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52) 11/14: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Anyway, this was a beautiful read. In it, we meet John Ames, an elderly pastor in Gilead, Iowa, who is about to die. His wife is much younger, and they have a seven-year-old son. Ames is writing to his son the account of his life, knowing that he won't be present to let these stories be told in situations where they might organically come up.
Gilead reads as stream of consciousness, but there are themes that resonate throughout: the idea of the prodigal son, the importance of water (especially as it relates to baptism), the Eucharist, small-town life as a blessing or a crutch. It's a book that can't be rushed. I also dog-eared so many pages because there were numerous times I was struck with the beauty of the language.
Take this following line:
There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.So perfect.
There are stories that made me laugh (the account of what happened after a man was riding a large horse into town), stories that were touching (Ames sharing how he would walk the streets for many years when he couldn't sleep, praying for everyone as he passed their houses), and stories that were complicated (his relationship with his namesake, and that own character's struggles to find meaning and happiness).
I couldn't help but appreciate the skill of Marilynne Robinson. The book is vivid, and it flows so naturally that you could believe it to be an actual letter to a loved one, but it's clear that there's great intentionality that made it seem so effortless. It's easy to understand how it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.
In September 2015, The New York Review of Books published a two-piece interview between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson; Obama cites Gilead as one of his favorite books, and he asked to sit down for a conversation with the author during one of his stops to Iowa (here is part one, and at the end of that piece is a link to part two for those who are interested).
The conversation is long, but it's enjoyable to read; here's one excerpt from Obama:
When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I've learned I think I've learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there's still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it's possible to connect with some[one] else even though they're very different from you.And another that seemed particularly timely given the growing polarization in our society and our most recent election:
Part of the challenge is -- and I see this in our politics -- is a common conversation. It's not so much, I think, that people don't read at all; it's that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they're reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don't have that phenomenon of here's a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.
If you like strong literary works, Gilead is a great piece to pick up, but know that you have to savor it -- this is not a book you can speed through. Yet it's worth the time, and I see myself returning to it again down the road.