This June, as a grandfather clock rang the quarter-hour in her modest Iowa City living room, the American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, a woman of 70 who speaks in sentences that accumulate into polished paragraphs, made a confession: “I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”
“ ‘So I shot him,’ ” I said.
“ ‘Can you blame me?’ ”
‘‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”
Over Robinson’s shoulder, on a long table hugging the wall, the 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary stood in an imposing row. Facing down the O.E.D., a bookcase was jammed with more than a dozen Bibles: two versions of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuaginta, Jerome’s Latin translation, the Biblia Vulgata and three editions of Tyndale’s early English translation. I had been sitting with Robinson in the space between these two scholarly endeavors — the study of words; the study of God — for several hours. The question she was in the process of answering was one I posed 40 minutes earlier; we were already at least a dozen steps into her answer.
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