Another year, another tantalizing list of good and great books noted and recommended in this eighth edition of “Best Books I Read…” We’ve invited a wide range of authors and editors to contribute. The books chosen did not have to be published in 2012, nor did they have to be about a specific topic. Simply, “What were the best books you read in the past year?” No limit was set on the number of books, and commentary was optional.
Dale Ahlquist, president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society, author of acclaimed books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton, G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and Common Sense 101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton, as well as associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, author of The Chesterton University Student Handbook, and editor of The Gift of Wonder: The Many Sides of G.K. Chesterton.
Best Books I read in 2012:
Two by Robert Hugh Benson: Lord of the World and Come Rack! Come Rope! Though one is about the future and the other about the past, both are prophetic. What happens when it is no longer acceptable to be a Catholic in one’s own land?
Mighty Miss by Gary Hoffman. A first-hand account of a canoe trip down the Mississippi River. Colorful, frightening, fascinating.
Declare by Tim Powers. Recommended on this site by others in previous years. I took those recommendations. Turns out they were right! Thrilling and bizarre and educational.
I also thoroughly enjoyed a biography of Vincent Price written by his daughter, Victoria Price, and a book by the man himself, I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography. Acting was merely his career (though he enjoyed it). His real love was art. He was a passionate art collector and promoter of the arts, and did you know he was a Catholic convert? But is there a connection between him and G.K. Chesterton, you ask? Get the January-February issue of Gilbert Magazine and find out!
Speaking of Chesterton, I soaked up one of the best books I’ve ever read on this particular writer: The Tumbler of God: Chesterton as Mystic by Father Robert Wild. I also absorbed an ultra-scholarly (but excellent nonetheless) study G.K. Chesterton’s Literary Influence on George Orwell by Luke Seaber.
As for pure Chesterton, I re-read his book on William Cobbett and a pile of his uncollected Daily News and New Witness essays, and I devoured the final installment of the Illustrated London News essays (1935-36) from Ignatius Press, which contains this line: “One of the chief problems of our time is the prevalence of popular ideas which are really only the reversal of normal ideas.”
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he also serves as a Resident Scholar in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. One of four main contributors to the book Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism (Zondervan, 2012), he is also the author of over a dozen books including Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic (Brazos, 2009).
As an academic whose interests overlap so many fields, I often find myself overwhelmed by the number of important books that I ought to be reading. So, given the impossibility of completing that task, I try to select those books that I believe will help my intellectual development and spiritual formation, and that includes books with which I may, on occasion or nearly always, find myself in disagreement.
In 2012, there are several books I read that stood out as exceptional. I’ll begin with the one I think is the most important: Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Harvard University Press, 2012). The product of a profoundly learned mind, it is elegantly written. Gregory, a Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame, traces the ascendancy of secularism to the influence of certain strains of thought that have their roots in the metaphysics of John Dun Scotus (1266-1308). According to Gregory, Scotus’ univocal conception of being led to the eventual domestication of God’s transcendence once it was radicalized by late medieval nominalists such as William of Occam (1285-1348). This is why in today’s world, for example, on issues concerning science and theology, both theists and atheists tend to think of God as a being whose presence is needed in order to account for natural phenomena that science cannot explain. But on the classical understanding of God—St. Thomas Aquinas being its most articulate expositor—God and science are not explanations in competition with each other. This is because God is the ground of being—the First Cause of all contingent reality—and not one cause among many.
How does Gregory move from Scotus’ univocity through the Reformation to modern secularism? Read the book. It’s a fascinating and illuminating journey.
Speaking of the relationship of science and theology, Catholics and other Christians often find it difficult to think clearly about this issue, largely because we have inherited a cultural understanding of this relationship from a caricatured account of the history of the interaction between theology and science as well as the cultural and legal debates over Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Neo-Darwinism. (This, by the way, is another reason you should read Gregory’s book: he explains why these debates are often the result of mistaken metaphysics, and have virtually nothing to do with science or theology, properly understood.)
What is often missing in these debates are clear and careful philosophical distinctions. Fortunately, two of America’s finest analytic philosophers, Alvin Plantinga (a Reformed Protestant and Professor Emeritus at Notre Dame) and Thomas Nagel (an Atheist and Professor at New York University), have published outstanding books that offer just the sort of clarity and rigor that this topic requires. In December 2011, Plantinga published Where The Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press). And in Fall 2012, Nagel released Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press)
As a bonus, and as luck would have it, each author reviewed the other’s book. Plantinga published his review of Nagel in the The New Republic, and Nagel published his review of Plantinga in The New York Review of Books.
With the debate over marriage being so central to our public life, I cannot think of a more philosophically astute, though readable, defense of what virtually no one, until recently, denied was essential to marriage: it is a union whose only two participants must be one man and one woman. Authored by Sherif Gergis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: Defense (Encounter, 2012) should be required reading for every citizen who wants to master a winsome, intelligent, persuasive and respectful account of marriage that he may confidently share with family and friends. Another book on this topic that I highly recommend is authored by my Baylor colleague, Alexander Pruss: One Body: An Essay on Christian Sexual Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012). Unlike What is Marriage?, which is a treatise in social and political philosophy addressed to all citizens, Pruss’ book is a philosophical and theological exploration of the Catholic understanding of human sexuality addressed to all Christians.
