BOOK REVIEW: HOW DANTE CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE, by Rod Dreher
I recommend this book. I just finished it a few days ago and I have already started through it again, just to re-read all of the passages that I underlined. First and foremost, I am convinced that this is a very honest and candid story. That makes it interesting and intriguing, but it also, ironically, is the ground for the one objection I have to the whole thing. (I’ll get to that at the end of this review.) Rod Dreher tells the story of his life and how – after achieving domestic happiness and professional success – he ends up sick and depressed in a little town in Louisiana.
If you’ve never been depressed or lost in life – and have no fear that you ever will be – then you can skip this book. But if you are honest with yourself, you will see yourself – your own struggles – in the crisis that Dreher describes. (Just thought of this one: If you can’t relate, it may be that you are hiding your misery from yourself. One of the passages I highlighted in the book says something like this about modern men and women – “Their misery is exceeded by their vanity.” That is, we are so concerned with keeping up appearances that we completely lose track of what is really going on inside us. We stay miserable because our fear of being seen as something other than happy and successful outweighs all else. Amen. Anyway, back to the review.) This book is a great treat for people who are readers and book lovers because it demonstrates how books can actually affect and improve our lives. It’s a story about his foray into Dante and how Dante’s text worked to dramatically show him, time and again, the errors of his ways – mistakes and sins that he was oblivious to before reading Dante. This bit is reinforcing to those of us who have walked the path before, and would be illuminating and instructive to anyone now dealing with the same issues.
This book is deeply and completely Christian. Dreher was a convinced Christian before he hit this crisis and before he read Dante. But his understanding and self-knowledge is deepened through this literary experience. Dreher struggles with the same propensities that plague many intellectual and cultivated Christians – intellectual snobbery and the notion that because we are not axe murderers, we are just fine, thank you, and not in need of any doctor. I think Dreher very honestly and accurately portrays these sins – one of them is worshipping the idol of romantic love, another is unchecked carnality – and convincingly describes how he dealt with them and what resulted when they no longer ruled over him.
The one objection I have to the whole thing is how much it reveals about other people. He writes openly and candidly about his father and his brother in law and his nieces and nephews. If he was surprised that some of his family members felt that his earlier book, The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming, was Dreher’s taking advantage of others for the purpose of telling a story about himself, just wait till they read this one. Dreher is charitable in his treatment of others, but not everything in the book is flattering to the people who love him and I have a hard time imagining that these people spoke as they did to him with the understanding that their confidential words to him would be published for all the world to read.
I followed Dreher’s wrestling match with his illness and depression day by day as he wrote about it on his blog. He said there once that when he changed his diet and backed off on the bottle some, his symptoms abated. That part of things is never mentioned in the book. Maybe he felt like it was not all that significant or did not advance his theme, but I have some experience with the business of changing one’s intake and I believe the results can be amazing. What I am saying is that I think it is a cheat to tell everyone about the spiritual aspects of his healing (these are primary, I know, and I don’t discount them) and not to mention that when he ratcheted down on the carbs and alcohol, that helped, too.
But on balance this is a very, very good book. I will read it again and again for the wisdom it reinforces and imparts. His writing is very good throughout and at times almost lyrical. EG “We are lost, we are searching, we are waiting for a sign to tell us the way home.”