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When I Was a Child I Read Books

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Date August 10, 2018

It was that title that caused me to read a book review and then purchase the book. I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson but was informed that she had been raised in a Presbyterian home, and had become a writer of sharp, subtle, moving prose, internationally acclaimed and a Pulitzer prize-winner. In the book bearing this title is a series of essays on the place that literature has in life (it is published by Virago Press). One of the essays is entitled ‘When I Was a Child’ and I particularly liked it as it reminded me of two people, the first being myself . . . In the 1940s I read exhaustively and daily all that the Carnegie Library in Merthyr Tydfil had to offer. In my last year in school my first copy of J. C. Ryle’s Holiness I borrowed from the town library in Barry.

Marilynne also read; she says, ‘I had friends, some of whom read more than I did. I knew a great deal of Constantinople and the Cromwell revolution and chivalry. There was little here that was relevant to my experience, but the shelves of northern Idaho groaned with just the sort of old dull books I craved, so I cannot have been alone in these enthusiasms’ (Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books, Virago, 2012, p. 86).

A certain Mrs Bloomsburg was her high-school Latin teacher who led five or six of them through Horace and Virgil . . . ‘and trudged us through Cicero’s vast sentences, clause depending from clause, the whole cantilevered with subjunctives and weighted with a culminating irony. It was all over our heads. We were bored but dogged . . . It is Cicero, of all people whose influence I must resist. When I went to college in New England I found that only I and a handful of boys prepared by Jesuits shared these quaint advantages’ (op cit p.88). When people in New England learned that she had grown up in rural Idaho they were puzzled, asking, ‘How were you able to write a book?’ And then, ‘How did you manage to get into Brown University?’ And again, ‘There has to be talent in the family somewhere.’

Today in the main room in her house on a long table hugging the wall, are the 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary standing in an imposing row. Facing down the O.E.D., a bookcase is jammed with more than a dozen Bibles: two versions of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, Jerome’s Latin translation, the Biblia Vulgata and three editions of Tyndale’s early English translation.

One of her heroines is Oseola McCarty. I learned from Wikipedia that Oseola McCarty was born in March 7, 1908  and died in September 26, 1999. She was a local washerwoman  in Hattiesburg, Mississippi who became the University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) most famous benefactor. McCarty drew global attention after it was announced in July 1995 that she had established a trust through which at her death, a portion of her life’s savings would be left to the university to provide scholarships for deserving students in need of financial assistance. The amount was estimated at $150,000 a surprising amount given her low-paid occupation.

McCarty was born in Wayne County, Mississippi and moved to Hattiesburg as a child. In her sixth grade, her aunt (who had no children of her own) was hospitalized and later needed home care, so McCarty quit school, never to return. She later became a washerwoman, like her grandmother, a trade that she continued until arthritis forced her to quit in 1994. McCarty’s grandmother died in 1944, followed by her mother in 1964 and her aunt in 1967. McCarty never married and had no children. She died from liver cancer in 1999.

Even before dropping out of school, McCarty was taught to save money by her mother. She opened her first savings account at First Mississippi National Bank, and over the years, she opened several other accounts at various area banks, including Trustmark National Bank, which she appointed trustee of her trust and executor of her estate.

McCarty never owned a car; she walked everywhere she went, pushing a shopping cart nearly a mile to get groceries. She rode with friends to attend services at the Friendship Baptist Church. She did not subscribe to any newspaper and considered the expense an extravagance. Similarly, although she owned a black-and white-television, she received only broadcast transmissions. In 1947, her uncle gave her the house in which she lived until her death. She also received some money from her aunt and mother when they died, which she placed into savings as well.

Over time, Trustmark Bank personnel noticed McCarty’s accumulated savings and began to assist her in future estate planning as well as be unofficial guardians for her. (Bank employees and other friends convinced McCarty to purchase two small window air conditioners for her house and to buy a cable television service.)

