At 'Home' With the Past

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

IOWA CITY

If you want to understand how different Marilynne Robinson is from other contemporary novelists -- how different, in fact, from most contemporary human beings -- all you need to do is walk into her dining room.

"These are my favorite books in here," says the author of "Housekeeping," "Gilead" and the recently published "Home" as she motions toward the bookcase that fills one end of the small space. "See, look: Calvin, Calvin, Calvin."

Sure enough, here are the multivolume "Commentaries" of the great 16th-century Protestant theologian, whom Robinson considers one of the most falsely caricatured figures in history. Here are the two volumes of Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion," without which she thinks you can't understand Herman Melville. Surrounding these are a multitude of other theological and educational works, few less than a century old.

"Look at this," she says, flipping through the pages of a densely illustrated family Bible picked up in an antiques store. She points to a clutch of McGuffey Readers, then to "one of my treasures," a 19th-century biographical encyclopedia filled with "people that have dropped out of history."

There's not a modern novel in sight, though if you were to wander into the living room, you'd find a few on the coffee table. Robinson hasn't read them.

"I'm always reading all this other crazy stuff."

As a constant reader growing up in Idaho in the 1940s and '50s, she was obsessed with, among other things, the works of Edgar Allan Poe. "You can't believe how much Poe poetry I can recite to this day," she says now.

A demonstration is requested. She responds with the opening lines of "Alone":

From childhood's hour I have not been


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