Earlier last year I was invited by my friend Matthew Levering, a theologian at the University of Dayton, to contribute to a symposium in the journal Nova et Vetera on the book Biomedicine & Beatitude: A Introduction to Catholic Bioethics (The Catholic University of America Press, 2011). (The symposium will not be published until late 2013 or early 2014). Authored by Providence College biologist and theologian Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., it’s the best introduction to Catholic bioethics I have ever read. Because it is introductory, it does not go into great detail about every issue and subject. But for an overview of the issues and summaries of the arguments, this book is a model of clarity and precision. What I like about it is that the author seamlessly, almost effortlessly, integrates pastoral concerns with philosophical, theological, and biological details. Because the book emphasizes beatitude—“blessedness”—as the end to which each of us should strive, the author winds up doing real moral theology, rather than, as some tend to do, secular bioethics in theological garb.
I highly recommend Carl Trueman’s small book, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Moody Press, 2011). A Reformed Protestant who teaches historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Trueman is a delight to read. Rather than trying to rewrite in different words the essence of my endorsement of the book that appears on its first page, I will simply repeat it here: “Professor Trueman offers a clear and sober assessment of contemporary Evangelicalism and how its doctrinal neglect as well as its ecclesial and institutional practices continue to sever its intellectual and moral life from its biblical and theological roots. As a Catholic, I part ways with Professor Trueman on several doctrinal questions. But when it comes to our common heritage as Christians—and our shared understandings of the good, the true, and the beautiful—I stand with him against a spirit of the age that will not rest until all the vestiges of Christian civilization are vanquished from face of the Earth. What is truly tragic—as Professor Trueman forcefully argues–is that some who claim to be allies of that civilization, as well as friends of all things `Evangelical,’ embrace and propagate ideas that aid and abet its destruction. Although he may not agree with me on this, perhaps it is time for Evangelicals (as well as Catholics) to consider what Alasdair MacIntyre called `the Benedict Option.’” Fortunately, the publisher, Moody Press, did not require that I sign that endorsement “J. R. R. Thomas Chesterton of Hippo.”
Let me end with Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford University Press, 2012). It is authored by Jerry Walls, an Evangelical philosopher in the Wesleyan tradition, who serves as Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. Walls argues that Purgatory is a legitimate and defensible option for Evangelicals, though they need not believe in it in order to remain Christians in good standing. One of Walls’s underlying motivations for his project is that it offers the wonderful and alluring possibility of building bridges between Christian traditions that many had thought had been burned centuries ago. This book is marked by both clarity of word and rigor of argument. Walls not only attends to the scriptural and historical sources, he also carefully examines the reasoning by which the doctrine of Purgatory developed over the centuries. This is refreshing, since much of the criticism against the doctrine from non-Catholic and non-Orthodox quarters often reduces to either an ahistorical Biblicism or mere citation of conciliar pronouncements. Although I found myself disagreeing with Walls on certain points, the arguments he raises against some Catholic presentations of Purgatory have to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, on the matter of Purgatory’s existence, Walls still winds up on the side of the angels. For that reason alone, it’s one hell of a book.
Bradley J. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies, Hillsdale College, Michigan, and the author of American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll (ISI, 2010); Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (2007); and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (2003). In addition to making DVDs with Catholic Courses/St. Benedict Press, he is also writing an intellectual biography of Catholic convert, Russell Kirk (University of Kentucky Press, 2014).
There’s something so tangible and satisfying about cataloguing one’s books, especially in an attempt to create a narrative, book to book and book by book. What thread held my reading together, or was it simple random chaos or Hayekian spontaneous order? Smith’s Invisible Hand of Jupiter? Random acts of kindness? Or, just maybe an Augustinian pre-destined Providence? Well, whatever it was that guided me over the past twelve months, I’m a happy and satisfied man, already looking forward to my reading list for 2013.
Despite the confusion I expressed above of what drew me to certain books, I can state with certainty that several Liberty Fund conferences (thank you, Sarah Skwire the Grand) and my own academic work drew me to a number of things.
As to the former, I had the great privilege of reading and discussing Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Measure for Measure and Machiavelli’s diabolic Prince and even more diabolic Mandragola; the debates of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt; as well as Joseph Addison’s The Spectator. Though I came away disliking Machiavelli and Roosevelt even more than I already had, I found much to appreciate about the other authors.
My favorite book of the year was, without a doubt, Canadian philosopher Chris Morrissey’s new translation of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days (Talon). Morrissey has provided a spectacular and poetic read of one of the greats of antiquity. The profundity of Hesiod’s language as well as his mythopoetic vision shine forth in this new translation.
Second to the new Hesiod was a rereading of T.S. Eliot’s Christianity and Culture. Is it ever possible to go wrong with Eliot? The man exuded grace and genius in every word he wrote. A favorite thought: “culture is the one thing that we cannot deliberately aim at. It is the product of a variety of more or less harmonious activities, each pursued for its own sake: the artist must concentrate upon his canvas, the poet upon his typewriter, the civil servant upon the just settlement of particular problems as they present themselves upon his desk, each according to the situation in which he finds himself.”
And, closely related to Eliot’s Anglo-Christian Humanism was the existential Christian Humanism of Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society (Regnery, 1952). “Is not the real and deep purpose of propaganda after all that of reducing men to a condition in which they lose all capacity for individual reaction?” Marcel could think as well as write.
One of the most thought-provoking books I read was Lord Percy of Newcastle’s The Heresy of Democracy (1954). Writing as a blatant Augustinian and in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, Percy argued that while democracy is no worse or more fallen than any other form of government, it more easily and readily lends itself to error than other forms of government. Too quickly, Percy noted, the voice of the people becomes, for all intents and purposes, the voice of God. Other forms of government can fall into such error, but they never do so as precipitously as democracy does.