With the assistance of a local attorney, for whom she had done laundry, and the bank’s trust officer, using slips of paper and dimes, to represent 10% shares, McCarty set out the future distribution of her estate. She set aside one dime (10%) for her church, one dime (10%) each for three relatives, and the remaining dimes (60%) for Southern Miss. She stipulated that the funds should be used for students, preferably those of African-American descent, who could not otherwise attend due to financial hardship. When news of McCarty’s plan was made public, local leaders immediately funded an endowment in her honour. She signed an irrevocable trust, allowing the bank to manage her funds from which she received a regular check.

In 1998, she was awarded an honorary degree from USM, the first such degree awarded by the university. She received scores of awards and other honors recognizing her unselfish spirit, and President Bill Clinton presented her with a Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second highest civilian award, during a special White House Ceremony. She also won the United Nations’ Avicenna Medal for educational commitment. In June 1996, Harvard University awarded McCarty an honorary doctorate alongside Maya Lin, Walter Annenberg, and Judith Jameson. In December, her hand was on the switch that dropped the countdown ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It was her first time sleeping in a hotel, and first ride in a plane.

In 1997, McCarty received the Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards. Miss McCarty was also recognized with an Essence Award and Patti LaBelle sang tribute to her during a ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York

Marilynne Robinson added to my knowledge of McCarty by disclosing that when McCarty took down her Bible the first epistle to the Corinthians practically fell out of it, it had been so analysed for years by Oseola. ‘And you think, here is this woman who, by many standards, might have been considered marginally literate, but by another standard would have been considered to be a major expert on the meaning of First Corinthians.’ In other words McCarty’s grasp of First Corinthians — in which Paul lays out the kind of behaviour which was the fruit of Christian convictions — reveals what it means to read the text of Scripture well. It shows you that comprehension and exegesis has an inescapable ethical content.

Then Marilynne referred to some reading she had just been doing that has an explicit ethical content — essays by John Wycliffe, who played a crucial role in the first English translations of the Bible. ‘Wycliffe says that if you do not object strenuously to a superior’s evil behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens’. She then rehearsed the radical activist tradition of translating the Bible, how rendering it into English was a courageous act, a risky resistance of royal authority. ‘Wycliffe was the founding figure of Lollardy,’ she said, ‘an amazing attempt to spread literacy and scriptural understanding into the common world. Little Oxford students creeping out at night to take a page of Matthew to a hovel somewhere and tell someone what it actually said. . . . The Wycliffe Bibles and Tyndale Bibles, which you could be killed for owning, were circulated widely. It was a very subversive thing, the Bible.’

She is now writing some essays about the theologians she most admires like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and she often expresses her unvarnished frustration over how inaccurately they are remembered. ‘It’s interesting that people systematically misrepresent these pillars,’ Robinson says with astonishment. Calvin is not, as we were once taught, a cold creature who claimed we were born preordained to heaven or hell. ‘Calvin has a strange reputation that is based very solidly on the fact that nobody reads him,’ Robinson has said. ‘I was, and continue to be, struck by the power of the metaphysics and the visionary quality of his theology.’

Her current project is devoted to Christological essays, essays that reconsider Jesus, just as in earlier work she has reconsidered Moses. ‘If you could create a phenomenology of consciousness, some part of it would be the systematic falsification of the foundations of our culture,’ she said.

We remember Moses saying, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ But he also said, ‘Love the stranger as thyself.’ This is not unimportant. And so I feel the humanity of Moses. Like John Ames. He’s a character I put together in my mind, sure. But when people do things that are honourable and fine, it is terrible to see them slandered. And it doesn’t matter if they did them hundreds of years ago, you know?

It is fascinating to come across such sympathy with the great figures in the history of the church in such an unexpected quarter.

