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Augustine's "Confessions": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books) Hardcover – February 27, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


"Another gem of a little book by Garry Wills. . . . Wills describes brilliantly the manner in which this strange work seeped slowly through literary circles. . . . His book is a passionate plea that we should read Augustine's strange book as it was first heard, and in the light of the purposes for which it was first written."--Peter Brown, New York Review of Books

"Wills does for Augustine's Confessions what he did for the Gettysburg Address, which is to take a well-known iconic work and examine it with fresh eyes. He views the Confessions as a book haunted by Genesis, and this perspective allows him to notice things that are overlooked by commentators whose views are preformed by the interpretive tradition. Having translated the Confessions and written a biography of Augustine, Wills is not afraid to go out on a limb, and so even readers who would not agree with his often cheeky interpretations are forced to look at the work afresh. . . . Wills offers an iconoclastic interpretation of a classic work, one that deserves a fresh treatment every few years."--Augustine J. Curley, Library Journal

"Like a biography of a person, this volume takes Augustine's Confessions and traces its birth, growth and decline, and legacy. Since so much of an author's life is connected to his or her work--especially in the case of Confessions--this can't help but include a decent amount of Augustine's own bio. . . . Very readable and highly engaging."--Wade Osburn, Booklist

"[Augustine] and Wills, 76--one of the most distinguished Catholic intellectuals (and American historians) alive--make a potent pair in this lovely little volume, a biography not of the author, but of the book itself, especially of how it has been received in the 16 centuries since its creation. . . . Augustine is always going to matter to the Western tradition, atheist or religious, for his insights into the human psyche, and his thoughts on memory and the elusiveness of time. Wills, by stripping away centuries of myth-making, makes him more accessible than ever."--Brian Bethune, Macleans

"This is the type of biography you normally don't see. It is not a biography of Augustine, there are enough of those; it is not another translation of his Confessions, there are enough of those as well. What this is, and what it attempts to be, is a biography of Augustine's Confessions."--Kevin Winter, Portland Book Review

"Garry Wills really is a modern-day Renaissance man. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg and then turned his attention to St Augustine, firstly translating Confessions, then writing a biography (St Augustine: A Life) and now offering a 'life' of Confessions from 'The Book's Birth' (the title of the opening chapter) through 'The Book's Conversion' to 'The Book's Baptismal Days' to 'The Book's Afterlife'. And what a story it is."--Bruce Elder, Sydney Morning Herald

"This is a short, reliable and well-written introduction to Augustine's Confessions that describes, firstly, how the Confessions came to be written and, secondly, the author's intentions in writing the Confessions these are not quite the same and, thirdly, the subsequent fate of the book. . . . With a deft touch, and in non-technical language, Wills' introductory book not only relays these ideas to the widest possible readership--but also communicates a sensitive understanding of the original context in which the Confessions were written and of Augustine's intentions in writing them."--Stephen Leach, Metapsychology

"Garry Wills . . . writes about Augustine's Confessions sympathetically but rigorously. He traces its trajectory from first appearance at the end of the 4th century AD until our time, and discusses the ideas contained within it. The result is readable and illuminating, and it sent this reader to Google and Amazon in search of more."--Miriam Cosic, The Australian

"Garry Wills has written a short book that teaches us how to read a longer book. If we follow Wills' instructions we will discover new riches in St. Augustine's seminal classic, The Confessions. . . . This is a very helpful guide to the Confessions that makes the great spiritual classic accessible to a new generation of readers. Wills' book is not only scholarly, but it makes good spiritual reading. It is highly recommended, not just for the regular reader, but for students of Augustine looking for a fresh take on this great book."--Fr. Gilles Mongeau S.J., Catholic Register

"The single most important thing for Wills, the thing he'd most like you to accept, is that Confessions is not autobiography. For Wills, this misreading of Augustine's best-known work has given us any number of interpretations (Freudian, sociological, historical) that obscure the point. And that point is? According to Wills, Confessions exist as a kind of 'training ground' or preparation for a reading of the Bible. He shows us how Augustine uses incidents from his life (some actual, some allegorical, some difficult to place on either side of the ledger) to turn the reader's mind toward holy writ, specifically Genesis. In other words, to prepare us to see/read/feel God's presence as it is revealed in Genesis. . . . His arguments make for vivid reading."--André Alexis, Globe and Mail

