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

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  1,050 ratings  ·  142 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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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,
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,
Dec 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: if you like fiction, their authors, spirituality, philosophy
Recommended to MichelleMarie 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
John Winston Powell
May 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This may be one of my favorite books of all time. It makes the argument that there was a great Catholic literary moment in the 20th century. The best part is how Elie integrates the stories of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy. If you are interested in any of these great writers, you will be interested in the others after you finish the book. These spiritual writers were aware of each other's work, and in some cases, interacted. The title comes from a Flannery O'Con ...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
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, read-by-me
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
Mar 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: catholic
Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor. A look at their lives and their writing. They lived very different lives and wrote in unique styles. But they had one similarity. They were Catholic. They all tried to live the Gospel but did so in their own individual ways. Day was an anarchist and pacifist who was arrested a number of times. She was a journalist. Merton was a monk who wrote about the faith. Percy wrote essays and novels about a search for meaning and truth. O'Conn ...more
Jan 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Paul Elie manages (as Krista Tippett does on Speaking of Faith) to discuss the spritual quests of Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day in ways that are neither patronizing, idolizing, sentimental, or cynical. I want to learn to think this clearly, compassionately, and comprehensively.
Dec 09, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: spiritual-growth
Light reading, this was not. However, I recommend it to anyone who is interested in spirituality, literature, the contemplative life, social justice, Catholicism, and mid-century American culture- all at once!!! These topics are explored through the life stories of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy.
Jun 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
Four Catholic writers - whose lives intertwined, and who read each others' publications. Their life and literature are heavily influenced by their belief in the Roman Catholic faith.
May 12, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I really got into this book; a great weaving of lives.
Burke Ingraffia
Dec 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a very good book about the lives of four 20th Century Catholic writers.
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
Jul 31, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely beautiful book. A spiritual autobiography of Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O'Conner presented in the theme of pilgrim. These four individuals all embody a certain orientation towards God -- Merton as spiritual contemplation of the I/Thou, Day as the champion of the marginalized, O'Conner as the baptizer of the grotesque, and Percy as the modern existentialist.

The power of these lives are marked by its sharp contrast with the readers life. Early on in the book
May 04, 2017 rated it it was ok
Not a terrible book, but I felt as though it would have been far stronger had it been four separate biographies for each of the individual authors. True, there existed certain connections between them. Merton and Dorothy Day were frequent correspondents, though they never met, and Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy shared a briefer correspondence and a single meeting, which made an impression on the latter. But on the whole, they do not really constitute a literary "circle" the way we usually th ...more
Ray LaManna
Feb 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Elie has written a simultaneous intellectual bio of the 4 most important Catholic writers of the second half of the 20th century-Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Walker Percy. He has emphasized the spiritual quest each made in the lives and their interactions with each other. It's a fascinating and deep look into the lives and works of these remarkable people--and I hope it spurs people to pick up their writings and be influenced by them in their own quests.
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“life lived in search of God is real life, the only life worth living.” 2 likes
“The point is, however: God save us all from the moral zealot who places himself above the law and is willing to burn my house down, and yours, providing he feels he is sufficiently right and I sufficiently wrong.” 1 likes
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