An interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author about her recent collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books
We tend to speak of democracy as though it were a precious heirloom, something we were lucky enough to be handed by our forefathers. In a new collection of essays, Marilynne Robinson critiques this passive stance, insisting that democracy is an ongoing negotiation that requires creativity, compassion, and vigilance. When I Was a Child I Read Books is the fourth book of nonfiction for the novelist, whose bestselling Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.
The reason democracy is so difficult, Robinson says, is because human beings are so given to fractious quarreling. We demonize those who do not share our values or priorities, and we ostracize (at best) the groups we take to be dissimilar. She begins the book's preface with several lamenting quotations from Whitman's essay Democratic Vistas : "These savage, wolfish parties alarm me," he intoned in 1870. "Owning no law but their own will, [they are] more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood."
In 2012, not much has changed. But it is our "difficult obligation" to celebrate our differences, Robinson suggests, because the minute we dehumanize our opponents is the moment we cease espousing true democracy. She reminds us that the American experiment is grounded in radical humanism: a conviction that every voice, no matter how small or how troubling, should be considered. "To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life." she writes, "...is to arrive at democracy as an ideal."