Anyone who has been following me long knows that I’m a rather insufferably picky reader. I start many books and hold out for at least 50 pages but if I’m not captivated by then I typically won’t stick with it. I’d like to think that this adds a little heft to my praise of those books I not only finish but adore. Really, only you all can be the judge of that.
Gilead is a book I probably wouldn’t have picked up on my own. I tend to choose literary fiction that has a touch of the fantastic like Beatrice and Virgil or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I tend towards books with rather eccentric characters. This book is nothing like that. The narrator is a very grounded, wise old Congregational pastor writing a long letter or journal to leave for his young son. In his eighties and suffering from a heart conditions, he knows that he won’t be able to see his son grow up so he wants to leave him what wisdom and family history he can.
Logan decided we should read it, which is why I gave it a chance. When I made the suggestions that he and I read a book together, he offered up Gilead almost immediately. So I assumed it was just the next book on his reading list. I was surprised to find out that he suggested it because he thought I would love it. My delight in this book has exceeded his expectations. I think I can say with all sincerity that it is my favorite piece of realist literature.*
Gilead reads almost like a prayer. Or an incredibly beautiful sermon. I don’t mean to imply that it is boring or stale, or overly preachy, but that it is deeply peaceful, reflective and contains lovely, meaningful wisdom about God and life. I often say that a good sermon is in tune to the heart of God, it reveals that His face is handsome. Few sermons I’ve heard have accomplished this so well as Robinson’s novel.
I love how on the back cover so many of the reviewers can only comment on her book with grand adjectives: Incandescent, Radiant, Rapturous, Perfect, Major…For some that is all they can say, as if more words would simply highlight the inadequacy of their ability to capture what Robinson’s work is and means. I feel somewhat at a similar loss. But to not say anything would seem an error.
It is short enough novel that I could easily have finished it in a day or two. It’s interesting enough that I could have read it quickly. But it is a book that begs you to read it slowly. To sink into its wisdom and allow it to help awaken a since of youthful awe in the world. Often I would reread different passages over and over, savoring them as much as possible, before moving forward. Yann Martel says that it’s “a novel that aspires to be a church, quiet, sparely furnished, whitely lit, filled with Presence and steeped in the essential.” I believe this is exactly what it achieves.
Instead of trying to praise it further or tell you more about it, I’ll share a few quotes that might hopefully entice you to read it yourself:
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens his eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try (57).
There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. “He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required (246).