Levi (Poetry/Oxford Univ.) avoids the pitfalls of most books about monks--greeting-card sugariness or scholarly nit-picking--in this gentle, amusing, sensitive set of essays on the history and culture of this strangest of human enterprises. How do monks see themselves? How do others see them? These two questions fuel Levi's investigation--a lifelong study, really--leading him to musty medieval libraries on Patmos, to the towering cliffs of Meteora, to lichen-draped abbey ruins in Normandy. His answers? Monks everywhere see themselves as spiritual pioneers and conduits between invisible and visible worlds. They are regularly misunderstood, even by the guardians of high culture: ""Goethe is insufferably patronizing about monks, and lamentably incurious about just the details of monkish life that we should like to know."" These 30 essays dip also into the cloistered life of women (""As for modern nuns, they are wiser and warmer than monks, and much more vulnerable""); monastic history from early Egyptian pillar-sitters to suppression under Henry VIII; monastic music, books, and arts; and the everyday life of the recluse. Levi writes in a cunning, self-reflective manner (""They preach a stronger sermon, their voices being silent"") leavened by humor. But not all of his ambitions are realized: although he promises a cross-cultural approach, almost all his examples spring from the Christian West. His brief essays, moreover, rarely connect with one another, adding up to a fragmentary, not comprehensive, whole. This aside, however, he successfully delivers a wry, anecdotal look at a severe, even frightening way of life. The best little book on monks in quite a while.