Sure, the best-selling book of all-time is, of course, the Bible. It is also the most widely (and given some of the liberties taken, wildly) translated book of all time, too.
But who takes the silver medal in terms of sales? And also in terms of translations?
Not the Quran. Not Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Not Euclid’s Geometry. Not L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics.
Second-place goes to another Catholic classic, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis.
While this kind of statement invariably stirs up ill-will amongst Muslims—who have a point that the Quran is more-widely disseminated, if not sold- and hard-core Chinese Maoists (and, for that matter, Scientologists), the most reliable data out there is that The Imitation (as it is almost always abbreviated) has sold more copies and been translated into more languages than any other text aside from the Bible itself.
It’s not hard to see why: the book is a plethora of great, good spiritual advice and can guide you through a dark night of the soul, if not a full-blown spiritual meltdown.
Further, it’s broken up into short, bite-sized chapters which never go out of style.
And then there’s the strange and questionable provenance of the book itself. It is said to be the work of a fourteenth-to-fifteenth century German mystic and Canon Regular named Thomas á Kempis—but some scholars think another mystic, Walter Hilton, may have had a hand in at least part of the composition of The Imitation.
And then there’s the urban legend that á Kempis was accidentally “buried-alive” by mistake (German medicine in the fifteenth century was apparently a pretty inexact science). And when his body was exhumed, scratch-marks were found on the inside of his coffin lid, showing that á Kempis was not only alive, but trying to get out of his coffin. Some people like to stretch this to say that it’s the reason á Kempis was never formally canonized: a man buried alive should, apparently, resign himself to his premature death, take a deep breath and trust himself to God’s care. Or so the legend goes.
While there is almost nothing reliable about that last paragraph, such pseudo-hagiology is always popular and dies hard, no pun intended.
What is certain, in addition to the sales numbers, is the bona fide popularity of The Imitation. In the beginning, as it were, the book had appeal with those somewhat disaffected with the institutional Catholic church—which was at that time barreling towards the Protestant Reformation without even knowing it—as the book charted the individual soul’s journey up to and including its mystical union with God, especially in the Holy Eucharist, in Book Four entitled “The Blessed Sacrament.” However, one cannot have the Blessed Sacrament without the Church, so á Kempis’s intention was clear: salvation came through the deposit of faith given to the Latin Church. But others, notably, Martin Luther, later concentrated mainly on the “individuality of the soul.” The upshot of this is that the book has been popular with both Catholics and Protestants right from the start.
Another reason The Imitation has not only aged well, but sold well these many centuries is its message: “I would rather feel compunction than know its definition,” á Kempis tells us in Book One, Chapter One, page one, and this is a leitmotiv of the text: the heart—especially the heart full of true sorrow that weeps over Christ’s sufferings for mankind—is more pleasing to God than a head full of scholastic wisdom.
Not that the book isn’t learned: no one can accuse á Kempis of being a theological lightweight. It’s just that, unlike St. Thomas Aquinas’s non-stop neo-Aristotelian questions-and-answers, or St. Bonaventure’s unique blend of mysticism and scholasticism, or Peter Abelard’s endless energy to win an argument, á Kempis goes right for the good old-fashioned Catholic guilt on a visceral level and never lets you forget it, either. For instance: “We think sometimes to please others by being with them; and we begin rather to disgust them by the evil behavior which they discover in us.” Also: “It will do thee no harm to esteem thyself the worst of all; but it will hurt thee very much to prefer thyself before anyone else.” And a personal favorite: “We are all frail: but see thou think no one more frail than thyself.”
And why stop there? At times á Kempis writes like a bona fide misanthrope: “It is truly a misery to live upon this earth,” “And take it not to heart when thou art forsaken by a friend, knowing that at one time or other we all must part,” and “Never think thou hast made any progress till thou lookest upon thyself as inferior to all.”
But this is all part of an overarching gestalt of humility that undergirds The Imitation—otherwise we’d be left with nothing but sturm und drang.
In fact, The Imitation is one of those very rare books that you might quote without ever knowing you are quoting it: “All disquiet of heart and distraction of the senses arise from inordinate love and vain fear,” “Know that the love of thyself is more hurtful to thee than anything in the world,” and the bon mot that Umberto Eco quotes verbatim in his best-seller, The Name of the Rose: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not save in nooks and in books.”
But the key to this seminal text is not a laundry list of aphorisms on the spiritual life but actual spiritual progress. And unlike the many mystics who came after á Kempis and whose writings may seem a bit slippery for the modern mind, á Kempis’s brand of mysticism—Germanic, earth-bound-but-heaven-gazing, has never gone out of style. If nothing else, it seems almost more applicable today than possibly any other time since the Reformation.
There are currently so many versions and translations of The Imitation for sale—the Catholic Book Publishing Company alone produces eight different versions—that it seems unfair to pick just one as the “definitive text.” However, when I entered graduate school a family friend sent me The Confraternity of The Precious Blood edition of The Imitation of Christ which has the added bonus of dozens and dozens of illustrations by Ariel Agemian. It is my personal favorite of the many versions of The Imitation out there, not only for sentimental reasons, but because it is literally pocket-sized (assuming you have rather capacious pocket), and on a subway, bus, or train-ride it’s the kind of book you can read to keep you calm (especially in a post-9/11 New York City).
But the artwork has a lot to do with my favoring this version of The Imitation (whose official title is MY Imitation of Christ). Latin Mass Magazine did an interesting piece on the artwork of Ariel Agemian a few years ago. Agemian’s style, which is sort of a mix between a Catholic Norman Rockwell and the apocalyptic work of Albrecht Durer, seems the perfect fit for this unequalled book.
Regardless of which translation you go for (and there are plenty to choose from) The Imitation of Christ is simply indispensable. And has provided me with a bit of advice I never tire of: “No created thing can fully quiet and satisfy my desires.” Amen.
Editor’s note: The lead image above is a detail from the illustration titled “I Am the Way,” drawn by Ariel Agemian.