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A Time to Die:
Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life

by nicolas diat
ignatius, 174 pages, $17.95

Nicolas Diat is a French journalist most famous for his interviews with Cardinal Robert Sarah. In this book, he visits flourishing monasteries in France to talk with monks about death. A Time to Die, which won the Académie française’s Prix du cardinal Lustiger in 2018, is a work of beauty and power. The monks in this book know how to die. When death approaches, they navigate between their need for appropriate hospital care and their desire—and the community’s desire for them—to die surrounded by their brothers. If the abbot is away, many monks cling to life until he returns, a final act of obedience.

Diat does not shy away from the pain and horror of death. He offers a detailed account of the long death of Br. Vincent, a young monk at ­Lagrasse Abbey: “The more he advanced toward God, the less his brothers understood him. . . . He had become transparent.” The monks who suffer cannot pray as they once did. Instead, they are carried along by the prayers of their brothers. Many enjoy a deep peace in their final moments, even if they have suffered greatly.

The monks spend their whole lives desiring heaven and preparing for death. For them, meditating on dying is not a marker of morbidity, but a tool for understanding life. As one Carthusian puts it, “A monk has given his life to God, and he has never met him. It is normal for him to be impatient to see him.” A Time to Die is a salutary reminder of life’s meaning in light of life’s end. It will enkindle your own impatience to see God.

—Nathaniel Peters

Charter Schools and Their Enemies
by thomas sowell
basic books, 288 pages, $30

Economist Thomas Sowell is renowned for highly readable books of social analysis that range far beyond economics, and publishes his share of more technical works as well. Books like Race and Culture: A World View and The ­Vision of the Anointed: Self-­Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy should be on everyone’s reading list. His latest book is rather different: an examination of whether charter schools in New York City produce (as their supporters claim) superior academic outcomes. 

Charter school opponents, especially in the teacher unions, commonly claim that any advantages in test scores are the result of comparing apples and oranges—that charter schools have the advantage of serving a different clientele of students. In order to answer such objections, Sowell turns to New York City, where declining enrollments in district public schools have allowed charter public schools to share the same facilities, while serving students of similar racial/ethnic character at the same grade levels. He identifies sixty-five such cases and provides in each case the actual grade-by-grade results on required state tests. The proportion of charter school students attaining “proficiency” was nearly five times as great in language arts and seven times as great in mathematics as their peers in the same buildings.

“Only among defenders of traditional unionized public schools,” Sowell notes, “is it considered an unjustified imposition to judge students, teachers or schools by how much learning has actually taken place.” He accompanies his discussion of the academic achievement data with brief chapters on the reasons for hostility to charter schools and on current debates about accountability and group differences among students, suggesting that “there are many reasons for educational disparities, and the reasons . . . cannot be reduced to those that are mentioned most often, or most loudly,” including racial bias and inadequate funding of urban schools.

This is an indispensable source for those who would make the argument for charter schools, though not the wide-ranging social analysis that Thomas Sowell has provided in his other work.

—Charles L. Glenn