The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton (Mariner; 1948) $16.00
In listing an old and a new book in a common genre, the idea of writing about memoirs thrilled me. I've got many recent favorites.
If I were to pick one memoir from decades ago, however, it is this remarkably popular story of a restless Columbia University literature student who, famously, left it all to become a Trappist monk. The rest of Merton's story is itself the topic of seemingly endless fascination and commentary—he is doubtlessly one of the most significant religious figures of the 20th century, especially for his insightful descriptions of the contemplative vocation, as well as his adamant and incisive social critique around issues of consumerism, racism, war, and global injustice. He corresponded with the most significant social activists of the late 60’s and remained an important critic of literature and politics until his untimely death in 1968. But this is where it began, his slow but moving story of his journey toward faith, his extraordinary sense of mystical union on a busy street corner in St. Louis (famously described with great wonder) and his eventual sense of inner peace as he takes vows of silence in an obscure monastery in rural Kentucky.
Many famous thinkers, writers and activists have drawn strength from this moving memoir—the list is huge, but think of Catholic novelist Graham Greene, Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, Pulitzer Prize winning memoirist Frank McCourt, or evangelical social justice leader Jim Wallis. Merton knew the New York servant of the poor Dorothy Day, and he was influential, they say, behind the scenes of the historic reforms known as Vatican II. Mostly, he was a funny, passionate, poet-priest. A monk and a writer and a generous man of prayer. The story of how he got there—his turning away from his literary studies in New York and his commitment to Christian faith and the austere monastic life—is legendary. Whether it should be considered a modern-day Confessions is, perhaps, debated. That it is one of the great books of our time is not; indeed, it became a sensation the moment it was published, becoming one of the biggest selling non-fiction books of 1949, eventually it was translated into over 20 language. It is still considered a monumental classic.
Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr (Harper; 2010) $14.99
If Seven Story Mountain is a serene study of doubt, struggle, faith, and discovery, Lit is a high-octane, powerhouse of some crazy stuff leading to, well, double-digit doubt, struggle, faith and recovery. Carr may be one of the finest memoirist and poets writing today. Her autobiographical account of her girlhood days in a very dysfunctional family in hard-scrabble East Texas, The Liars Club, and its powerful sequel, Cherry, are considered contemporary books that refueled the current popularity of literary memoir.
In Lit, she seems somewhat older and wiser but readers would be wrong to think that. She narrates her mid-life years running from her broken past, resolved not to get stuck in the downward spirals of drugs, alcohol, codependency and depression that plagued her zany, full-color, extended family. As she raises a son, becomes an important writer, sees her marriage break up (ahh, the way she describes class difference is precious) and finds a devout Catholic (a famous writer himself) who lures her into AA and sobriety, she brings readers along almost as if you are part of the unfolding drama.
She is both a good wordsmith, with sentences that are nearly stunning, and a good storyteller. She is from Texas, after all, and her tale has a pretty big arch. As she comes to Christian faith and joins the Catholic church, her life, her work and vocation, and her family all take on new meanings; but, I do not want to spoil too much. This is a riveting read, enjoyable and raw, hopeful and real, beautiful even in the anguish which slowly gives way to muted joy. A fine example of a respected writer doing insightful memoir in the mainstream literary world, bearing witness to life, pain, goodness and God.
You can order both of these books at Hearts and Minds Books. Mention Q Ideas when you order and receive 20% off.
Stephanie S. Smith @ www.stephindialogue.com
Ian Morgan Cron
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