Garry Wills, Augustine's "Confessions": A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 166pp.
This is a book about a book, one of the first in a series of eighteen "biographies" of great religious books by Princeton University Press. The "Lives of Great Religious Books" is a "series of short volumes that recount the complex and fascinating histories of important religious texts from around the world" (dust jacket). The volumes pair leading experts with classic texts and are written for a general audience. Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his book on Abraham Lincoln, is a classics professor from Northwestern University who has written forty books, including five previous volumes on Augustine.
Wills begins with book production in late antiquity. Augustine would have dictated to scribes, who used reed pens to write on long scrolls. This was an expensive, labor intensive and time-consuming production process, but no obstacle for Augustine to write five million words in his lifetime. He wrote his Confessions in the year 397 at the age of forty-three, ten years after his baptism by Ambrose. The book pioneered a new genre with no parallel in classical or Christian literature. Often and wrongly considered an autobiography, the book is really a long prayer to an audience of one, God himself. It's also a sustained effort of introspection, for in Augustine knowledge of the self is the way to knowledge of God: "You were waiting within me while I went outside me" (126).
Along the way Wills tackles the questions surrounding the historicity of Augustine's story-telling; his move from Tagaste to Carthage and then to Rome; his struggle with what Wills calls "sexual addiction" and his consequent famous conversion; the nature of memory; the questions that surround Books 10–13 and whether they were added later; and "the bewildering variety of desires tugging at the will" (69). In a final chapter Wills reviews the book's "afterlife" and reception among readers over the last fifteen hundred years — by Pelagius, Nietzsche (who dismissed Augustine as a phony), Kierkegaard, Freud and even the post-modernists. If you can't read the Confessions, this is an excellent overview by a leading expert. And we can all imitate Augustine as best we can. "Each person has himself at hand to study," he wrote, "to observe and ponder and report what he finds" (13.12).
Note: Another volume from this series will be reviewed by Journey with Jesus: Martin Marty, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers From Prison" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 275pp.