Now I know what you’re thinking: The book won a Pulitzer, how bad can it be? Well I’m glad you asked. Gilead isn’t bad, not at all. Rather, it’s one of the more beautiful things I’ve ever read, filled with lines that address spirituality in a way uncommon among modern literature, in a way meant to resonate with people who have themselves considered the implications of being religious in the modern era. In fact, I can’t emphasize enough how truly beautiful and poignant the language in Gilead is.
Unfortunately, no amount of beautiful language could have saved this book for me. Rather, my objection lies with the subject matter. Gilead is told from the point of view of a priest, spending his dying days writing a letter to his rather young son, a letter intended to bequeath upon his kin all the various thoughts and suggestions he might have otherwise shared in fatherhood. Alone, this sounds charming. In practice, Gilead is an exercise in religion, and more specifically in what it might mean for a religious man in the 20th century to decide which parts of his life and thoughts are worth sharing with his child. Lest this still sound appealing, for me personally it read a lot like a father describing to his son his impression of unicorns, and how their supposed presence had affected his outlook on life. Which is to say I found it almost entirely irrelevant.
I suppose it would be logical at this point to clarify my own personal atheism, and why it may have perhaps affected my opinion of this book. Critics’ praise of Gilead labels it as one of the more accurate and insightful books on spirituality, but to read Gilead as an atheist is like bearing witness to a debate over whether God’s beard is white or gray, which is to say it’s nonsense. Despite a 250-page attempt to remove myself from the validity of the subject matter, I remained caught up in the book’s central elements–the opinions of a rural pastor some 50 years ago–which felt wholly irrelevant to me. Even as I was able to appreciate the beautiful simplicity of Marilynne Robinson’s writing, I couldn’t help but separate myself from the premise of the book itself.
Also, there were no chapter breaks. NOT A ONE.
Despite my own reservations, I can’t help but feel that most people would appreciate Gilead. Particularly if you yourself have ever suffered from questions of spirituality, religion, or what it means to be religious, this is an incredibly intelligent book that highlights the doubts that come with all aspects and levels of faith. That said, if you, like me, settled a long time ago on the idea that religion itself is a farce adopted by the masses, this book may unfortunately fly right over your head; may seem as relevant as the homeless man spouting conspiracy theories on the subway. Certainly there’s an element of parenthood involved (something to which I can also claim no allegiance) but Gilead is more or less an exploration of what it means to love humans in the context of loving God. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it.
AUTHOR: Marilynne Robinson
PAGES: 247 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Home and Housekeeping
SORTA LIKE: Mere Christianity meets Jesus Land
FIRST LINE: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”