What makes a good book? The case of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga
This is a brief and very paradoxical review, because Silas S. Henderson’s new biography of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga is in several important senses a very good book. Yet one wonders if academicians who write books think much about what makes a book really good. Or whether their publishers consider more than the competence of the author and the relevance of the topic for their purposes.
Back in the dark ages of graduate school, I was lucky enough to meet one professor at Princeton who, on reviewing dissertation proposals, would always say: “This admits of a sound academic treatment, but what would make it a good book?” His question was quite remarkable, for as a rule it is the last thing scholars consider, and it is quite often fairly low on the scale even for publishers who, like everyone else, have their marketing goals to meet and their perceived relevance to consider.
Subtitled “With an undivided heart”, this offering from the premier Ignatius Press is a study of a sixteenth-century Italian of noble lineage who committed himself—against the serious opposition of his father—to a pure and rigorous apostolic life in a relatively new religious order, the Society of Jesus. St. Aloysius was known for his constancy and zeal from a very young age. Canonized in 1726, he was named by Pope Benedict XIII as patron of all schools just three years later. There is no question that he makes a fine model for self-discipline and single-heartedness among young men, and we can imagine that such a patron can do tremendous good for those who adopt him as their own.
Moreover, Henderson’s book is extraordinarily well-researched, cohesively organized, sound in its judgments, and superb in its extensive use of primary sources—sources written by those who knew the saint. The author also brings considerable spiritual understanding to his subject. Without question, the book should be available online and housed in every relevant library (presuming any libraries still house books). Frankly, Henderson’s treatment may be justly regarded as the definitive biography.
Why, then, should I have reservations about this recent publishing effort from Ignatius Press? The answer to that is depressingly easy: Saint Aloysius died when he was twenty-three years old.
I hasten to add that this was not the Saint’s fault. Nor is it his biographer’s fault. I will even go out on a limb and suggest that it is not even the publisher’s fault (though publishers have been the death of many a young scholar). But under the heading of what makes “a good book”, it just might be reasonable to ask whether three hundred pages devoted to the details of the life of a youngster who died at age twenty-three has a ghost of a chance of qualifying. To exaggerate just a bit, isn’t it possible that ten or twenty pages would do?
Even the best of us have neither developed sufficiently nor accomplished enough to merit major biographical treatment at such a tender age. We simply haven’t the range of experiences and accomplishments necessary to flesh out “a good book”. This does not mean that St. Aloysius did not face significant problems (including serious health problems and an obstructive family), nor that he had not advanced spiritually well beyond many who were (or are) far older. What it means is that the biographer must spend a great deal of time harping on (or exploring) a very few characteristics and problems, long after the reader has gotten the point.
Silas Henderson deserves credit for accomplishing precisely this task with consummate grace. But unless I am very far wrong, few will finish Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, S.J. with the breathless thought that this—this—was a really good book. As Catholic publishing comes into its own again in the early twenty-first century, I believe it is time to slow down the rate of new releases, and to think more carefully about the question with which I began: What makes a good book? What makes a book that will not only attract a subsidy or fill a niche but also be read, cherished, and even loved?
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