Making similar arguments is Robert Higgs in his masterpiece, Crisis and Leviathan (1987), a book I read with joy in college but have only picked up again after a quarter of a century. Already in the relative peace and tranquility of the Reagan era, Higgs had predicted the current abuses of civil and religious liberties that Americans have been suffering under since the passage of what was promised to be temporary, the so-called Patriot Act, a decade ago. Though he would deny the title, Higgs certainly qualifies as a prophet. He is also, to my mind, the single leading expert on all matters political economy in the U.S., and I thank God for such a man in our midst.
For nostalgia’s sake, I also reread my favorite Christopher Dawson work, The Judgement of the Nations (1942). It was the first Dawson book I’d ever read. I found it at Hyde Brothers Books (one of the finest used bookstores in the country) in Fort Wayne in the fall of 2002, and I spent my Thanksgiving break devouring it. I knew by the end of that break that I’d devote at least part of my life to studying Dawson. Happily, I have. The author’s introduction to the English edition of the book explains it all: “Four years have gone to the making of this book–years more disastrous than any that Europe has known since the fourteenth century. Small as it is, it has cost me greater labour and thought than any book that I have written. I dedicate it to all those who have not despaired of the republic, the commonwealth of Christian peoples, in these dark times.” The tribute of a serious Christian man.
As I mentioned above, the Liberty Fund conferences I attended shaped my reading list. But, has my own academic work on Russell Kirk. This year, I had the satisfaction of either reading for the first time or rereading a number of Kirk’s works, mostly focusing on his most blatant Christian Humanist period, the 1950s: Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (1956) and The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (1957). I’ve read and reread the former a number of times. It is one of my favorite books. But, I’d always somewhat dismissed The Intelligent Woman’s Guide as unimportant, as Kirk wrote it as a series of pamphlets. As it turned out, this is a brilliant work, a work of sheer, unadulterated Christian Humanism, an attempt to infuse politics with the primacy of the dignity of the human person. Sadly, the book is out of print. Though written well before Kirk converted to Catholicism, it’s as deeply Catholic and profound as anything Dawson, Maritain, or Gilson were writing at the same time.
For pleasure, I also read a number of great works as well. First and foremost was English music engineer Phill Brown’s memoirs, Are We Still Rolling?, a rather confessional look at the music culture of the last thirty years. Brown worked with everyone from The Rolling Stones to Bob Marley to Steve Winwood to Talk Talk.
Along the same lines, I read a coffee-table sized book about the progressive rock group, Genesis entitled Genesis: Chapter and Verse (2007), which serves as an perceptive cultural history of the U.K. from roughly 1968 to the present.
As anyone in the rock world knows, Rush (the Canadian band, not the U.S. talk radio guy) released its best album in nearly thirty years, Clockwork Angels. This was not just another release, it was an event. In addition to the album (which has won numerous awards and accolades, even from the mainstream press) and an accompanying tour, Neil Peart, the Renaissance drummer and lyricist of the band, also released the full story of the album. Authored in its complete form by famed sci-fi legend, Kevin J. Anderson, Clockwork Angels: The Novel retells the story in full. Part pure adventure and part classical myth, the Anderson-Peart story is a fairy tale in the best sense of the word, Tolkienian and Chestertonian. I loved the album, and I think I loved the novel even more.
Finally, I’m in the middle of Tom Clancy’s latest, Threat Vector (December 2012). I have no idea why I love Clancy’s Ryanuniverse so much, especially since I really dislike the foreign policy that Clancy advocates. But, there’s something darkly attractive about the Catholicism inherent in all of Clancy’s works–the heroes are almost always very Irish and Italian, and though none practice their faith, it always hovers in the background. Of course, it really is a Georgetown/Godfather kind of Catholicism. Whatever it is, it attracts some part of me, and I’ve read everything Clancy has written in this series since The Hunt for Red October.
And, of course, so much more to look forward to. In particular, I’m looking forward to Jim Otteson’s new book, a philosophical examination of socialism; Roger Thomas’s new book of fiction, Richard Gamble’s In Search of the City on a Hill; a book to which Mark Kalthoff contributed, Rethinking the Teaching of American History (ed. by Michael Federici); several books by a Jewish humanist, Milton Hindus; and all of Russell Kirk’s fiction.
Mark Brumley is President and Chief Executive Officer for Ignatius Press. He is the editor of A Study Guide to Jesus of Nazareth and is editor and co-author of A Study Guide to Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week. He is project coordinator for the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, and is editor of Ignatius Press’s Modern Apologetics Library. Mark is also the author of How Not To Share Your Faith, and a contributor to The Five Issues That Matter Most.
Art and Prudence, Mortimer J. Adler.
An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis. A classic for those interested in how to read literature.
Bleak House, Charles Dickens. Book club. Watched the movie, too.
Physics and Philosophy, Werner Heisenberg.
MacBeth, William Shakespeare. Book club. Watched the movie, too. Found all the secret messages.
Natural Law Liberalism, Christopher Wolfe. Two books in one. The first half, a critique of contemporary theorists of liberalism. The second, a carefully argued case for confluence of liberalism and natural law theory, properly understood.
Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia
The Conversation of Faith and Reason: Modern Catholic Thought from Hermes to Benedict XVI, Aidan Nichols, O.P. A nice, reasonably-accessible overview of the subject, looking at key figures sans one—Rahner. But certainly worth the more theologically-inclined apologist’s time, not to mention fundamental theologians.
What is Marriage? Sherif Girgis, Robert George, Ryan Anderson. A superb discussion of the nature of marriage and why so-called same-sex marriage doesn’t make sense.
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James. Classic. Read it for the book club and watch two film versions. Ghosts? Delusion? We report, you decide.
Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell. An excellent, must-read work for the Year of Faith and beyond.
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI. Volume 3–or the antechamber to the other books in the series, if you prefer. A great work. Too short, though. Excellent example of Benedict’s “third way” of approaching the Bible.
Liturgy 101: Sacraments & Sacramentals, Daniel G. Van Slyke. A good, brief intro to the topic, superb for adult faith formation, pastoral ministry formation, and level one theology in seminaries and other academic programs. Don’t miss it.
Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching, J. Brian Benestad. A provocative work I often found hard to disagree with and, less often, hard to agree with. One complaint–the subtitle. This is not an introduction, although it is readable to the intelligent non-expert.
The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain, Ralph McInerny. Ralph’s superb biography of Maritain.
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. From 1991 to 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America’s Tibetan Broadcast Service. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004) and The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).
A year ago my wife and I set out upon the vasty deep of the collected aphorisms of 20th-century Colombian writer NicolÁs Gómez DÁvila, and reached home again, after many trials and adventures, just before this Christmas in the Year of Our Lord 2012. I had almost no other literary companions during the year except a few rereads:
Alexander Kinglake, Eothen, and Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, far and away the best travel books I have ever read. Rereading them seems to me the next best thing to the joy of traveling with these gentlemen in person as boon companions. Last year I read Mark Twain’s Roughing It and enjoyed it so much that this year I tried his Innocents Abroad. But that was a mistake. I felt I had traveled through Europe and the Holy Land in the company of nothing more than Twain’s youthfully misplaced pretensions. A better title would have been In No Sense Abroad.
Seeking solace during this election cycle, I reread a few books to keep before me the oddly comforting thought that man and all the works of man are dust: Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther. I reread this from time to time because Werther’s mindset is so weirdly alien to me, and because it’s a quick and easy way to remind myself that Romanticism’s ultimate aim is always that someone, somehow should die. Preferably a lingering death.
Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year. I enjoy how its dry journalistic evocation of details in London sits lightly atop its sense of how strangely unpredictable is the anarchy that breaks out during a slow-moving catastrophe. After I finished it, I looked for my copy of Samuel Pepys’ Diary, to reread the section about the plague, but couldn’t find it—I may have decided to let it go sometime in the past few years after getting tired of Pepys’ complacent randiness.
Besides all these rereads, I did read and enjoy two recently-released books this past year: Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Life in Exile, and Dawn Eden, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. Like Werther, these are stories of suffering souls, but unlike Werther, they describe a pilgrimage toward divine healing, not toward death.
Anthony E. Clark, PhD, is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author of China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom During the Qing, 1644-1911. He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.
In 2012 I read no books about Mayan calendars, end times, or prophesies of doom, and happily I am still here to write this reflection on reading. I did, however, set out this year to read a few books I’ve always wanted to read but never seemed to pull off my shelves. When I began to reflect on what I’ve read this year I recalled one of the first things I tell my university students as I begin a new semester: our “holy trinity” in class will be reading, writing, and talking about what we’ve read and written. Francis Bacon understood well these three necessary components of a cultured person: “Reading maketh a man full; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” 2012 was a busy year, and those stolen quiet hours of reading alone under the circle of light cast by my chair-side lamp were among the most satisfying times. “Life being very short,” John Ruskin said, “and the quiet hours of it few, we ought to waste none of them in reading valueless books.” Well said. For the most part I took Ruskin’s advice and read the following to make myself, as Bacon said, a “full” man.
I Met a Traveler: The Triumph of Father Phillips, by Fr. Kurt Becker, SJ. Father Becker’s beautifully crafted account of the imprisonments of his confrere, Father Tom Phillips, was an unexpected gem. This biographical account of a holy Jesuit (Jesuits, please read this book) who was arrested and mistreated by Chinese Communists in 1950s Shanghai should be reprinted and read widely. It is perhaps one of the most accurate depictions of how Catholics in China suffered after the Maoist era was inaugurated in 1949.
Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne. This book was a bit of galloping felicity to help cope with living another year in the crowded, smoggy, and blusteringly cold city of Beijing. I had never read Jules Verne before, and as ever, the book is infinitely better than film versions. I found myself wishing I were more like Phileas Fogg, and less like his impetuous servant, Passepartout.
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. Some might find it odd that a believing Catholic, deeply in love with God and his Church, would very often sympathize with the religious doubt of the Continental Existentialists. Ratzinger/Benedict XVI understands well the fact that even the most believing of us sometimes look across the room at Thomas and understand his doubt: see his introduction to Introduction to Christianity. I read Metamorphosis on the Beijing subway, and I think it made better sense in that context.
The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs, by Gerolamo Fazzini. If you are reading this list and you have not yet read The Red Book of Chinese Martyrs, order it today and read it. China is much, much more significant in world affairs than most Americans realize, and one is prudent to take the time to learn about China – start with this book.
A Thousand Miles of Miracles, by Archibald Glover. Glover was a Protestant missionary who lived in China with his wife and children during the Boxer Uprising in 1900. Jules Verne, the master of adventure, could never have imagined such a compelling and inspiring narrative as Glover’s true account of his family’s escape from pursuing Boxers, Chinese officials, rogues, and thieves. This book reminds one of God’s hand in human affairs, and of the faith of some to accept even what cannot be understood by human minds. Sometimes we professors need to put our more “scholarly” monographs aside and read beyond our skepticism.
Mission to Cathay: The Biography of Blessed Odoric of Pordenone, by Fr. Anselm Romb, OFM, Cap. After reading works as intense as Glover and Fazzini one needs to read something more heartening. Father Romb’s old classic on Blessed Odoric of Pordenone is an inspiring biography of one of the Church’s great missionaries to the East. Odoric’s adventures in Islamic and Mongolian lands is an evocative testament to Saint Francis’ exhortation for all Christians to bring God’s love to other peoples and other places.
Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages and Warnings from Purgatory, by Gerard J M Van Den Aardweg. This might appear a curious entry on my list of books for 2012, but it made perfect sense to read Van Den Aardweg’s book on miracles related to the Holy Souls after my wife and I visited the Museum of Holy Souls in Purgatory in Rome this year. Holy Souls, purgatory, miracles: we don’t hear about these Catholic beliefs enough (if ever!) in Mass. Priests, read this book, visit the small museum in Rome, and remind the faithful to pray for the Holy Souls.
How Inscrutable His Ways, Memoires 1951-1981, by Bishop Dominic Tang (Yee-ming), SJ. Another story about a Catholic bishop in China who was imprisoned by the Communist authorities for refusing to separate himself from the pope – not beautifully written, I must admit, but this is a beautiful autobiography nonetheless. Father Tang was allowed to travel to Hong Kong for medical treatment for a serious condition he contracted in prison; after his treatment he went to Rome, the pope met with him, he was condemned by the Chinese government for accepting the pope’s assignment to be bishop of Canton, and he died in America in 1995, never being able to return to his native China. Tang’s personal memoir is a summoning example of endurance and acceptance.
The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, by Étienne Gilson. While a bit more vermicular (a great word to describe some books!) than his other works, this book is one of the best apologias for a renewed devotion to Scholasticism. Gilson’s critique of our modern intellectual decline into, ironically, either irrational Relativism or scientific Positivism, will be difficult to counter by those willing to trudge through this inspired tome. Humanity is not, as Gilson argues, merely part of a Godless nature; such an atheistic view frees humanity to indulge in its current reckless social adventure. Read Gilson as an antidote to the postmodern malaise of our era.
The Little Prince, by Saint Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This was by far the best book I have read in several years, perhaps decades. I read The Little Prince in Oregon while visiting friends and family, and as I finished the small novella I understood better the meaning of friendship and family. Not a “children’s book,” per se, de Saint-Exupéry’s story of a crashed pilot and the little prince is a perfect lens through which to better apprehend the way to live a Christian life. He is known to have once said that, “Life has meaning only if one barters it day by day for something other than itself,” and the lessons to be gained from The Little Prince are balm for a wearied world. “ ‘Men have forgotten this truth,’ said the fox. ‘But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed’.”
Dr. Eric Cunningham is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Gonzaga University. He specializes in modern Japanese history and also teaches courses in world and East Asian history.
It’s been a busy year, and I found myself short on personal reading time. Accordingly, most my reading has been associated with the courses I teach, or re-readings of the more complex books from last year. I have not ventured forth into too much new territory, but these titles were memorable.
My Big TOE by Thomas Campbell. A remarkable synthesis of physics, metaphysics, autobiography, and consciousness studies. Campbell challenges the concept of religious belief as a phenomenon preferable to experiential “knowledge,” but his Big TOE (Theory of Everything) contains fundamental precepts that actually affirm many of the theological and philosophical tenets of Christian theism. More dense, comprehensive, and entertaining than your average pop-quantum-science-that-tries-to-propose-a-theory-of-everything books. I would love to see a round-table with Dr. Campbell and Fr. Robert Spitzer on some of these matters.
Meditations on the Tarot by Anonymous (Valentin Tomberg). A re-reading of one of my 2011 books. An unusually rich excursion into Christian Hermeticism, not to be digested in one bite.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Another re-read of a pop classic—the kind of book you find more to like AND more to criticize with each reading.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. A staple of modern Catholic fiction.
Bad Religion by Ross Douthat. I’m not sure I see the constellation of postwar Christianity in quite the same way as Douthat, but I think critique of secular culture is right on the mark
The Difference God Makes by Francis Cardinal George. A great collection of essays that speak with real immediacy to the crisis of faith in the modern world.
Fighting the Noonday Devil by R.R. Reno. A short collection of highly entertaining and thought-provoking essays by the editor of First Things.
David Paul Deavel is Associate Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Contributing Editor to Gilbert Magazine, and teaches in the department of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.
For the Year of Faith I’ve been doing the “read the Catechism” every day program. Well, I usually end up skipping five days and then reading great chunks of it, anyhow. But it’s the first time I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church straight through since I read it and discussed it with a priest fifteen years ago in preparation for entering the Church. I was amazed by its beauty and clarity then. Now, I have a doctorate in theology and I have to say that . . . it’s better than I remembered it. Reading it through straight is like exploring the Louvre with the most sophisticated and elegant guide one could find. The magnificent structure the faith is laid bare and so many nooks and crannies one has overlooked end up being strangely beautiful.
Another great guidebook—this one historical—even longer than the Catechism is Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (Harvard). Part historical analysis, part jeremiad about the modern world, it’s a book that invites agreement and disagreement in equal measure, but endless fascination and fodder for discussion with Protestants and fellow Catholics alike concerning what the Protestant Reformation was about and what it actually accomplished—for good or for (mostly) ill.
Two more books about the way we live now and why so many people feel so rotten amidst such historically anomalous prosperity merit mention. Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill (Ignatius) and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (Crown Forum) look at America from slightly different, but not necessarily contradictory, angles and show the cultural factors that have dragged us down in many ways.
