On average, I commute about 700 miles a week. I hate it – all that greenhouse gas spewing from my exhaust pipe, all that time just moving forward, all that confinement in a bubble of glass and metal – but this is the lot I have given myself in for the next few weeks. (Next term, I plan to be considerable less mobile). Fortunately, the car I bought in September includes a CD player, a luxury I have never had before, and I am taking full advantage by listening to lots of books on CD. And there is one special way that this commuting and listening to books work well together – I really don’t like most abridged editions of books, so this much time in the car means I can listen to the unabridged versions and still get through them fairly quickly. That part of commuting is nice.
Right now, I’m listening to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. I know I’m a little behind on this one, but really, why didn’t someone beat me over the head with the hardcover version to make me read it? It’s really fabulous. The story is told – for those of you who might be even slower on the uptake than I am – from the perspective of John Ames, a 77-year-old preacher, who is dying and wants to communicate his family’s stories to his son, who is then 7. The structure of the novel is epistolary, but reads very much like a journal or family reunion where the older folks in the group just reflect and spin off of one another’s tales. (This, incidentally, is one of the things I miss most in our frenzy of life – the chance to just listen and hear stories).
Ames drifts from stories about his father and grandfather to reflections on his work as a preacher to thoughts about mortality, his marriage to his young wife, and the joys of parenthood. In all of these recollections, he has the ability to be both very human and very holy at the same time – but holy without seeming self-righteous. He will say that he visited someone to talk about a magazine article, for example, but then, as he reflects, he comes to realize that he had other pretenses – namely making up for some poor behavior of his own a few days before. As he says, he is often his own best deceiver.
Robinson has crafted a book that manages to both keep me interested – the story is set in Iowa and deals often with the effects of slavery and the incursion of the “modern” world on a rural town – and reflective. I find the narrator so likeable and so true that I wish I knew him. And I find myself thinking about my own faith and way of seeing the world in fresh and exciting ways.
As Robinson said in an interview in The Guardian, “It seems to me that the small drama of conversation and thought and reflection, that is so much more individual, so much less clichÃ©d than – I mean when people set out on an adventure, I think 90 times out of 100, they’ve read about it in a brochure. That’s not the part of life that interests me.” I couldn’t agree more.
I think I will find myself having Marilynne Robinson as one of my favorite writers. In fact, I’m sure she will be. A woman who speaks strongly, takes on Richard Dawkins (see the Guardian interview), and still manages to see the value of the everyday moments in life – well, I might just want to not only like her but be like her, too.