The experience of reading “Gilead”

I may very well be the last on the block to have read Marilynne Robinson’s hugely popular Gilead (HarperCollins, 2004). But I’ve done so now — and I enjoyed it too.

Gilead is a novel told in the voice of John Ames, an old man, a minister, who sets down in diary form what he wants his young son to know about him. It’s a story about fathers and sons — several sets of them. Since so much fine commentary has already been expended on this book, I’m going to simply recommend James Wood’s review in the New York Times, which calls it “a beautiful work — demanding, grave and lucid.”

Although I found myself sometimes impatient with the narrator’s style, which mirrors what we perceive as the faults of the elderly — a slow and meandering speech, and something of a preoccupation with the past and one’s own wisdom — Woods says, “Gradually Robinson’s novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details.” He’s right.  

I will also recommend Debra Dean Murphy’s reflections on re-reading Gilead, which reminds of its theme of blessing, and will pass along a friend’s assessment: “This is a great book for pastors.” (She’s pastoral care coordinator in a local church.)

Gilead being what it is, however, so attentive to life itself, I thought I might also share two “extras” that the experience of reading it gave to me.

1. I read a library copy, so others had been there first. I began to notice that occasionally a word was circled. I went back to find them all. Insouciant, effulgence, susurrus, bodacious, probity, caviling. And then lines in the margin beside this sentence: “…age has a tendency to make one’s sense of oneself harder to maintain, less robust in some ways.” Since these markings were in pencil, I didn’t mind finding them. (Erasure is possible — it’s the folded-over corners that always hurt a little on behalf of the page, because their scars cannot be healed!)

Who was this other reader? Someone sad at their own loss of the self? But still keen of mind, determined to look up the hard words in the dictionary? It was good to contemplate another person with this text, to know that reading is not just about a book but about people at the practice of it.     

2. At one point, the Rev. John Ames talks about Hagar and Ishamel. There was something about what he said that sent me off to that story — in Genesis 21. I simply plunged myself and my concerns into it, and was startled, and — to use Gilead vocabulary — blessed. The Genesis storyteller refuses to favour one character more than another. The clash between Sarah and Hagar is dramatic and difficult, Abraham’s dilemma heartbreaking, and the wilderness for Hagar too, but everyone in the story gets their loving due before God. What a good lesson for a fiction writer, or anyone for that matter. It reminded me of something Mary Anne Isaak said in a recent piece about the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet, that “meaning is created by the way others narrate the story…”

Then, back at Gilead later — second last page, in fact — the old man remarks, “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child.” I think that’s what Genesis 21 is saying too. (I also notice I seem to be bumping into Augustine everywhere lately, which is probably my just desserts for becoming tired of his Confessions when I read them!)

No, reading is not just about a book, but about the places we go because of it.