This conviction about the power of books from an unusual source reminded me secondly of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the non-college trained, non-seminary attending preacher who set London aflame and warmed the cold city at 19 years of age when he was called to be the pastor of New Park Street Chapel in London in the 1850s. He was another autodictat who, living with his grandfather, frequently entered his dark study (a room without a window because of the window tax) and delved into his Puritan library. Reading deeply and constantly, and easily memorizing what he had read he later wrote, ‘Out of the darkened room I fetched those old authors when I was yet a youth, and never was I happier when I was in their company. Out of the present contempt into which Puritanism has fallen many brave hearts and true will fetch them, by the help of God, ere many years have passed.’ So it has proved to be. The puritan writings are now more frequently reprinted and read than during those initial years in which they first came off their primitive printing presses.

What advice do we get from Spurgeon as to how we can read more thoroughly and wisely? Kevin Halloran has gathered the following useful counsel from that happy and influential preacher.

Nine Tips From Spurgeon About Reading

From an early age, Spurgeon was a reader—and gradually became a ferocious reader, reading six books per week in his preaching prime. By the end of his life, he had amassed a library of over 7,000 books. No doubt this reading habit played a major part in molding his mind to powerfully unpack biblical truth with the clarity and imagination he is still known for.

The quotes from Spurgeon below come from his writings and sermons and share wisdom for Christian readers on this theme of reading and choosing books.

1. Know that your reading is important.

‘Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. You need to read.’

2. Reading and praying are the best ways to spend leisure time.

‘We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure time, is to be either reading or praying. You may get much instruction from books which afterwards you may use as a true weapon in your Lord and Master’s service. Paul cries, “Bring the books” — join in the cry.’

3. Master those books you have.

‘Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them…digest them.  Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride comes from hasty reading. Some men are disabled from thinking by their putting meditation away for the sake of much reading. In reading let your motto be ‘much not many.”

4. Make sure your learning results in heart knowledge.

‘An ounce of heart knowledge is worth more than a ton of head learning.’

5. Live in the Bible.

‘Visit many good books, but live in the Bible.’

‘All human books grow stale after a time–but with the Word of God the desire to study it increases, while the more you know of it the less you think you know. The Book grows upon you: as you dive into its depths you have a fuller perception of the infinity which remains to be explored. You are still sighing to enjoy more of that which it is your bliss to taste.’

6. Read the Puritans.

‘By all means read the Puritans, they are worth more than all the modern stuff put together.’

‘Next to the Bible, the book I value most is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I believe I have read it through at least a hundred times. It is a volume of which I never seem to tire; and the secret of its freshness is that it is so largely compiled from the Scriptures.”

7. Learn from Paul’s example.

[Speaking of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:13]:

‘He was inspired, and yet he wants books!
He had been preaching for thirty years, and yet he wants books!
He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books!
He had a wider experience than most men do, and yet he wants books!
He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things that it was not lawful for a man to utter, and yet he wants books!
He had written a major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books!’

8. Discern what you should and shouldn’t read.

‘Learn to say no. It will be of more use to you than to be able to read Latin.’

9. Prioritize your reading with what nourishes your soul.

‘Give yourself to reading. . . You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritan writers, and expositions of the Bible.’

Good Books to Get You Started

    Holiness by J. C. Ryle


    Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots

    by J. C. Ryle

    price From: $15.00
    Avg. Rating


    It was that title that caused me to read a book review and then purchase the book. I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson but was informed that she had been raised in a Presbyterian home, and had become a writer of sharp, subtle, moving prose, internationally acclaimed and a Pulitzer prize-winner. In the book […]

    The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
    price $22.50
    Avg. Rating


    It was that title that caused me to read a book review and then purchase the book. I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson but was informed that she had been raised in a Presbyterian home, and had become a writer of sharp, subtle, moving prose, internationally acclaimed and a Pulitzer prize-winner. In the book […]

    Some Pastors and Teachers by Sinclair Ferguson

    Some Pastors and Teachers

    Reflecting a biblical vision of what every minister is called to be

    by Sinclair B. Ferguson

    price From: $20.00
    Avg. Rating


    It was that title that caused me to read a book review and then purchase the book. I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson but was informed that she had been raised in a Presbyterian home, and had become a writer of sharp, subtle, moving prose, internationally acclaimed and a Pulitzer prize-winner. In the book […]

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