Maybe the luckiest thing that ever happened to me happened right at the start, in the genetic lottery at conception. That’s when I inherited the “reading gene.”

OK, there probably is no such thing, but I remain convinced of it. I have met people who rarely or never read, for whom reading is a chore or worse yet, an ordeal. At the other end of the spectrum there’s the cohort I belong to, people who read obsessively and voluminously, devouring books and magazines as naturally and inescapably as breathing.

In a lifetime of reading, a few dozen authors have become inspiring and dependable companions: Tolstoy, Nabokov, Graham Greene, Philip Roth, John Updike, George Saunders, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Wallace Stegner, David McCullough, Ann Patchett, August Wilson, David Malouf, John McPhee and more.

What is it about their books that is so compelling? The best writing help us understand history and better appreciate people. Beyond that, reading is a blessing in at least two respects: it allows readers to roam the world in time and place learning from others, and it is a great balm and solace in periods of loneliness.

This is the subtext for a classic novel I only recently discovered, “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005. The book’s narrator, the aging and ailing John Ames, is writing a letter to his 7-year-old son, a kind of summing up of his life, which he expects will end soon, before the boy ever gets to know him.

Ames lives in the small Iowa town of the title, and is a preacher who is the son and grandson of preachers. His first wife and child died at childbirth, and he has since experienced profound loneliness. He has lived alone for decades, cared for by sympathetic parishioners, until meeting and marrying a much younger woman, with whom – a surprise to them both – he has a child.

Ames and his best friend, Boughton, also a local preacher, discuss religion, the great political and social issues of mid-20th century America as well as their personal lives. What bedevils Ames most is Boughton’s troubled middle-aged son, who has come back to Gilead.

Death too is never far away from Ames’s mind. He writes: “Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, ‘All that fear and all that grief were about nothing.’”

The story is simple and timeless: the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next, the deep love of a man for his wife and child, his regrets and weaknesses, and his constant and beautiful humanity. John Ames is one of the finest creations of 20th century literature. And “Gilead,” the first book of a trilogy about these characters, is one of our finest achievements in literature.

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...