"I have taught the Confessions about twenty times, yet there are things in it I hadn't noticed until Wills pointed them out. This is a tribute to his erudition and critical acumen, but it's also a tribute to the Confessions itself, which, like any other classic, offers the reader an inexhaustible surplus of meaning."--Lawrence S Cunningham, Commonweal

"[A] brief, beautifully written story of the Confessions themselves. . . . [Wills] is a prolific writer who has tackled an extraordinary range of topics. . . . Wills clearly loves his subject . . . and that admiration is tied to a clear-headed examination of the many ways Augustine's critics have gone astray over time."--Jean Bethke Elshtain, American Conservative

"This is a masterful introductory work, written by someone of real eloquence and theological sensitivity. It is worth every minute spent on a first reading, and I have no doubt I will go back to the underlined passages each time I reread Confessions in the future."--Kim Paffenroth, Biography

From the Back Cover

"Garry Wills rescues Augustine's Confessions from its posterity, peeling away layer after layer of anachronistic reactions to the text and providing an invaluable aid to readers. A master restorer, Wills gives us a picture carefully cleaned of a millennium-and-a-half of varnish. More than that: he helps us appreciate what the original colors actually meant to those who first made contact with Augustine's strange book. This is vintage Wills--punchy, clear, well-argued, and beautifully translated, both linguistically and culturally."--Peter Brown, Princeton University, author of Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

"This is a sensitive, informed, and just appreciation of and introduction to the Confessions. It does justice both to the appealing narrative of sin and fall that preoccupies most readers and to the more complicated structure and ending of the whole work. Few books on the Confessions rival the excellence or concision of this one."--James J. O'Donnell, Georgetown University, author of Augustine: A New Biography


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Product Details

  • Series: Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691143579
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691143576
  • Product Dimensions: 4.8 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #425,642 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine's Childhood, Saint Augustine's Memory, and Saint Augustine's Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I’ve enjoyed a number of the titles in Princeton’s Live of Great Religious Books series, and, having read a number of St. Augustine’s works since college, I looked forward to reading Garry Wills’s “life” of the Confessions. With one or two caveats, I was not disappointed. Wills’s biography of the Confessions is a brisk, well-written, and informative guide to the life and times of Augustine’s book.

One of the strengths of Wills’s book is the attention he gives to the historical context in which Augustine wrote. Or dictated, as Wills points out all important people of Augustine’s time and place—and volume of output—did. Wills lays out the way people of the time wrote, what assumptions they brought to the writing process, and how writing was duplicated and disseminated. Where modern people are accustomed to read a book like Confessions as the private journal of a man’s intimate thoughts with God, in reality it was dictated to a roomful of scribes while yet other writing projects and ecclesial duties were underway.

Over the course of recounting both the story of Confessions and how Augustine came to write it, Wills also exposes the centrality of Genesis to Augustine’s story. The parallels are myriad but often overlooked, and Wills does a wonderful job highlighting them. Augustine, in telling his own story, consciously invoked the imagery and message of Genesis—his fall and redemption were Adam’s. The result, for me, was a renewed appreciation of the Confessions as a literary work.

Two things keep me from giving the book five stars. The first is that the latter third or so of the book becomes very quotation-heavy.
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Format: Kindle Edition
A terrific little book -- lucid, forceful, and original in its way. A genuine pleasure to read. Wills is good on Augustine, on the Confessions, and on the "afterlife" of Augustine's great work. He cites Gibbon but misses Gibbon's best zinger on Augustine (admittedly directed to City of God): "[Augustine's] learning is too often borrowed, and his arguments are too often his own." Decline and Fall, vol. II, p. 67, n.79.
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A very learned work and well written. The author has an in depth knowledge of Augustine and his writings. He quotes references by other authorities on Augustine, like Dr. O'Donnell.
I recommend it to everyone who would like to get familiar with the subject.
Conn Harrington.
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On the subject of religion, faith and Catholicism, if you're looking for insight, rigorous scholarship and history, cogently and clearly expressed, there are few writers as gifted as Gary Wills. Like Christianity's greatest apologist, C.S. Lewis, Mr. Wills always leaves the reader enlightened, encouraged, and enthused.
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