Friday, April 3, 2009

Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris (a review)

Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen NorrisI have been struggling with my review of Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris for quite a long time now, not only because I find nonfiction more difficult to review in general, but also because Norris’ struggle with acedia resonated with me on a personal level and I’m having trouble articulating my thoughts about this book without rambling.

At the beginning of the book, Norris explains that:
“At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. . . . Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part. Care is also required for the daily routines that acedia would have us suppress or deny as meaningless repetition or too much bother” (pp. 3-4).
Norris’s definition of acedia reminded me of looking through photo albums with my partner’s father—there were his young parents surrounded by their children, and as we flipped through the pages, they aged and eventually slipped away altogether as their children became parents in turn. Having watched nearly whole lives flash before my eyes, a feeling of hopelessness washed over me as my partner’s father morphed from handsome youth to old man literally before my eyes. This is the whisper of acedia, murmuring that there is no point in living because inevitably we all just age and die.

Norris gives an example of how acedia can take hold of her life:
“It begins as a deceptively slight shift in thought, or rather—in a process much commented on by the desert monks—a quick succession of thoughts that distract me from my right mind. I’ve been working too long and need a break; maybe I should read a mystery novel to clear my head. I tell myself that I’m too weary to concentrate. I tell myself that it is a matter of respecting my limitations, and of being good to myself [my emphasis]. If I manage to read one book, and then return to my other obligations, no harm is done. But often, one book does not satisfy me. My ‘rest’ has only made me more restless, and as I finish one book, I am tempted to pick up another. If I don’t check myself, I can slip into a state both anxious and lethargic, in which I trudge through four or five paperbacks a day, for three or four days running. I am consuming books rather than reading them. . . . The contemporary maxim, ‘Listen to your body,’ is useless to me when all I want to do is lie down, turn pages, and ignore that ringing phone [my emphasis]” (pp. 15-16).
This resonated deeply with me: reading this passage was an “aha” moment. I do this. I know this helplessness in the face of what seems like mindless repetition, this hollowed-out feeling like nothing matters, everything is meaningless. I’ve also struggled with the fact that in those moments listening to my body doesn’t feel helpful at all.

Norris goes on to meditate on the nature of acedia based primarily on the writings of early monks, as well as to examine its impact on her life, her writing and her marriage. Although I would recommend Acedia & Me to anyone who identifies with Norris’s description of acedia—this book certainly gave me a different perspective on my own “soul weariness”—I found the book lacked narrative structure. It is possible to combine a more scholarly approach with a memoir: Noelle Oxenhandler did it successfully in The Wishing Year: An Experiment in Desire, which I just finished reading recently. Unfortunately, Acedia & Me felt disorganized to me, as if Norris did not have enough distance from the subject matter to write about it clearly. I also wished the book was more personal—with more about her marriage and her writing life and less about the desert monks (these parts of the book started to feel repetitive after a while). Despite this, Acedia & Me is a thought-provoking primer on the all-but-forgotten sin of acedia. Norris even includes a commonplace book at the end of Acedia & Me, with quotes about acedia throughout history, starting with the Psalms and Seneca and ending with contemporary writers as diverse as Anita Brookner, Maurice Sendak and Roland Barthes.

For other reviews, head to these blogs:
Liz Is NostalgicMuse Books ReviewsQuotidian GraceRaging Bibliomania

To read an interview with Kathleen Norris at The Other Journal:
Naming an Ancient Affliction in a Postmodern Age, Part I
Naming an Ancient Affliction in a Postmodern Age, Part II

Thank you to Riverhead Books for sending me this book to review.


  1. Although I am not sure I want to read this book, I found your review and the concept of acedia very intriguing -- and yes, I can relate to a degree. Very thought-provoking post. And I can perhaps see why you struggled with this.

  2. Wow... what an interesting story.

  3. I find nonfiction difficult to review as well. This does sound like an interesting book.

    The second passage you quote speaks to me too. Although I am unable to sit and read books quite that freely, I do understand the idea behind it as that's happened to me to, just in a different way through a different medium.

  4. Don't think I've ever heard of acedia before. Interesting review but not really my cup of tea!

  5. I've experienced that feeling, more often than I'd like, and I've also gotten annoyed with advice like "listen to your body." It's similar to my feeling of utter helplessness when I'm depressed and someone says the equivalent of "Pick up your pallet and walk." If I could do that, don't they think I would?

    (sigh)another on my tbr list (sigh)

  6. First time for me to hear about acedia, too, and I'm glad how reading blogs is expanding my horizons.

    By the way, saw you had a lot of blog awards already, so here's one more.:)

  7. I didn't know what acedia was before I read your post. After reading it though, I googled it to get a better understanding and I don't think I've experienced it - though might've come close many times.

  8. Thanks, Jenners and NotNessie!

    Wendy, there are so many ways to get caught up in this kind of drifting; it doesn't have to be reading books. For me it can happen with TV or the Internet too. Getting sucked into a kind of mindless zoning out. Heh, enough about that!

    Thanks, Jen!

    Exactly, teabird. Not helpful at all! Let me know if you read the book; I'd be interested in hearing what you thought of it.

    Thank you so much, fantaghiro!

  9. Sorry, Myckyee, didn't mean to leave you out of my last comment! I hadn't heard of acedia before I read this book either, but it was once one of the seven deadly sins (now replaced by sloth).

  10. Ohhhh, hence the spiritual connection? I get it now - was sort of confusing it with depression I think.

  11. Myckyee, I realized as I was answering your comment that I didn't really make the spiritual connection clear in my review! And yes, Norris draws a distinction between acedia and depression, although I think the line between the two is fairly blurry. (She struggles with both.)

  12. I read Norris's book The Cloister Walk years ago. It sticks in my mind as a good book.

    I know that feeling of helplessness too and the poignancy of seeing life slip by as people age - oh dear! I wonder if that's why I too read book after book just consuming them rather than reading them. I did just that last year when my sister died.

    Thanks for the review and links to others as well.

  13. I read this and never did find a way to review it, so I can relate! (I ended up writing a mini-review, I think). I agree with everything you said about the structure of the book. It had some great possibilities, but just didn't quite come together.

  14. Have you read "Coming back to Life" by Joanna Macy? She has an alternative way of dealing with 'acedia' (never heard of that term before either, and JM does not use this term)...or at least a different way of seeing it. STRRRRongly recommended!! :)

  15. Margaret (BooksPlease), I'm sorry to hear about your sister. I also read The Cloister Walk several years ago and remember it as a good book. (I also enjoyed Dakota.) This one wasn't as good as the others by a long shot, but it was thought-provoking.

    Ali, I agree, I found the muddled structure led me to feel her thinking was muddled too, unfortunately. But I'm still glad I read the book!

    Thanks for the recommendation, Brogan. That sounds like a great book!