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The Spiral Staircase Hardcover – 1 Mar 2004

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; First Edition edition (1 Mar 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007122284
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007122288
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.8 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 280,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Karen Armstrong is one of the world's leading commentators on religious affairs. She spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun in the 1960s, but then left her teaching order in 1969 to read English at St Anne's College, Oxford. In 1982, she became a full time writer and broadcaster. She is a best-selling author of over 15 books. An accomplished writer and passionate campaigner for religious liberty, Armstrong has addressed members of the United States Congress and the Senate and has participated in the World Economic Forum.

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Amazon Review

"I have decided to try again", Karen Armstrong writes at the beginning of The Spiral Staircase, in explaining why she is telling her life story for a second time, 20 years after doing so in Beginning the World. "We should probably all pause to confront our past from time to time, because it changes its meaning as our circumstances alter." That's a clue to the sort of open-minded and intensive inquiry that Armstrong is capable of, which has made her, in those 20 years, a bestselling theologian and historian of religion, known for such hugely popular books as The Battle for God, A History of God, and Islam: A Short History.

In the lucid yet reflective manner that is Armstrong's trademark, The Spiral Staircase recalls her painful early life as a nun, her even more painful reentry into secular society, and most compellingly, the long-undiagnosed epilepsy that made her life a horror show of phantom visions and misplaced hours. We follow Armstrong to the Middle East and elsewhere as she searches for answers to questions no less daunting than the significance of faith. Yet what drives Armstrong is her distaste for and distrust of those who see only black or white, never shades of grey. "I disliked the crusading certainty of Ayatollah Khomeini, yet I was also disturbed by the shrill rhetoric of some of Rushdie's champions", she writes in the wake of debate over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the ensuing fatwa issued by the extremists on the Islamic right. Indeed, as religious dogma divides the world in ever new ways, Armstrong's learned views are especially resonant. But The Spiral Staircase, its name inspired by TS Eliot's poem cycle Ash-Wednesday, is not a polemic, despite Armstrong's forceful and persuasive arguments for religious tolerance. Rather, it's a beautiful letter sent by a gifted writer attempting to decode the meaning of her life. --Kim Hughes,


‘The book deserves many readers… Karen Armstrong must be a Woman of Iron to have survived, made a career and a life.' Hilary Mantel

Praise for The Battle for God:
‘The quality of this remarkable book lies as much in its detail as in its sweeping vision’
Daily Telegraph

‘Armstrong displays all her usual talents: she has an eye for colourful evidence, a wonderful gift for clarity of exposition and an unerring sense of pace and voice and narrative.’
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Literary Review

Praise for The History for God:
‘Only those who think they know it all will fail to be fascinated by Armstrong's search for God.' The Economist

'Highly readable and ought to be read….Karen Armstong has read widely, has missed nothing, and gives us as solid a purview of the God of the past as it would be possible to find in a book,' Anthony Burgess, Observer

'Karen Armstrong is a genius.' A. N. Wilson

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Dh Jayaraja on 31 May 2008
Format: Paperback
I recently gave my copy of this book away, I was reluctant to but seeing the pain and confusion in my recipients life I thought it would help him as he struggles to discover an essential spirituality after losing his faith in Christianity. I am delighted to see that it has, which led me to want to once again have this book as part of my library. Looking on Amazon I was sad and surprised to see that it didn't have straight 5 star reviews. I guess we all have different tastes. I have read the final chapter several times it is engaging and lucid in outlining the nature of the spiritual life. It is really the final chapter that I would like to have not as part of my library but part of my consciousness. Karen doesn't set out to write definitions but her open heartedness and clear intelligence facilitates an understanding of what is essential to the true spiritual life as opposed to a religious life. I will include a short quote which I hope gives you a sense of her writing.
"Hyam Maccoby had given me a clue six years earlier, when we sat together, eating egg and tomato sandwiches in the little café near Finchley Central tube station. He had told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice. Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life-enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.
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61 of 67 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 3 Oct 2004
Format: Hardcover
Karen Armstrong's books seem to be getting better and better.
The first hundred pages of The Spiral Staircase are interesting, the next very interesting - but the final section is deeply moving and important. After intense study of the sacred texts of the world's major religions, Karen Armstrong re-states with great clarity and understanding a truth discovered by other mystics over the ages - true religious practice does not consist of belief in one creed or another, but in living a compasionate and thoughtful life.
I am reminded of Tolsoy's The Wisdom of Humankind, which comes to similar conclusions.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Lynette Baines VINE VOICE on 25 May 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is the story of a woman who left the religious life at the end of the 1960s and how she coped with life in the secular world. Karen Armstrong entered the convent in 1962 at the age of 17 and left seven years later at the end of the Swinging Sixties. Armstrong wrote an account of her convent years called Through the Narrow Gate, and The Spiral Staircase begins as Karen leaves the convent to resume her studies at Oxford. She was hampered by what she felt was the conditioning she had undergone in the convent, where she was seen as a hopeless hysteric who dramatised every problem. She was left with feelings of worthlessness and failure that it took many years to overcome. She was also suffering from the misdiagnosis of physical symptoms that only increased her feelings of isolation in the modern world. This is a fascinating account of the journey of a woman to find her own inner peace after many years of struggle to find her own place in the world.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Dr. I. Finlay on 17 April 2006
Format: Paperback
In this third volume of Karen Armstrong's biography, she traces her life journey from the time she left the convent and her life as a nun to the present day. She writes of her initial rejection of God and all things religious. She wrote and presented television programmes that promoted a secular view. Her life was marred for a long time by undiagnosed epilepsy, which resulted in the feeling (regrettably supported by her psychologist) that she had serious mental illness. Eventually she returned to religion but not to the conventional God of Western religion. She started to view religions as adherence to certain practices which took one out of oneself. Good religion is that which promotes compassion - feeling what others feel and not treating them in ways in which one would not like to be treated. Bad religion is that which promotes intolerance and hatred. This is a very well-written book that explores one person's search for meaning. It is worth reading by those who are religious, irreligious or just not sure. For me there remained one unanswered question - How can belief and practice be divorced? Whether one adheres to a religious view or not, our beliefs influence our practices but our practices also affect our beliefs.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Mrs J MacGregor on 26 April 2005
Format: Paperback
Having read both 'Through the Narrow Gate' and Beginning the World, I was intrigued to find out how Ms Armstrong would handle a further book covering the same period without being repetitive. Indeed, there are some episodes in the book which had been covered previously, but taken this time from a different perspective and I generally did not have a feeling of 'deja vu'. Ms Armstrong did refer to her previous book at times, mainly in a negative light. I did feel that this was perhaps oversensitive of her, as it is inevitable that she would view these episodes differently after a further 20 year gap. However, it was sensitively written and it would be difficult for the reader not to empathise with the difficulties she has encountered in her life. I found the spiritual content excellent and well presented, with well thought out arguments, whether or not I agreed with her conclusions.
Overall, this is an excellent book for anybody with a spiritual turn of mind and I look forward to reading her next book
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