April 6, 2006

Pulitzer Winner Talks Books

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It was a night of celebration for avid readers, literary scholars, and creative writers in the Cornell and Ithaca community as the 2006 Gail and Stephan Rudin Lecture on American Culture gave the library an opportunity to showcase the Rudin’s most recent gift and gave everyone a chance to hear the inspiring words of Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson.

The lecture mixed personal anecdote, literary analysis, and cultural criticism, and she spoke about the intensity of the experience of reading and writing with the eloquence befitting such an acclaimed author. It was followed by a reception in the Hirshland Exhibition Gallery in Kroch Library, where a selection of the new collection donated by the Rudins was displayed. The collection includes autographed letters by noted American and British writers including Louisa May Alcott, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and William Wordsworth, to name a few.

“I pick my collection based on content,” said Stephen Rudin, who for 30 years has been collecting these letters from dealers and at auctions. The letters generally provide insights into the author’s view on the craft of creative writing. Rudin explained that many of these letters are not published and he thought that it was important to bring them out of the vault so they can see the light of day. Thanks to Rudin, 227 letters of some of the most prominent American and British writers can be used by students and scholars.

Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III, a personal friend of Robinson, invited her to speak. Rawlings introduced Robinson as “our latest visitor from the University of Iowa.”

“Her books are acts of reverence. We could all use a little reverence these days,” he said.

The beginning of the lecture was intensely personal, as Robinson recounted her own experience with reading.

“It is a deep thing, this reading of books,” she said. For Robinson, the power of reading lies in its power to engage consciousness and become the reader’s own experience. Robinson expanded on the actual experience of reading a novel, calling it a “quintessentially solitary activity” – like dreaming, meditation, and prayer. Robinson celebrates this individualism, which she sees not as a negative characteristic but as an admirable quality that embodies a respect for the individual, for inwardness and solitude.

Robinson also spoke about the “myth of decline,” the prevalent idea that our culture is falling apart and there is a downward drift in intelligence. This leads to the unfortunate “dumbing down” of the printed text. Robinson referred to monumental writers such as Dante and Luther, who are so important to Western civilization because they had a high respect for the unlearned, and asked why we do not have the same respect for readers today.

“Respect your reader, assume your reader is smarter than you,” Robinson teaches her students in order to combat the growing cynicism towards the general public and the feeling that it is necessary to condescend when writing or speaking to the public.

“The respect she has for her readership is so unique and refreshing. I take enthusiasm and pride that there are authors out there who still respect all of us as readers,” said Lynn Brown, interim director of library communications.

When Gail Gifford Rudin ’56 commented on the popularity of Robinson’s novels, Robinson could only say that she was amazed.

Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, was published in 1981. Her second, Gilead, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.

Robinson lectured to a full house in Lewis Auditorium, with many Ithaca residents turning out to hear the acclaimed author speak. One Ithacan, Mark Barrett, appreciated the fact that he could just come over to Cornell and hear such an amazing speaker.

“It makes me happy to live in Ithaca,” he said.

“It was the best lecture I’ve ever heard at Cornell … a tour-de-force,” said Peter Hirtle, director for instruction and learning at the University library.

The one criticism raised against Robinson was that she was occasionally hard to follow; one complex idea followed another in rapid succession.

Archived article by Tamar Weinstock
Sun Contributor