I gilead book cover
finished reading Marilynn Robinson’s novel Gilead over a month ago, the same day that I finished reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Since then I’ve been on a hiatus from reading fiction, though I’m not sure why. Either Harry Potter cast a spell on me or the melancholy beauty of Gilead lulled me into a contented stupor. All I know is that I was on a fiction-reading binge for months, and it felt good. Now other responsbilities are squeezing me a bit. I’m not even managing to keep up with all the New Yorker issues that keep streaming in through my mail slot. It’s tough to find a balance. Too bad there’s no such job as professional dilettante.

Anyway, Gilead is a lovely book—sad and yet deeply satisfying, full of gentle wisdom without being pedantic. I highly recommend it. The story is told through a series of letters written by a 70ish minister to his 7-year-old son. The minister, John Ames, is about to die, so he is trying to leave a series of memories for his son to read when he gets older.

Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the book. I hope they still resonate when stripped of their context. In the first one, Rev. Ames is writing about his father, who was either an optimist or a fool. The second one reflects a kind of humble spirit that is beautiful to witness, even when it’s only in print. And the third captures in such a perceptive way the internal struggle that most people have to be better human beings.

“I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” That is what he said about everything that happened to him for the rest of his life, all of which tended to be more or less drastic. I remember at least two sprained wrists and a cracked rib. He told me once that being blessed meant being bloodied, and that is true etymologically, in English—but not in Greek or Hebrew.

My reputation is largely the creature of the kindly imaginings of my flock, whom I chose not to disillusion, in part because the truth had the kind of pathos in it that would bring on sympathy in its least bearable forms. Well, my life was known to them all, every significant aspect of it, and they were tactful. I’ve spent a good share of my life comforting the afflicted, but I could never endure the thought that anyone should try to comfort me, except old Boughton, who always knew better than to talk much.

These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.

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2 Responses to Gilead

  1. Aunt Ginny says:

    I loved Gilead too, Karl. Also, in a different way I liked her book Housekeeping. Very poignant, not as uplifting as Gilead, but in some ways I liked it better. 

    Uncle Fred says if you find that job as a professional dilettante, give him a call if you need an assistant. He’s been reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat is finding it to be a fascinating read. It explains many of the things going on in the world today- the big picture so to speak.


  2. Sara H. says:

    Thanks for this post, Karl. I read Gilead this summer too and loved it. And, like Ginny, I read Housekeeping some years back, and I loved it in a different way. One of the things I’ve been mulling over about Gilead is her passing suggestion that a memory may also be a vision–that just because it’s a recollection of the past doesn’t bar it from being revealing or prophetic. I liked your quote selections too. I hope I can be that reflective and expansive in my older years…

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