First read: 1987
Owned since: 1990 (best guess)
I was nervous about starting this incarnation of the blog, because I knew it would be more personal and more revealing (if anyone cares) than the earlier versions -- and when I had that thought, it was this book, particularly, I thought about.
I don't know how to write about this book in a way that does not make me sound like a fanatic, or as if I am trying to deny my own faith in an effort not to sound like a fanatic. Let's just say it is a book that has been and is profoundly important to me, and will be one of the last books on my shelf when I eventually move into the home for cranky old women.
One of my ex-fiance's housemates read it while we were still in college, and walked around with it for weeks, and said that it had blown him away. I didn't pick it up until a year after I got out of school, but I understood what he meant. It is the story of how the New York writer and would-be intellectual Thomas Merton became the Trappist monk Brother Louis (Frater Maria Ludovico) -- and how he began the process of learning how to be himself and not-himself, an anonymous member of a community but still an individual voice in praise of God.
The Seven Storey Mountain was my travel book for most of the 1990s. Although it's a narrative, you can open it almost anywhere and find something interesting -- a story, a description of someone he knew or met, some great literary gossip from 1930s New York. He is funny and fearless in describing his young, arrogant self:
I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question: "What do you want to be, anyway?"
I could not say, "I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review," or "Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture," so I put the thing on a spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged, and said: "I don't know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic."
"What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?"
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
"What you should say" -- he told me -- "what you should say is that you want to be a saint."