Fr. Robert Sirico, the priest with whom I read the Catechism so many years ago, authored Defending the Free Market (Regnery), a popular but not simplistic explanation of the philosophical and theological principles behind an economy that is dynamic yet tethered to the rule of law. Sirico’s contention is not just about the technicalities of economic principles but primarily about the kind of virtues that need to be cultivated for a healthy society to function in freedom. He consistently points to the truth that greed is not good and is no necessary part of capitalism rightly construed.
To turn from the timely back to the timeless, my spiritual reading has been mostly oldies but goodies. Watching Fr. Robert Barron’s beautiful Catholicism film series, I was struck by the dedication of the project to Thérèse of Lisieux. I picked up her Autobiography again and found that amidst the at times syrupy language, there is something brilliant and adamantine that I had missed the first time I read it. I read it again with a class I taught as well as, for the first time, Romano Guardini’s The Lord (Regnery). Composed of material from sermons preached in the late 30’s in Germany, The Lord has some quirky ideas here and there, but its main effect is to jolt the comfortable Christian into seeing the strangeness and attraction of Jesus.
A life without fiction is a sad life, and while I couldn’t read as much as I liked this year, I was able to re-read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Reading Austen alongside Mary Eberstadt is a useful exercise in remembering how much bad stuff went on even in an age when sexual morés were officially more in line with Christianity. I also read two of the late Catholic convert (and niece of Ronald Knox) Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels: Human Voices and Offshore, the latter of which won the 1979 Booker Prize. Fitzgerald deals in lives lived on the social and spiritual margins with both humor and sensitivity.
Finally, one of the joys of being a parent is reading to one’s children. This year I will think fondly of reading some of George MacDonald’s fairy tales and, most recently, of Barbara Robinson’s 1973 classic The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The latter touched me as it is all about a family mired in all the family dysfunction that Gregory, Eberstadt, and Murray write about so elegantly. The six father-abandoned Herdmans take over a church Christmas pageant and are introduced for the first time to the wonder of the Incarnation. Scrawny, dirty Gladys Herdman’s turn as the Angel of the Lord captures Flannery O’Connor’s observation that an age that is deaf demands that a prophet shout to be heard: “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”
Thomas M. Doran resides in Michigan, where he is an author, adjunct professor at Lawrence Technological University, and a member of the College of Fellows of the Engineering Society of Detroit.
Bleak House was a Dickens novel I hadn’t read, and it turned out to be one of my favorites. The intricate plot impressed me, as well as Dickens’ story-telling technique. Bleak House is ostensibly a mystery story about several deaths and a drama about the bizarre machinations of the 19th century English Court of Chancery, but it is primarily about relationships and character. Esther Summerson and John Jarndyce are exemplars of generosity. Especially with Jarndyce, I kept waiting for an ulterior motive to be revealed. The only concession to the emotional toll that Jarndyce’s solidarity with mankind entails is his frequent reference to an “east wind”. A more circuitous and dramatic path to selflessness is taken by Lady Dedlock. From the standpoint of technique, I was impressed by the subtlety and dexterity with which Dickens brings seemingly unrelated characters together as the story progresses, and how the story is told in several different voices.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a much different story than Bleak House but equally compelling, exploring the delusion that the purely human can satisfy our deepest yearnings, and the illusion that brilliance and sophistication automatically produce wisdom. The superficiality of the smart set is cunningly depicted by Fitzgerald. As for Gatsby, although a sphinx-like character for much of the book, he isn’t without virtue, especially when ready to take the blame for something he didn’t do. Gatsby seems to recognize the superficiality of his society, and within himself, but is unwilling, or unable, to embark on genuine transformation. The Great Gatsby gave me the sense of a car careening down a mountain, and that a smash-up was inevitable.
As for non-fiction, a memorable book is David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris, that describes the experience of Americans in La Ville-Lumière in the 19th C., from painters like John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, to writers like James Fennimore Cooper and Henry Adams, to doctors like Wendell Holmes, to statesmen like Elihu Washburne, the only senior foreign diplomat who did not leave Paris during the Prussian siege, when starvation and disease were rampant, and who then braved the chaos of the Communards. The book was more than just a chronicle of these Americans. We get to know something about them through their correspondence: their joys and sorrows, triumphs and disappointments. It was also a history of a 19th C. Paris that was considered to be the greatest city in the world, but was wracked with revolutions, epidemics, and war.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College. His most recent book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press).
Sigrid Undset, the stupendous novelist, convert to Catholicism from the secular nothingness of modern Scandinavia:
1. Stages on the Road. Biographical sketches of great Scandinavian saints.
2. Return to the Future. An autobiographical account of her escape, with one of her two sons—the elder fell in the early days of the fighting—from Norway after the Nazi invasion.
3. Edith Stein: her incomplete autobiography, on her youth and her early years as a student under Edmund Husserl
4. Max Picard, The World of Silence. Desperately needed in a stupefied world of noise and utilitarian reduction of people to things.
5. Romano Guardini, The Lord — a brilliant meditation upon our Lord, rejected by the world He came to save, by the great teacher of our own great teacher, Pope Benedict.
6. Heinrich Boell, Haus Ohne Hueter — The House Without Guardians. Boell was a Catholic novelist who served in the war and who made it possible for Germans to confront the madness, the evil, and the suffering of their past.
7. Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne. The great philosopher, near the end of his life, remarks upon culture, the state of “professional” philosophy, and the Church.
8. Whittaker Chambers, Witness. Perhaps the single book most detested by the secular Left in America; it is the autobiographical account of the conversion of a man from the world’s second oldest faith—”ye shall be as gods”—to worship of God indeed.
9. Marilynne Robinson, Home. One of her three novels (Gilead, Housekeeping) set in a small village in Iowa, exploring the mysteries of sin and Christian forgiveness.
