ardent and eloquent defender. Though much of civil and common life is precarious, a book like this reminds us how much potency humane and imaginative discourse still commands.