What Are We Doing Here?

3 of 17
What Are We Doing Here?
336 pages
The titular question of Marilynne Robinson's luminous and brainily raucous What Are We Doing Here (FSG) is directed, in an essay of the same name, at those who work to keep critical thinking alive: "What are we doing here," she asks, "we professors of English?" In these 15 trenchant pieces on humanism, nationalism versus patriotism, "the divine," she ponders the unanswerable on multiple levels: What does this strange political moment augur? What is our role (morally, spiritually, intellectually) in the universe?  

For example, Robinson argues that at public universities, true learning—which imparts an appreciation for the arts and humanities as "the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us"—is being sacrificed on the altar of perceived employability, most particularly for the working classes. To Robinson, this matters not just in principle, but because a liberal arts education shouldn't be an elitist enterprise; it is essential to "the survival of our [American] experiment." She writes, "This country is in a state of bewilderment that cries out for good history."

Robinson is known as the author of ethereal and psychologically tough novels such as Housekeeping, Lila, and Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, but she has easily donned the mantle of public intellectual. Most of these pieces predate the 2016 election, which makes her work seem thrillingly prescient. Robinson's unapologetic opinions will doubtlessly ruffle a few feathers (she argues for the Puritans and against Churchill; her piece in praise of Obama, calling him "a philosopher, perhaps a theologian," is among her strongest and most memorable), but what's indisputable is that, with this volume, Robinson claims her place as an essential thinker—a modern, homebred Tocqueville—and offers a wake-up call for the soul, and for the nation.
— Rebecca Makkai