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Jon M. Sweeney’s ‘My Life in Seventeen Books’ a work for spiritual seekers and book lovers

Jon M. Sweeney, author of

In more than one way, Jon M. Sweeney belongs to the People of the Book.

As a Catholic married to a rabbi, the Milwaukee writer easily fits under that traditional Islamic phrase for adherents of scripture-based monotheistic religions. But as someone who’s been a bookseller, sales representative, editor and publisher, he’s also a hardcore person of the book in a literal way.

In “” (Monkfish Publishing), Sweeney braids together the seeker and bibliophile threads of his personality in a richly satisfying volume. On publication day, May 7, he’ll have a 6:30 p.m. launch event at Milwaukee’s

Sweeney has written or edited dozens of books on spiritual figures such as Saint Francis (his faith hero), Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton and Nicholas Black Elk, plus those provocative gurus who stealthily pad among us, No surprise then, that many of the 17 books here that prompt his autobiographical reflections have spiritual subjects.

“Just as Teresa of Avila said she often needed a book in hand in order to start the inner machinery of prayer, I probably need a book in hand to start the machinery of, well, just about anything meaningful in my life,” Sweeney writes.

My Life in Seventeen Books: A Literary Memoir. By Jon M. Sweeney.

As “My Life in Seventeen Books” demonstrates repeatedly, that book often needs to be a specific physical edition for Sweeney. It’s not only the words of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Poems” that captivates him, it’s the used copy with an inscribed flyleaf found in a secondhand bookstore, printed on Indian paper, “slightly yellowed and a bit textured in the way that paper made from rags in the late Middle Ages in Europe was.” Am I reaching to see something incarnational in this, that what calls to Sweeney is not only the idea, mind or words, but the idea, mind or words embodied in something physical?

In one of his more playful confessions, Sweeney opens a chapter by admitting, “A few of these chapters tell stories of how I organize business and work around locating secondhand bookstores.”

Writing about “The Mirror of Perfection,” Sweeney states that “I’ve always been drawn to little books. (In my case, Jon, it was the revolving display of tiny Beatrix Potter books in the neighborhood library of my boyhood.) In used bookstores, he declares, “I pause to look at almost every old, or odd, small volume.” A Catholic convert, Sweeney only learned later in life that small books were big in Catholic piety: “Prayer collections, saint’s lives, novenas, books of blessings, and penny catechisms.”

The stories here are honest, but not all sweet. He associates Martin Buber’s “Tales of the Hasidim” with the failure of his first marriage. And they’re not all churchy: Hearing Rimbaud’s name mentioned in a Dylan song lyric when Sweeney was a Christian high school student would lead him to the New Directions edition of the French poet’s “A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat.”

Sweeney carried some of the books he writes about with him for a year or more. He understands this is less common today, in several aspects: Many people read electronically now, and many people rarely read. “It is while this latest cultural shift is underway, and my attention to books is already not what it once was, that feels like the right time to record what books have meant to me.”

If you go

Jon M. Sweeney will talk about “My Life in Seventeen Books” at 6:30 p.m. May 7 at Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave. Admission is free, but Visit .