- The Collected Voice:Three Recent Essay Collections of Note
In twenty-four years of editing for TMR, I’ve edited nonfiction about birth, cremation, love, work, money, fear, insanity and religious mania, violence, history, Shakespeare, art, race relations, family and global and American landscapes. A wealth of subjects—but what has made some pieces rise above the others, in quality and in the way they’ve held on in my memory, has only rarely been the subject; it’s the writer’s voice that made them stand out. More than fiction, where plot and character are the first things to engage the reader, an essayist must cultivate voice, then all those other considerations that make an essay memorable: subject, argument, narrative, language, etc. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in 2000 in her introduction to The Best American Essays of the Century, “All essays are an expression of the human voice addressing an imagined audience, seeking to shift opinion, to influence judgment, to appeal to another in his or her common humanity.” As a reader, it’s that one-sided conversation I’m after: an assured voice telling me something in a way that convinces me it is worth hearing. [End Page 188]
The three collections reviewed here are diverse in their agendas and prospective readers, but each succeeds; each speaks eloquently, and each will repay readers for the time spent listening. Each is distinguished by a capable voice that reveals the author’s preoccupations: Marilynne Robinson’s with a vision of America that is slipping away, Ann Patchett’s with the vocation of writing, Michael Cohen’s with the pastime and passion of reading.
When I Was a Child I Read Books
Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 206 pp., $24
“In this climate of generalized fear civil liberties have come under pressure, and those who try to defend them are seen as indifferent to threats to freedom,” Marilynne Robinson writes in “Austerity as Ideology,” an essay that first appeared in The Nation under the title “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist.” The third piece in her collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, is an alternately “baffled” response and deliberate argument. In it, she takes issue with the way America’s new brand of conservatism has demonized liberal thought, elevated capitalism to the status of an incontrovertible creed and, in the process, turned unduly credulous Americans against long-established public institutions designed for their benefit—all of this through a concerted fear-mongering that has painted central government as the people’s worst enemy. Robinson agrees on the point that we may be in danger, but not about the reason:
The world is indeed dangerous, and for this very reason, the turning of our society, and of Western society, against themselves is flatly contrary to any rational strategy of self-defense. But it is highly consistent with a new dominance of ideological thinking, and it is very highly consistent with the current passion for Austerity, which gains from it status as both practical necessity and moral ideal. Anxiety has taken on a life of its own. It has become a sort of succubus on our national life. [End Page 189]
She points out that there is nothing particularly capitalist about many institutions of American society: public higher education, the postal system, the GI bill, Social Security, the graduated income tax—all are “massive distributions or redistributions of wealth meant to benefit the public at large.” Such practical provisions for the public good have been a crucial component of our freedom, she believes, and they’re characteristic of modern Western nations’ attempts to build societies “that, by historical standards, may be called humane.” Here, most of her readership will be nodding its head.
But then, there’s her intimacy with the Bible, reminding us that Robinson is not just an American liberal intellectual but a...