10. Pope Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth. Any of the three volumes. We have been blessed with a holy, humble, and brilliant scholar-pope.
Monsignor Daniel B. Gallagher is a priest of the Diocese of Gaylord assigned to the Office of Latin Letters at the Vatican. He is a frequent contributor to the Philosophy and Popular Culture series and the The Berkshire Review and is the editor of Values in Italian Philosophy (Rodopi Press). His recent articles have appeared in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Josephinum Journal of Theology, Maritain Studies, and New Oxford Review.
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, by Pope Benedict XVI. Anything written by Joseph Ratzinger is worth reading, all the more so since he happens to be the Vicar of Christ. This book is so different from his previous two on the life of Jesus that he doesn’t consider it a “third volume”. It is less academic but no less scholarly. This is a welcome change for many readers. The book evidences more readily than the previous two Benedict’s profound and personal relationship with Christ flowing from prayer and personal experience as much as study. He is not afraid to confront seeming contradictions in the sacred text with the certainty of faith, to allow professional scholarship to scrutinize passages that lend themselves to multiple interpretations, and to relish in the similarities and differences that characterize a robust hermeneutic of analogy. He lays bare, for example, the parallelisms that link the apparitions of the angel to Zachariah and Mary, but he does not overlook the differences that contrast the ambivalence of the former with the faith of the latter. A century from now, if the Lord does not return before then, we will look back and marvel at Benedict XVI’s extraordinary ability to unite nova et vetera under the banner of the Alpha et Omega.
La Musica è un tutto: Etica ed estetica (Music as a Whole: Ethics and Aesthetics), by Daniel Barenboim, edited by Enrico Girardi. Speaking of the pope, his summer entertainment at Castel Gandolfo included a concert by the West-East Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. It was Italian President Giorgio Napolitano who introduced His Holiness to Maestro Barenboim and his orchestra of players from Israel and Arab countries. Earlier this year the Holy Father was treated to a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at La Scala, also conducted by Barenboim. These encounters have solidified the mutual admiration of two men passionate about music and hungry for peace. Some of the essays in Barenboim’s latest book were originally composed in English but have yet to be collected under a single cover. Hopefully they will be soon. Barenboim explains the similarities between performing well as a musician and acting well as a human being. He does so with a straightforward simplicity that eludes academic estheticians and avoids the mushy romanticism of those who think peace is achievable through music alone. Barenboim is convinced that if we learn to listen to music well, we will better understand who we are, both individually and collectively. Just as counterpoint demands a coordinated and hierarchical order, so too does a well-functioning society. Rather than merely lament musical illiteracy, Barenboim offers reasons and means to cure it.
How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, by Roger Scruton. Listening to Beethoven might also move us to take better care of our planet. Scruton takes a sober and balanced look at why we haven’t done so hitherto. The gap is widening between extremists who fight to uphold the rights of every last tree and libertines who are paranoid that any measure to protect the environment will squelch economic growth. Furthermore, it is too easy to shirk responsibility for the consequences of one’s consumption and to make them someone else’s problem. Scruton proposes a new approach formulated “in terms of trusteeship rather than enterprise, of conversation rather than command, of friendship rather than the pursuit of some common cause.” He suggests that solutions to environmental problems lie in “adjusting our demands, so as to bear the costs of them ourselves, and to find the way to put pressure on businesses to do likewise.” As radical as he sounds, Scruton remains a true economic conservative in that he believes human action is based on motives, such that any workable plan must motivate us to restrain our appetite rather than giving us motives for indulging it. Some consider Scruton a voice crying out in the desert, but his is a voice of reason worth listening to.
Understanding the Middle East: History, Religion, and the Clash of Cultures by Edward Trimnell. Demonstrating similar reasonableness is Edward Trimnell, whose book on the Middle East, though five years old, remains an outstanding guide to an enormously complex region. Trimnell primarily wants to convey information, but he also interweaves clearheaded analysis to help the reader assess the aspirations of Middle Eastern countries and reevaluate the fears they provoke in the West. He soft pedals neither totalitarianism nor terrorism nor does he gloss over the broad range of political, religious, and social ideas that make it impossible to homogenize the region. The book covers antiquity to the modern day but is particularly incisive in its treatment of the latter twentieth-century. Trimnell oscillates between ideas and historical events, comparing and contrasting Christian otherworldliness, the Enlightenment’s version of Church/state separation, and the “complete system” of Islam. The reader is neither weighed down with excessive detail nor titillated by superfluous trivia. The narrative, or several narratives, that Trimnell places on the table have changed the way I read the morning paper.
Menaechmi (The Twin Brothers), by Plautus. I thought reading this masterpiece would be a delightful grammatical exercise for my Latin students. It was indeed that but so much more. In basing The Comedy of Errors on this play, Shakespeare could do little to improve on Plautus’s understanding of human nature. The Bard of Avon must have perceived Plautus’ genius and used Menaechmi as more than a dramatic template. Plautus taught him how to poke fun at human foibles with utter seriousness. The confusion caused when Menaechmus shows up in Epidamnus searching for his long lost identical twin with the same name is uproariously funny but much more than entertainment. As we watch the plot unfold, we subconsciously grasp how stupid we human beings are. We are duped into thinking and doing ridiculously irrational things at the drop of a hat. The Menaechmus who actually lives in Epidamnus loathes his wife and dotes on a prostitute named Erotium. He is foolish enough to think the former hasn’t figured this out and that the latter really loves him in return. The Menaechmus for whom he is subsequently mistaken similarly falls for Erotium’ charms before wreaking havoc on his brother’s wife by claiming he doesn’t know her (which is true). All the knots are unraveled when the true identity of each is revealed in the end, and it is Plautus who laughs at us if we think the characters live happily ever after. Shakespeare got the joke almost two millennia later. We, if we’re smart, can join them in laughing at ourselves since, in spite of the progress we’ve made, we’re just as stupid now as we were then (and, hence, in need of a Redeemer). The timelessness of the message, in addition to the scintillating Latin, persuaded Erasmus to consider Plautus an essential part of any complete education. Perhaps reintroducing him to high school students today is asking a bit much. But should anyone really graduate without having read The Comedy of Errors?
