Friday, February 12, 2016

Mental Laziness and Choosing Books

I've been trying for a week to sink comfortably into reading Marilynne Robinson's Home. I'm finding it a hard slog. I'm finding it boring. I hate to say that. Her other novel, Gilead, was so good. Is there a significant difference in the quality of the two books, or has my preference in reading shifted so dramatically in seven years? That's how long it's been since I enjoyed Gilead. I also have Housekeeping on my shelves and haven't read it, I'm embarrassed to admit.

So last night I put Mrs. Robinson back on the shelf and pulled down Miss Austen.

(I didn't know whether to call Robinson "Mrs." or Ms.," so I went to look. That took me to an article about her that I'm reading now. And now I feel I must go get Home back off the shelf and try again. Clearly the weakness was in my brain and not in her prose. Here is the article from the NY Times. I'm only about 1/3 the way through. Repeatedly I find my mind wandering away like a car with bad alignment, and I must jerk it back and refocus on the sentence I just didn't comprehend. "Comprehension has an ethical content," Robinson tells me. What would Robinson tell me? To keep plugging away at Home or switch to Persuasion, which I've read before?)

As an aside (to a few of my bookish friends), Marilynne Robinson is a strong rebuttal to Peter Leithart's recent ridiculous assertion that non-Protestants can't write. Robinson is a Presbyterian/Congregationalist. His article was shallow and arrogant. Her writing is deep as Dante's hell and complex enough to weary the mind. Does the woman never stop thinking? Of John Calvin (the ultimate Protestant), she says, "Calvin has a strange reputation that is based very solidly on the fact that nobody reads him."

Her attack on Americans' defense of fearfulness first grabbed me in the article. Listen to this: "I hate to say it, but I think a default position of human beings is fear .... What it comes down to -- and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently -- is that fear is an excuse: 'I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn't.' Fear is so opportunistic that people call upon it under the slightest provocations: 'He looked at me funny.' -- 'so I shot him.' -- 'Exactly.' -- 'Can you blame me?' -- 'Exactly.'

(The last there is a short dialogue with the article writer.)

My mind is tired from ... what? Age? That's no excuse. Robinson is 70. Work and busyness? Hardly. Many work harder than I do. Perhaps I'll blame it on the 50 mg of benadryl I take nightly to help me sleep; it's connected somehow to Alzheimer's according to some studies.For whatever reason, my lazy mind rebels against the deep comprehensive reading that might make it work and flex its mental muscles.

If I were you, I'd go read the article from the NY Times. Ask yourself when was the last time you thought that deeply. I'm ashamed of my mental chicken-heartedness. Perhaps it's simple fear, and not exhaustion, that keeps us from thinking as deeply as we ought. Thinking deeply might compel us to change our positions, to act or feel guilty for not acting. "If you do not object strenuously to a superior's bad behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens." That's Robinson, quoting Wycliffe. Against the opinions of her culture, she defends the old theologians and reformers.

Well, I intended to tell you why I was more interested in the Introduction to Persuasion than I was in Home, but instead I've persuaded myself to stay the course. Anne Elliot, you'll have to wait.


  1. Keep exercising those mental muscles! You make me tired just thinking about it!

  2. I finished Persuasion a short time ago. Gilead didn't move me like it moved some. I have picky and very personal fiction taste.

  3. I have begun at least two of Robinson's books and haven't finished one. I've also read articles by her, and listened to her talk about one of her books on one of The Big Read's introductory CD's. For some reason her books were not what I could connect with at the times when I tried. You are right, she disproves Leithart's thesis.

    About your own mental laziness, or whatever you called it, all I can say is BAH! It's not any more true than the idea that Leithart came up with. You merely demonstrate that leisure is the basis of culture, as Pieper said, and you have precious little leisure these days! Nothing wrong with your thinker, M.K.!

    Did you ever read The Intellectual Life by Sertillanges? I haven't read more than a few lines, I think, but enough to know that I am too much of a homemaker and gardener, etc. to be consistently able to take on these mental challenges. Ah, and I'm older than you! ....but younger than Robinson :-(

    I'm glad you are back with Home. I admire you! <3

  4. Mary Katherine, to each their own but I've reached an age where I no longer feel compelled to either finish a book or read a "certain" book because the NY Times, or others, recommended it. For me it's not "mental laziness" because my mind is stretched daily as I read and ponder my Bible. It's a question of time. Do I want to spend the few decades I've left on something because someone else tells me I should or must? No, and I won't with no guilt whatsoever.
    Wycliffe and I do agree...if I don't object to someone's bad behavior or if I don't hold my local, state and national "representatives" accountable, I am as guilty as they. I'm a advocate of high standards, low expectations and am seldom disappointed.

  5. I've read Gilead and Lila, and really enjoyed them. I'll have to read Peter Liethart's article. I do feel sometimes my thinking gets a little fuzzy, too. Sometimes I think it's a result of too much information coming at me. That, or menopause :)


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