Tuesday, November 24, 2015

President Obama and Marilynne Robinson in Conversation

What an unexpected and enjoyable experience it was to read a two-part conversation in the New York Review of Books (NYR) (Nov. 5 and Nov. 19 issues) between President Obama and writer Marilynne Robinson! At first the idea of Obama and a writer sitting down for a conversation such as this one was surprising. But upon further thought, it made perfect sense. Not everybody reading this will agree with everything President Obama has said or done, and I don’t always agree with him, but I do consider him as a person and leader deeply concerned with moral issues. And Marilynne Robinson is known not only for her fine books but for their explorations of moral issues. Obama and Robinson had met before, and hit it off. At the beginning of the conversation, Obama says that he doesn’t often enough get a chance to sit down with someone he enjoys and is interested in, and “have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction our country should be going in.” He goes on to say how much he loves Robinson’s writings, starting with the novel “Gilead” and most recently the essay “Fear,” published in the NYR (Sept. 24, 2015), and collected in her new book of essays, “The Givenness of Things.” The conversation is wide-ranging, and includes discussion of, among other topics, Robinson’s background and values; her books and why and how she wrote them; the importance of books; faith; fear; education; government; the Midwest; Europe; the dangerous idea of “the sinister other”; and the gap between “goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and…rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics” (Obama). It is a thoughtful conversation, and reminds us of Obama’s reflective side. For those who are interested in Robinson’s books: her best-known novels are “Housekeeping” (1980), “Gilead” (2004); “Home” (2008); and “Lila” (2014). I read and admired “Housekeeping” and thereafter seldom read Robinson because she only published nonfiction for over 20 years, but then she came out with the three other novels I just listed, which form a sort of trilogy. I posted here on “Lila” (2/23/15), which I found strikingly original and compelling, and which I highly recommend. To get back to the conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson: New York magazine said it made them think that Obama’s post-presidency years were going to be very interesting, and I concur with that prediction.
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