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

4.30  ·  Rating details ·  1,264 ratings  ·  183 reviews
The story of four modern American Catholics who made literature out of their search for God

In the mid-twentieth century four American Catholics came to believe that the best way to explore the questions of religious faith was to write about them - in works that readers of all kinds could admire. The Life You Save May Be Your Own is their story - a vivid and enthralling acc
Paperback, 555 pages
Published March 10th 2004 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2003)
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 ·  1,264 ratings  ·  183 reviews

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Dec 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
ok as a left-brained american catholic i am EXTREMELY predisposed to dig this book, and also i have awarded it five stars despite only being halfway through it, but basically if you are a left-brained american catholic or have any positive feelings toward flannery o'connor, thomas merton, dorothy day, and/or walker percy, read this immediately. this book is seminal, even if the rest of it is just random strings of characters. go buy this.

update: i finally finished this 2.5 months after starting,
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
What a herculean task this was: writing about the lives of four great writers. Four great American Catholic writers. Their common faith defined their lives and their works. They are all dead now but for many years in our recent history they had all been living and looking at the same world. I enumerate them here in the same sequence they had passed away:

1. Flannery O'Connor
2. Thomas Merton
3. Dorothy Day
4. Walker Percy

O'Connor was just 39 when she died of lupus, Day was 84. Percy died of cancer,
Michelle Marie
Dec 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: if you like fiction, their authors, spirituality, philosophy
Recommended to Michelle by: Eighth Day Books
This book was unlike every other book I have ever read, which was perhaps why I enjoyed it. It follows the life of four authors: Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy.
I wasn't expecting their lives to run into each others, and I wasn't expecting it to intrigue me into reading more of their writing now that I know so much about them.
Paul Elie writes like that of an esteemed professor, while I feel like a pupil of his sitting in his class every other day, and briskly ke
James Smith
Jul 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic book that left me with a deep conviction about the necessity to cultivate more time and space for contemplation in my life.
The ultimate goal, I believe, of reading is to develop as a person, to take tiny steps towards wholeness, maturity and wisdom. And, I’ve known for some time that my emphasis on non-fiction reflects my overemphasis of the head over the heart.

Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own was that perfect mixture of head and heart where you’re introduced to some of the most compelling people of the 20th century along with their ideas and convictions. Simply put, I loved it, and I’m so thankful for
The hazards of just starting a book on Kindle is that you don't realize you've picked up such a lengthy one until you're already committed! But I'm glad I made the effort to get through this one, and found myself highlighting and pondering a lot on the way. The style of telling four biographies concurrently was pulled off well, with the themes speaking from one to another and helped my understanding of the era in question as well as O'Connor, Merton, Day, and Percy.

I had just recently finished w
David A.
Aug 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
It's hard to communicate how very much I enjoyed this book. It took me forever to read, but that's partly because I didn't want to rush my way through it. On its face it's pretty innocuous--four Catholic writers from the mid-twentieth century and how their lives intersected--but the intersections are more profound than mere acquaintance, correspondence or coincidence. Walker Percy and Thomas Merton, for example, apparently only met once and didn't actually click, and Merton and Dorothy Day never ...more
Mar 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The title, taken from a Flannery O'Connor short story, sums up a key theme developed by Elie: one's spiritual experience, no matter how public or inspirational, always starts and ends at the deeply personal, individual level. As Elie says in final chapter, "The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives." This quote also sums up E's main achievement in this masterful group portrait of 4 American Catholic writers, O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Me ...more
Aug 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book was slow going for me in the beginning, but I stuck with it and it was worth it. Elie manages to bring together the lives of these four American Catholics into a compelling and even surprising narrative. There are moments when Elie allows too much of his own voice and opinions to come out, but mostly he is content to recede into the background. What I appreciate most about this book, in the end, is how the author brings out the humanity of his main cast of characters. All of them strug ...more
Jul 30, 2007 rated it it was amazing
As a cradle Catholic, I thought I learned everything there is to know about Catholicism in elementary school, but of course I was wrong. I knew very little about Catholic writers and Catholic literature. This is a wonderful, four-part biography that weaves together the stories of four Catholic writers in the 20th century. It focuses on their background as well as their growth and development as artists. All four of them were wonderfully unique. Just be prepared to come away with a new reading li ...more
Samantha B
Mar 19, 2021 rated it really liked it
Whew! That was A Book And A Half. But I'm very glad I read it.

(Side note: I found out about this book through Sarah Clarkson's Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life, which I would HIGHLY recommend for anyone who would like to be killed by their TBR in the near future. XD)

Where to start... The book entwined the lives of Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, with the common theme of pilgrimage holding the whole thing together
Feb 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book is part four-way biography, part literary critique and part Catholic pilgrimage. It is always informative, balanced, well-written and entertaining. Paul Elie examines the intertwined lives of four Catholic writers from the mid-twentieth century: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Conner and Walker Percy. He manages to tell each specific story and to comment on their literary works with balance and insight while at the same time pointing to the larger trends of the times. It is fasc ...more
Katie Fitzgerald
This lengthy volume traces the lives and work of four Catholic writers of the twentieth century - Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy - and shows how and where they crossed paths, as well as how world events and changes in the church influenced each one's vocation.
I read this just after finishing The Seven Storey Mountain, which I loved, but which left out some of the more controversial details of Thomas Merton's life. It was interesting to learn what the censors rem
Misael Galdámez
Feb 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
A book that made me feel less lonely. A beautifully written book about book-lovers, writers, existentialists who believed in spite of their unbelief. It’s an amazing thing, to be human, and interact with humans gone long before.

