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Why ‘Story of a Soul’ is a best-seller

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Marzena Devoud - published on 02/13/23

"Often, they’re people on a spiritual quest, without necessarily being practicing believers. They buy Story of a Soul because it’s the best key to the spirituality of the little Thérèse who’s a guide who inspires, mobilizes, and energizes them"

Laure, a young graphic designer of 26, hesitates. She turns the display on which about 15 different editions of Story of a Soul by Thérèse de Lisieux are jostling each other. It’s not easy for the young woman to choose. “In my prayer group, with the year celebrating the 150th anniversary of St. Thérèse’s birth, we decided to discover her texts, so I wanted to start with her bestseller,” she told Aleteia. She finally decides to buy the paperback version, “cheap and easy to put in my purse.”

Since January 2, 2023, the 150th anniversary of the birth of little Thérèse, sales of her book have been higher than at the same time in 2022. “Certainly, the kick-off of this jubilee year has had its small impact, even if for us the book is always a constant seller,” explains Mathilde Mahieux, who is in charge of the religious section of the prestigious Parisian bookstore La Procure. In concrete terms, 578 copies – all editions and formats combined – sold in this bookstore alone in 2022.

It’s the same elsewhere. Marie-Sophie Goniaux, bookseller at La Procure in Lille, has noticed  that demand is about twice as high as usual: at least a few copies per week, with a visibly larger public. “Often, they’re people on a spiritual quest, without necessarily being practicing believers. They buy Story of a Soul because it’s the best key to the spirituality of the little Thérèse who’s a guide who inspires, mobilizes, and energizes them,” she explains.

A worldwide publishing success

Celebrated by UNESCO as a “figure of peace” in 2023, the Carmelite nun, who was declared a Doctor of the Church, has aroused fervent devotion throughout the world. Her popularity remains unparalleled and her masterpiece of spirituality ranks in the top 10 best-selling books in the world: 500 million copies have been published. Translated into more than 50 languages, constantly studied and commented on, it remains a permanent source of inspiration.

But what are the reasons for this unwavering editorial success, 150 years after the birth of the Carmelite nun? What is it that makes “Story of a Soul” touch so many readers, whatever their cultures and traditions?

“The life of a little Norman nun who died at the age of 24 would not have interested anyone. ‘The History of a Soul’ is a worldwide bestseller because Thérèse of Lisieux doesn’t tell the story of her life, but of God’s work in her life. It’s much more than an autobiography! From the moment she made that decision, her simple, authentic, intimate, and humorous text became universal,” says Hélène Mongin, writer and editor at Éditions Emmanuel.

The paperback version of the Carmelite’s work that she published in 2015 has sold nearly 32,000 copies, while her larger format edition has reached 7,500 copies since 2018.  

Nevertheless, there’s something else essential that explains such interest. According to Hélène Mongin, “Thérèse triggered a Copernican revolution in the spirituality of her time. As a child, she was only told about sin. She was told about a vengeful God whose wrath would fall on sinners. Yet, without inventing anything, Thérèse rediscovered the Gospel and contemplated the mercy of God. Thérèse does not offer herself to the justice of the Lord to save sinners, she offers herself to his mercy. By turning everything upside down,” the editor continues, “Thérèse touched people’s hearts.”

Finally, the third reason the book is a worldwide bestseller has to do with the image of holiness proposed by the Carmelite. This image is also revolutionary. “Until Thérèse’s time, saints had to be heroic examples of virtue or martyrdom. Sanctity was attained by hard work. Thérèse revealed that sanctity consists in living ordinary things with extraordinary love. It’s her famous little way of love that shows that holiness is open to all,” says the editor.

A story of love

Story of a Soul is a first-person account of the love woven between Jesus and Thérèse. That’s the secret. And it’s perhaps because of this secret revealed by the Carmelite nun that Story is not just a book. Her fans are convinced: to read her book is to meet Thérèse. She has a very special way of making herself present.

“It’s quite mysterious, but readers have a friendly relationship with her. Thérèse is a friend, a confidant, a little sister,” the bookseller at the Lisieux Carmelite Shrine told Aleteia, noting that all editions of the nun’s masterpiece are of interest to pilgrims. No publishing house, according to him, really stands out. “Thérèse belongs to everyone,” he exclaims. And he hopes that after two years of confinement due to the pandemic, foreign pilgrims will be numerous in 2023 to visit the shrine (800,000 people each year) and to buy the best-seller of the Norman Carmelite.

If in 2022 the shrine’s bookstore sold 7,000 copies, all language versions included, with the jubilee year, sales seem off to a good start. Without a doubt, the spiritual influence of St. Thérèse of Lisieux will continue to transform lives. For as she wrote: “What I read in this little book is so much my soul!… These pages will do much good. One will then know better the sweetness of the Good God…”

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