Jim Graves, a frequent contributor to Catholic World Report, is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.
Killing Lincoln & Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. If you like history, these books do a good job in introducing you to the characters and events surrounded the assassination of two of our country’s presidents. Includes many interesting details; for example, not only was Kennedy’s rabid womanizing discussed, but that of his contemporary, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Exciting, well told, great attention to detail. (True, Bill O’Reilly is a bit full of himself, but don’t let that stop you from buying the book.)
Christianity, Islam and Atheism by William Kilpatrick. Just out, Kilpatrick talks about the rising threat Islam is to the West, particularly Europe, as juxtaposed against the increasingly post-Christian West. Demonstrates the vast superiority of Christianity over Islam, and why it’s a mistake to view Muslims as friends and allies in the culture wars.
Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey; The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by The Countess of Carnarvon. If you’re a “Downton Abbey” fan, you’ll enjoy reading about the place and characters who inspired the hit series. Tells you about the aristocracy of Old England of a century ago, the social customs, the culture and the class society. Also talks of the devastation caused in Europe by World War I. Far from being a member of the idle rich, Lady Almina converted her castle into a hospital to treat wounded soldiers. She bathed wounds and changed bandages herself, and gave the best she could to those in her care. Great light bedtime reading.
Catholicism by Fr. Robert Barron. Good, modern presentation of the Catholic faith. Incorporates images of great works of art throughout the book. There are some points I’d quibble with Fr. Barron on, such as his discussion of who goes to hell, but overall a good read.
Adam and Eve after the Pill by Mary Eberstadt. A must read in our culture. Artificial contraception is widely accepted in our society, despite the obvious harm it has caused. Talks about the changing cultural attitudes towards sex, the harm of pornography and the vindication of Humanae Vitae. Great especially for young people to read and discuss.
Common Sense 101: Lessons from GK Chesterton by Dale Ahlquist. Not a book by Chesterton, but one which focuses on his many profound ideas. A great book to begin to get to know the man, and the enormous contribution he made to Christian thought.
Catherine Harmon is the managing editor of Catholic World Report.
Adam and Eve After the Pill, by Mary Eberstadt. I enjoyed this book so much, it was my Ignatius Press employee “Pick of the Week” a few weeks back. Here’s a snippet of my mini-review of this excellent book: “Many may have expected the Pill to usher in an era of perfect gender equality, free love without messy social or emotional consequences, and the limitless exercise of personal freedom. Eberstadt demonstrates that along with the headlong pursuit of those goals, we’ve seen skyrocketing rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, a culture increasingly tolerant of every possible pornographic permutation, and the rise of a whole host of psychological, physical, and emotional disorders, especially among young women. And, as Eberstadt points out, the sexual revolution doesn’t appear to have been able to deliver on the values-neutral utopia of non-judgmentalism it promised: is food the new sex? she asks. Is pornography the new tobacco? Adam and Eve After the Pill is a must-read for anyone interested in how we’ve gotten where we are as a culture, especially with regard to our attitudes toward sex, gender, and procreation.”
NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman. Not a parenting manual, but rather a look at the science of how widely revered parenting practices and educational approaches are negatively impacting our children’s development. The chapter on over-praising garnered the book nationwide attention when it was first published in 2009, but the rest of the book – which debunks conventional wisdom regarding how we teach kids about lying, self-control, interpersonal relationships, and more – is fascinating reading.
In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden. Even though most of this novel’s action is confined to the walls and grounds of Brede Abbey, the larger themes of the book—including motherhood (both physical and spiritual), the tension between the personal and the communal aspects of the Christian life, and personal loss and sacrifice—make it more than a depiction of the life of a religious community. Of course it is that, as well—and a beautiful, absorbing depiction, too.
Unplanned, by Abby Johnson. Am I the last person to finally read this book? Seems like it—most CWR readers are probably at least somewhat familiar with the story of Abby Johnson’s transformation from Planned Parenthood clinic director to pro-life activist. I knew the outline of her story, and had read the gut-wrenching account of the ultrasound-guided abortion that prompted her dramatic conversion. But what struck me the most about this book was the love shown by those pro-lifers who tirelessly stood outside her clinic for years, praying not only for the mothers walking into the facility and for their unborn children, but for the clinic workers as well. Their prayerful, peaceful witness and love incited Johnson’s change of heart in ways every bit as real as the horrific procedure she witnessed on the ultrasound.
Story of a Soul, by St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The last time I read this book was in high school—honestly, I don’t think I finished it even then. St. Thérèse seemed so completely unworldly, so perfectly holy from infancy onward, that the “Little Way” seemed completely unapproachable. This year, motivated by a book club discussion, I was determined to finish the book, and I am glad that I did. The almost over-sweet depiction of Thérèse’s childhood and early teenage years are balanced by accounts of the spiritual trials and doubts with which the saint struggled during her final years.
What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson & Robert P. George. A sober, non-polemical, and non-sectarian discussion about how we define marriage and why that definition is important. Regardless of your opinion on same-sex marriage, this is a must-read.
PART TWO | PART THREE