Gilead by Marilynne Robinson has become one of my favorite books. I first read it late one night in my last year of seminary. Over the course of a few days, five different people recommended the book to me, so I decided to read it sooner than later. That Friday evening I made myself dinner, poured a drink, snuggled into my green velvet armchair beneath an affordable but lovely Tiffany lamp knock-off, and didn’t move until I’d read the entire book. This is the first book I’ve read in one sitting since I was a little girl. It captivated me. I laughed, I cried, I dreamed, I wondered, and I was comforted. I’ve reread the book twice since, and have a unique but consistently positive experience each time.
I recently began leading a book club at church, and chose to begin with Gilead. On the first week we met and got to know each other a little bit and I gave a brief introduction to the book. Due to the nature of this book, I structured the events so we would meet once for introduction and a reading of the first few pages, then regroup after a few weeks once we had all finished reading.
The diversity of reactions to the book was striking. For some, it was comfortable, warm, inviting, and even restful. For some, it was boring. For others, it is invasive and disquieting (some people even backed out because they hated the book so much).
Those who were bored, wondered when the plot would pick up. Those who were uncomfortable felt invasive being in Ames’ head the whole time. Those of us who loved the book, felt it was a similar experience to getting to know someone. Reading Gilead felt like sitting across the coffee table from a dear friend, late at night, for many nights, opening up each others’ worlds. It is intimate. So, just as in making a friend, you either hit it off, or you don’t. I found in John Ames a kindred spirit who shared my love of James Montgomery hymns, John Donne poetry, and a general concern for theological studies and how we are to engage them in relationships with actual people seeking or struggling to seek God. I found in him an elder who lived that life well, effectively, thoughtfully, and did benefit those around him. It’s amazing what art can teach us about ourselves.