Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie

In this ambitious and long book, Mr. Elie attempts to integrate the lives of four important American Catholics: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor.
This book, though, will take a slightly different approach, setting out to tell their four stories as one, albeit one with four points of origin and points of view. It is, or is meant to be, the narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge; it is a story of readers and writers--of four individuals who glimpsed a way of life in their reading and evoked it in their writing, so as to make their readers yearn to go and do likewise.
When I began this book, these four people were little more than names to me. I'd only read one thing written by any of them (Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy, which I didn't remember reading until halfway through this book and which I didn't understand when I did read it). Now I have the beginning of an understanding of these four Catholics who lived and wrote and changed lives in the recent past. Mr. Elie is a book editor and his knowledge of these writers and the meaning and importance of what they wrote is an important part of the value of this book.

Unfortunately, because it follows four individuals in four places with four very different lives, the flow of the book is disjointed. Every few pages (or paragraphs), the author moves from one person to another. In some ways that made it easy to read in short spaces between the calls and needs of children, but it also made it difficult to keep in mind which person was the current focus. Mr. Elie seemed to do a reasonably job of showing how each of the lives could be seen as a pilgrimage, but I'm not entirely convinced he couldn't have done a similar job with four different books, perhaps as a series. Then again, there are a few exchanges by letter (for example, between Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day) that are easier to put into context when telling the stories together.

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