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There’s a mildly scolding tone to the title of Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, When I Was a Child We Read Books, as if the damn kids these days no longer do. But she’s not the lecturing type: In three exquisite novels—Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home—she’s set a standard for writing that is intellectually engaged, yet sinuous and compassionate. In Books, Robinson isn’t claiming superiority so much as revisiting some bedrock principles about American government, faith, and community. In the essay “Austerity as Ideology,” she delivers a reminder that Americans didn’t used to think that land-grant universities and public libraries were gross offenses to up-by-one’s-bootstraps entrepreneurship; in “Open Thy Hand Wide” she undoes decades of mythology about Calvinism as a synonym for “uncomplaining hard work.” No liberal writer has responded so coolly to the daily-outrage culture of talk radio and Breitbart.com, and no writer, period, is better equipped to do it.
Marilynne Robinson discusses her work at 12:45 p.m. in the Contemporary Life pavilion at the National Book Festival on the National Mall. Free. loc.gov/bookfest. (888) 714-4696.