Vanity of vanities, the way we praise great books. Think of Coleridge and his famous "smack of Hamlet," or of some of the encomiums in this very series: When we seek to praise, we invoke the surprising modernity of a book from an age less advanced than our own. What makes Shakespeare, Cervantes and the rest so remarkable, really, is that they were genius enough to imagine us!
Few books are more frequently subject to such vain mirror-work than St. Augustine's Confessions. Enter enlightened wonder: At the end of the fourth century, a middle-aged North African wrote an account of himself that's self-conscious, questioning, searching and boldly honest; an account that never but roars with a lively literary voice; an account written after the author gave up a life of eloquent wind and elegant debauchery for a life committed to Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Thank ourselves we're such open-minded people. We can look past Augustine's getting the conversion experience backward because there's so much else in the Confessions that compels, endears, smacks.