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Essays Books Reading

What’s a Book You Read in Secret?

For the first Novel Gazing, send us your stories of covert literary indulgence

Submissions for Novel Gazing are open through September 15.

Nobody policed what I read when I was a kid. It was pointless to try. I picked up any book that was left on a low shelf, and I spent a lot of time on my own in the library, and by the time I was 11 there was a used bookstore in walking distance. I read Clan of the Cave Bear, with its semi-graphic Neanderthal rape, in the living room on a family vacation when I was 12. I picked up the brilliant but polymorphously perverse Geek Lovearound age 10, when it first came out in paperback, because someone left it within reach; I remember trying to puzzle out what it meant to “sell one’s cherry.” In seventh grade, I turned in a book report on Toni Morrison’s gorgeous epic Song of Solomon, and the teacher asked if my mother knew I was reading it, presumably because it was supposed to be (and, to a great degree, was) above my head. I said it was her copy.

But even though I felt no self-consciousness about taking on wildly age-inappropriate texts, there’s one book I remember reading in secret: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Not because it was considered unsuitable, not because it was controversial — just because I happened to be in the middle of it when I was supposed to be in a high school class. It wasn’t an easy book to read, or for me to relate to, and I needed a stretch of time to concentrate on it uninterrupted, and I also needed to not go to precal or American history or wherever I was meant to be that period. So I hid in one of the first-floor bathrooms, the one with a window, and contemplated Stephen Dedalus contemplating the eternity of hell.

People have all sorts of reasons for hiding what they read. Maybe they’re ducking the watchful eye of an oppressive family, or an oppressive political regime. Maybe they’re embarrassed by their fascination with teen wizards, sparkly vampires, or conspiracies. Maybe they’re reading a book that’s celebrated in one context, but looked at askance in another: Darwin at a church retreat, Ayn Rand at a DSA meeting.

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For the inaugural Novel Gazing, Electric Lit’s new essay series about the way reading shapes our lives, we want your stories of covert literary indulgence, from comic books under plain covers to Anais Nin under the sheets. Tell us about the time you tried to hide your Bible from your colleagues at the science conference, or told summer camp friends that the poetry you were reading under the covers was porn. (I did this one too. Twenty-five years later, I can finally admit: It was Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle. Sorry to deceive you, cool camp jerks.) Reflect on your first surreptitious forays into feminist essays or queer comics or Afrofuturism, and why you felt you had to hide. Share your experience reading Marx under McCarthyism or Rushdie in Iran. Remember that these books don’t have to be novels, and they don’t even have to be books: we’ll consider essays on television, film, art, and theater, as long as the focus is on stories you consumed in secret.

Essays should not be longer than 4,000 words or shorter than 800, and payment is $60 per piece. Submissions will open on September 5 and remain open through September 15. That gives you two weeks to think and write about all the books (and other narrative objects) you’ve loved so much you read them in spite of embarrassment, anxiety, repression, or shame.

I can’t wait to hear your stories.

If there is any fear that the fast-moving world of the Internet and the iPhone has destroyed our powers of concentration, or our ability to think lucidly and beautifully, or to create surprising and powerful designs from philosophical concerns, that fear will be put to rest by Marilynne Robinson’s new book of elegant essays.

The essay form provides us with a place to muse, question and consider. It’s both deeply intimate and openly public, a place for the most private ponderings and a platform from which to thunder forth polemics.

Robinson’s voice is thoughtful and intimate, but she does some thundering, too, on ancient, complex and important subjects, including our notions of God, public morality, generosity and frugality. She considers what books might mean to us, what loneliness is and how it might strengthen us. She asks, most fundamentally, “What are we, after all, we human beings?”

Robinson draws on a broad range of writers and thinkers, from Moses and Jesus, Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, Poe and Whitman, as well as the contemporary theologians Jack Miles and Bishop John Shelby Spong.

“I have spent most of my life,” Robinson tells us, “studying American history and literature. . . . The magnanimity of [America’s] greatest laws and institutions as well as its finest poetry and philosophy move me very deeply. I know that there are numberless acts of generosity . . . carried out among its people every hour of the day. But the language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased.”

”When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

That observation is, of course, particularly timely in this election year, while we suffer through a travesty of the civil and constructive discourse that a democracy should offer. But Robinson’s intention is not to attack: She believes passionately in our country and its people, and she launches into an examination of the ideas that underlie its history.

She also explores something deeper and older: questions of the soul, the miraculous and the divine. Her ideas are unconventional, and she sees the world in surprising ways. She makes a profound connection, for instance, between religion and literature: “Literature and religion seem to have come into being together, if by literature I can be understood to include pre-literature, narrative whose purpose is to put human life, causality, and meaning in relation, to make each of them in some degree intelligible in terms of the other two.”

The idea that fiction has such a close and exalted relative is heady stuff for us fiction writers, but the book is full of such unexpected conjunctions.

Robinson reminds us of those things that religion and literature share: empathy, compassion, humanity and the presence of the soul. And she shows us where venerated science fails us, the point at which something else must take over: “There is no moment in which . . . science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that.”

In “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” one of my favorite essays in this slim collection, Robinson takes issue with Christian scholars of Moses and the Old Testament: “It has been orthodox through most of Christian history to treat the Old Testament as rigid, benighted, greatly inferior to the Gospels . . . a tribal epic which includes the compendium of strange laws and fierce prohibitions [that] Jesus of Nazareth put aside when he established the dominion of grace.”

Robinson quotes Spong asserting that the Ten Commandments and the Torah have been revealed as “utter nonsense . . . nothing less than the tribal prejudices, stereotypes, and limited know­ledge of the people who created them.” In her taut, muscular and often scathing response, Robinson rebukes the scholars who make this dismissive claim and offers a deeply persuasive argument to show that the laws of Moses are generous, thoughtful, broad-minded and humane.

Robinson’s central theme, which resonates over and over in this powerful book, is the examination of the soul and of its central attributes: generosity, caritas, understanding. And also the examination of beauty, which is still a mystery to us, and of the miraculous presence of these things in the world, both within and without the spiritual construct of religion.

Taut, eloquent and often acerbically funny, these essays present a formidable response to slack scholarship, an indignant refutation of the policies of punitive frugality toward the poor and a challenge to anyone who denies the power, mystery and significance of the human soul. Robinson’s language is elegant and her reasoning precise, and reading these essays is like taking a draught of water from a cold spring. They offer us something rewarding, deeply essential and long-sought, even if we only realize it now.

Robinson (no relation to Marilynne) is a novelist and biographer. Her most recent book is the novel “Cost.”

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