Books

Review: Robinson's new essay collection 'What are We Doing Here?' is essential reading

Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, “What are We Doing Here?” invites us to consider some of the most pressing questions of the moment via a careful consideration of the past. Robinson — a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, professor emeritus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a thinker and essayist of the first order — investigates how America defines itself, persuasively arguing that we deeply misunderstand our own history and our place in the world. She also continues her ongoing exploration of faith, suggesting that the politically dominant forms of Christianity in America are distortions of the faith on which the country is so often said to have been founded.

Robinson has little time for our conventional understanding of ourselves or for our strange amalgam of pride in and embarrassment about our impoverished intellectual reputation. At every turn, she offers historical context, careful reasoning, and a sharp wit as weapons against lazy acceptance of long-held assumptions about our origins and the new attacks on our civil society that arise from them. Her prose is both beautiful and accessible, inviting us to think along with her and assuring us that we have the capacity to do so.

The temptation to quote from the book at length is great, but instead, I’ll suggest two pieces in the collection for those who want to dabble before committing to the full text. “The American Scholar Now,” which Robinson delivered as a lecture at Stanford and at The Englert in Iowa City,” is available online from Harper’s Magazine where it was published as “Save Our Public Universities.” “Our Public Conversation: How America Talks About Itself,” is briefly excerpted online by the Iowa Alumni Magazine.

The former is a compelling argument for the great good historically provided by public universities; Robinson argues, among much else, that a shift in thinking that defines us as “taxpayers” rather than “citizens” has led to a devaluing of education in the humanities. The latter is a deep dive into the historical precedents for and context of early American thought and aspirations. Both are essential reading, as are the rest of the pieces in “What are We Doing Here?”

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