(Also four stars because sometimes I got lost in the literary sauce about the writers themes and approaches.)
Jun 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. It won’t be the last time I read it.
Jan 13, 2020 rated it liked it
Well-researched book. Great summary of 4 biographies of 4 different Catholic writers. I found the premise enticing, however the execution was at times, long-winded.
Sep 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
I may have a lot more to say about this book after I finish it the second time - I finished it, turned back to page one and began again. Not because it is the most enjoyable book I ever read - it was kind of a slog at times - but because it has so much to say about things that are really important to me: writing, Christian faith in general and Catholicism in particular, peer relationships, literature, the context of history, the making and juggling of one's priorities, and the interior life. And ...more
Dec 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
When I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the English Department, one of the assigned stories was Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. The students found the story disturbing as I always did. Undoubtedly O’Connor meant to discomfit the story readers and force them, as if by gunpoint, to examine their lives and perhaps to save it from a life unexamined and in the dark. The misfits in her stories were dragged up from her own discomfit in her parochial South and her personal torment.

Dec 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
The greatness of this book doesn't come from Elie's writing style, which can be a little formulaic and plodding at times. It is also not primarily a work of literary analysis. While Elie explains well the ideas captured in these authors' works and the way their writings relate to the times they lived in, the spirit, or "magic" of actually reading the books he discusses doesn't quite come through here. Rather, The Life You Save May Be Your Own's greatness is in the way Elie interweaves the lives ...more
Dec 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a fantastic book and I found it revelatory for all four of the book's subjects (O'Connor, Day, Merton, and Percy) and American Catholicism in the 20th century. To move in time with each of these four people and keep drawing together themes and historical intersections for each writer must have been a tremendous undertaking and one fraught with difficulty--though I think Elie succeeds strikingly well. One virtue of the book was that it never spent too long on discussing any particular per ...more
Pam Cipkowski
I read this over the course of the summer, when I could devote quiet time every lunch hour in a little courtyard on campus to contemplate the grandeur of this magnum opus of Catholic biography. Author Paul Elie has taken on the miraculous task of chronicling the life journey of four prominent 20th century Catholic figures and their writings--Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy. Elie tells each of their stories, while at the same time deftly describing how their lives ...more
Dec 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book entertained and inspired me; it felt like a combination of literary analysis, biography, and spiritual reflection about each of the four writers: O'Connor, Merton, Day, and Percy. The book enabled me to see O'Connor and Merton in a new light, and got me more interested in the lives and writings of Day and Percy. I was also fascinated by the correspondence that they maintained with each other, and how their dialogue with one another helped each of them to discover and refine their authe ...more
James Henderson
Oct 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, religion
Featuring biographies of two of my favorite writers, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, this book introduced me to the world of two other religious writer/thinkers, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. It also expanded my limited knowledge of Roman Catholicism since I was raised a heathen (Methodist version). Of course, these writers were not necessarily orthodox in their religious beliefs, but they were definitely interesting.
The book is a rich tapestry that features connections, both curious and s
Jan 13, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: spiritual, cursillo
If you'd like to be informed about the life of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy and how these individuals became important to the Catholic church, then take the time to read.

I was very impressed at the author since he was basically an editor for each of these individuals and some how wove them perfectly together.

The book engaged me to keep up with my reading and afterwards, I became thirsty for more about the people mentioned in the book. There are many excerpts fr
B. Rule
Oct 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
A very interesting book and an ambitious attempt to sketch the outlines of American Catholicism through four of its most preeminent practitioners. However, as a biography of each of the four, it leaves something to be desired. The interweaving of four distinct stories that only occasionally and tangentially intersect renders it difficult to trace the line of each life. I was left at places wondering "how did Merton get here?" or "what could have motivated O'Connor to do that?" The book is much m ...more
Oct 08, 2011 rated it it was ok
A somewhat interesting look at Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O'Connor and how their lives (particularly their religious (particularly their Catholic-y religious)) intersect and mirror each other. The writing is a little forced at times (any time you want to trace a theme through the lives of multiple people, you are going to have to occasionally stretch a little -- a fault for which we cannot be too hard on the author, except perhaps to say that maybe he should not have ...more
Mike Melley
Feb 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
Ok, remember in college when you were going through the course offering book and came across one of those cross curriculum literature/philosophy/religion classes that looked real interesting? Well this is the required reading for that class. I personally considered that class for 30 seconds and promptly chose Cinema As An Art Form. So I took a shot on this one 25 years later. Don't get me wrong, it's a great book, but it's long and dense. O'Connor, Merton, Day, and Percy are complex characters a ...more
Anthony DeFalco
Jul 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Being a practicing catholic, and a catholic with many doubts at times at age 77 I needed to read about three of my four friends. The book deals with four catholic writers, and I was delighted to read about all four, and only Dorothy Day was the one I had not read extensively. Merton, Percy, and O' Conner are all favorites and although I have read much about, and by them, Elie is such a good storyteller I enjoyed rereading about all of them.
Elie points out that being a catholic is a pilgrimage,
Philip Palios
Apr 25, 2016 rated it liked it
This is a good book, but for me it could have ended around page 200. I was primarily interested in learning about how these Catholic writers came into the faith and how it related to their writing. Elie does a decent job covering this information in the first 1/3rd of the book. By the time I got to about page 250 I decided I was done as everything I was interested in had already been covered and as good as the writing is, it is still dense and I found myself frequently falling asleep when I trie ...more
Oct 12, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: catholic
This is supposed to be about the convergence of four great contemporary Catholic writers, but the author spent too little time on that theme. Instead, he writes four biographies and shuffles them together. Because of this, the narrative is disjointed. On top of this, the writing is dry. There are good biographies on all four authors, and in a couple of cases, great autobiographies. Their relationship and their message is worthy of a book; hopefully, the publication of this one won't prevent a mo ...more
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