An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World's Most Austere Monastic Order.
If books are to be judged by their power to transport the reader into other worlds and times, then this is a very good book, well worth the attention of serious scholars of many different interests and backgrounds. It is a collection of narratives about five men whose lives intersected briefly in the early to mid1960s in connection with the environment that is poignantly called "the Western world's most austere monastic order." The book is fascinating and--in the way that powerful books should be--somewhat disturbing reading. It is disturbing in terms of what it reveals about the monastic life, about the Carthusian order, and about the particular community located at Parkminster in England in the 1960s.
The author draws on personal interviews, notes and journals, and other sources, and creatively integrates them so as to tell rather interesting stories. The organization of the book--with chronological chapter divisions and with section divisions within each chapter that follow each of the five men--is clear, logical, and easy to follow. Although the reviewer thinks better care is needed to be taken to help the reader follow the name changes that are characteristic of monastic societies, the overall clear organization and clarity of presentation of the book generally holds up. The writing itself is a reader's gift; it is crisp, simple, straightforward, and vivid. Perhaps even beyond the intentions of the author, the book transports readers into other worlds and to other times: that other time that the author intended to make vivid is the monastery; the world the monastery claimed to keep alive is the eleventh-century world of the founder figure of the Carthusian order, Bruno of Cologne. This dynamic makes the book all the more fascinating as it throws light on what history is in its most basic and fundamental terms: storytelling and performance. The author tells the stories of those who, through their ascetical performances and structured hourly observances, continuously recreate another world.
As much as the reader can appreciate, and even find riveting, the clear and vivid storytelling of this book, as much as the reader might be transported to other fascinating times and places, along the way the reader expects from the transporting agent some assistance with translation or perspective as well as a way back. Although the author does provide in some places needed pertinent historical background (regarding the Carthusian order and regarding the backgrounds of the five men whose stories are told), what is missing is some larger critical perspective that might provide the reader clues about how the author herself understands and would like the reader to understand the experiences of the five men and the larger complex phenomenon--the monastic life--behind their experiences. Taking into consideration the lives of those who "made it to the top of the mountain," and those who did not, what does it mean? What is the history of consequences--for monastic culture and for all of us--when the significant moments (civil rights, wars, space exploration, and so forth) shared by large segments of humanity are missed by persons who orient themselves so intensely to the daily and hourly performances and regimens of a spatially and psychically other world? How does one name and judge the history of the effects of such a phenomenon? Readers are not given direct answers to or perspective on these questions. However, this reviewer thinks the richest clues and insights are to be found, not in ascetical theology or in philosophy, but in circling back to and excavating what readers are given in this book: stories. Because of what it sets in motion for important excavation work, the reviewer recommends this fascinating book with enthusiasm.
Vincent L. Wimbush
Claremont Graduate University