2005’s Pulitzer winner is Gilead, a novel from an author named Marilynne Robinson. Well, it’s more a letter than a novel. A old preacher knows he’s dying, and he’s begun to write to his young son. This book is his letter. A long, long letter.
This letter is filled with thoughts about life and sermons and writing and staying up late and the way water glistens in trees and how language isn’t really sufficient to describe the world. It’s sweet. Introspective. Solemn. The narrator is sad, but he finds such childlike wonder in the world around him. It should be a very nice book, very nice indeed. It’s like a muddy, lazy current running slowly over rocks, and if you’re patient and pan through all the modest, simple prose, you’ll find gold in your pan.
I love to see what it is that works about writing and what doesn’t, and I’ve usually got it down. But this one has utterly turned my head. If someone described it to me, I’d know instantly: Gilead is exactly the kind of novel I would love and everyone else would hate. It’s quiet, thoughtful, deep prodding. It’s full of inner life and psychology, and plot takes a backseat to character. This should be my book. This should be the book that I look at and say “It’s heartbreaking art, beautiful art, and no one will like it but me, and that’s okay.”
The exact opposite has happened. What is the holy alternate universe is going on?
I’ve been reading this one since January, and it’s just been a slog. I don’t care about what’s on the next page, and I never want to pick it up. I finally said, “Okay, litero-universe. Redeem this book.” And redeem it did.
I looked up the New York Times book review.
Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s rare in contemporary fiction…’grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.’
Gradually, Robinson’s novel teaches us how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details.
Well, that makes me want to keep going.
Okay. On to Slate.
It is as spare, and as spiritual, a novel as I think I have ever encountered. Yet reading it is enough to inspire missionary fervor: You must read this book…What Robinson has written is, in fact, a mystery—not merely a spiritual meditation on the mystery of God’s grace, that “absolute disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving,” as Ames phrases it at one point, but a literary, and a literal, mystery.
So now here’s the president of the United States on it.
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 various travails that his family goes through. And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book,
That’s right, Obama adores this book.
When I read what people had to say about this book, my faith was renewed. There’s something here. Something glittering and golden was in this book, waiting to be discovered, if you just looked. I was going to go after it. I was going to understand the key that made this such a moving experience for everyone. And now, welp, I’m right back to not picking up the book.
Here’s the Struggle…
…and it’s a struggle every high school student that doesn’t want to read Hamlet will deal with. People say a certain book is worth something. People say I will be better if I read it, that it will enhance my experience of life somehow if I can look past my disinterest and really try to engage with it. There are gems to uncover.
Of course, teenage you is like, “naw!”
Great Expectations comes to mind. I read it my sophomore year and thought it a outrageous waste of my time. But I gave it another go about 10 years later, and I just saw it, saw every moment of brilliance, saw every reason the book had lasted, all the archetypes it had laid out with such cleverness and–OH–the humor. Great Expectations absolutely cracked me up. I should have trusted everyone. It was full of as many treasures as they told me it would be. I just had to be open to it. And now I’m trying to take the lesson to heart.
I want to crack through the shell of this book and understand why people love it with the passion they do. I want to see the depths they see. But I just don’t think Gilead is going to be my Great Expectations. When should I trust people enough to plug forward, trusting that I’ll find the reward they promise? I don’t know.
I think in situations like this, I’m scared I’m missing something. It isn’t insecurity, I don’t think. It’s the dreaded FOMO. I’m more wondering, “What if there’s some beautiful thing lying in this book that I just can’t get to? Maybe if I just tried harder, I could unlock that treasure chest that everyone else found here.”
But I think I just have to accept that book-glitter is sometimes–not usually–but sometimes just something that’s in they eye of the beholder.
Anyway, if you want to check out Gilead, be my guest. I want to hear that someone real, not just a president someone or a book reviewer someone, found what I looked for and couldn’t find.