In an interview in the New Yorker in 2004, the prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson confirmed that, as a member of a Congregationalist church, she had occasionally given sermons. ‘I have enjoyed the problem of exploring the sermon as a form,’ she explained. ‘It is a deeply instructive experience, a very interesting way to think.’ The ten essays in her new collection indeed seem closer to sermons than to any other genre. They are not literary criticism, although Robinson quotes from Whitman and Emerson; they are not memoir, although the central (and most engaging) piece, ‘When I Was a Child’, is an autobiographical discussion of the western setting of Housekeeping, her first novel. They are not political or polemical, although she laments that ‘we now live in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather’. Overall, in their moral seriousness, concern with theological argument, and large philosophical questions, they are thoughtful, erudite, and engaged. But although the sermon genre may offer an interesting way for Robinson to think, it is less congenial for the reader of Robinson’s novels who comes to the book expecting to be entertained and enlightened as well as instructed.
Despite occasional witty digressions on topics including her unbribable lab rat in a college psychology course (‘an Eliot Ness among rats’), or the Soviet Union as a ‘good adversary’ and worthy cultural competitor during the Cold War (‘America was forever outskated, forever beaten at chess. Her youth would never truly