Reading the Greats—or not

Feeling literary? Looking for inspiration? Tune in to the EBA’s conversation with Marilynne Robinson on Thursday, October 14, 6 p.m. Central, as this Great Author discusses her latest novel, Jack.

Have you read Moby Dick?

It’s not a trick question. I just wonder sometimes how many people have really read it, versus how many just read the CliffsNotes for a high school English test, or how many just say they’ve read it because everyone has. Or thinks they should have.

When I was younger and trying to be literary, when faced with the have-you-read question regarding a popular, controversial, or classic book, I would make a non-committal Mmmm or Hmmm—not an untruth, but a sound that could be interpreted as yes, or as I’m pondering what I might say to you about this significant work. 

The world is different now, and no one is expected to have read anyone else’s booklist. There is no longer a canon, a list of classics that render you uneducated if you have not read them to the point of quotability. Yet somehow, when recently faced with the question “Have you read Marilynne Robinson? Would you review Jack?” I found myself wishing I had steeped myself in her previous novels, wanting to be a person who had, and tempted to make a vague, disingenuous noise. 

I, too, am different now, so I admitted that I had not, in fact, read the previous ones. Many people whose taste in books resonates with mine have loved these books and recommended them, but I missed the boat when Gilead was published; over the intervening years, I got busy reading newer, shinier titles. But considering Jack, I thought taking the plunge into the fourth of the four would at least get me started with this esteemed collection. If I sank with my lack of perspective and needed to get on more solid footing, I could revert to old bad habits from my days of literary pretension and save myself by reading reviews, (or, God forbid, Cliffs Notes) to fill the gaps in my understanding.

To my delight, I discovered that Jack is so deftly constructed that no knowledge of the previous novels was necessary. Elements of the back story that readers need to make sense of the eponymous main character emerge naturally, the way we might recall part of our own story as new experiences cause us to reminisce or fret about encounters in the past.

Jack, the prodigal son of Reverend Robert Boughton, was born in Gilead, Iowa, with clouds from a dark realm surrounding him. To polite, too talented, and too difficult to pin down with rules or mores or even minimal expectations as a child, when this novel opens, he has become a vagrant in post WWII St. Louis. He’s out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit, but admits he could have, and he’s trying to deal with just being Jack without hurting — or connecting with — anyone else. That’s a big challenge, as trouble manifests around him even when he is most desperately trying to be harmless. Jack is a gifted man: literary, philosophical, musically inclined, well-mannered. He seems only able to use these talents sardonically, which has earned him the nickname Slick.

When Slick meets Della, the warm, intelligent, and upright daughter of an A.M.E. bishop, his carefully constructed world of avoidance and non-connection is radically changed. Recognizing that the persona he has created (or that Fate has created for him) is destructive to Della’s respectable life, he tries to stay away from her. But she has seen through his dark façade and has recognized a soul mate. 

Being a soul mate has no bearing in pre-Civil Rights America, where all that the heartbreaking majority of people on both sides of the racial divide can see is that there is no place, physically, legally, or morally, for a white man and a black woman to have a committed relationship. 

The book is told completely from Jack’s point of view. Della materializes for the reader though extensive dialogue. Both characters, as well as her family, who appear in the narrative, and his, who do not, still come clearly to life. Page after page contains wisdom about the human condition, and in the end, though it is difficult to see it coming after every hard thing that happens, there is room for grace. A nuanced, real, and surprisingly fresh grace. Much like grace appears in our broken world, even today.

Have I read Marilynne Robinson? I’m working on it. After reading Jack, I am eager to read the previous Gilead books. Do I regret reading them out of order? No more than I regret hearing my family stories in overlapping, circuitous ways, where the same story can have a different moral depending on the times, the teller, or the circumstances. No more than I regret having read the Gospel in a piecemeal fashion over the years. Robinson has created a profound world, and wherever we choose to enter it, it makes sense, or it doesn’t, in just the way our real lives—on earth, in the mind, and of the spirit—do. 

If you have read Robinson’s previous books, of course you must read Jack to discover how this bittersweet character spent his prodigal years. And if you haven’t read them, still read Jack. It’s a timely story from the Gilead universe, and it resonates with the racial reconciliation work we are doing now. Though it seems like there is no hope for Della and Jack, there is grace. And though we see ourselves mired in unresolvable tensions now, seeing how far we have come since the time in which their story is set provides hope that perhaps further progress can be made, and further grace experienced.  

And Moby Dick? As for me and my reading list, it may never surface.

To register for the EBA Author Series Conversation with Marilynne Robinson, click here.

To purchase Jack from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
~Martin Luther King Jr.

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