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.
president and co-founder of the American Chesterton
, author of acclaimed books on Chesterton, including
The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense
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
Magazine, author of The Chesterton University Student
, and editor of The Gift of Wonder: The Many Sides of G.K.
Best Books I read in 2012:
Two by Robert Hugh Benson: Lord of the World
and Come Rack! Come
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?
by Gary Hoffman. A first-hand account of a canoe trip down the
Mississippi River. Colorful, frightening, fascinating.
Tim Powers. Recommended on this site by others in previous years. I took those
recommendations. Turns out they were right! Thrilling and bizarre and
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
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
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
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
. 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
to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic
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.
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
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 GodSt. Thomas Aquinas being its most articulate
expositorGod and science are not explanations in competition with each
other. This is because God is the ground of beingthe First Cause of all
contingent realityand not one cause among many.
does Gregory move from Scotus’ univocity through the Reformation to modern
secularism? Read the book. It’s a fascinating and illuminating journey.
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,
often missing in these debates are clear and careful philosophical distinctions.
Fortunately, two of America’s finest analytic philosophers, Alvin Plantinga
Reformed Protestant and Professor Emeritus at Notre Dame) and Thomas Nagel
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
(Oxford University Press)
bonus, and as luck would have it, each author reviewed the other’s book.
Plantinga published his review of Nagel in the The
Nagel published his review of Plantinga in The
New York Review of Books
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
, Ryan T. Anderson
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
, 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.
last year I was invited by my friend Matthew
, 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.
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 Christiansand our shared understandings of the
good, the true, and the beautifulI 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 tragicas 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
end with Purgatory:
The Logic of Total Transformation
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
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
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
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
And, closely related to Eliot’s Anglo-Christian Humanism was
the existential Christian Humanism of Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass
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
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 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
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
(ed. by Michael Federici); several
books by a Jewish humanist, Milton Hindus; and all of Russell Kirk’s fiction.
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
Art and Prudence
Mortimer J. Adler.
An Experiment in Criticism
, C.S. Lewis. A classic for those interested in how to read
, Charles Dickens. Book club. Watched the movie, too.
Physics and Philosophy
, Werner Heisenberg.
William Shakespeare. Book club. Watched the movie, too. Found all the secret
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
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
oneRahner. 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
, 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
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
(University of Notre Dame
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
. 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 itI 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,
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
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,
, 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
. 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
, 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
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
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
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
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
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 classicthe 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.
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
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.
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 guidebookthis one historicaleven
longer than the Catechism
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 accomplishedfor
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
(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
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
, 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
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
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
, 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
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
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
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
the sense of a car careening down a mountain, and that a smash-up was
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
C. Paris that was considered to be the greatest city in the
world, but was wracked with revolutions, epidemics, and war.
a professor of English at Providence College. His most recent book is Ten
Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child
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 sonsthe elder fell in the early days of
the fightingfrom 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
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
) set in a small village in Iowa, exploring the mysteries of sin and
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
series and the The Berkshire Review
and is the editor of Values in
(Rodopi Press). His
recent articles have appeared in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars
Quarterly, Josephinum Journal of Theology,
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
under the banner of the Alpha et Omega.
La Musica è un tutto: Etica ed estetica (Music as a Whole: Ethics and Aesthetics),
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,
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
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.
(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
frequent contributor to Catholic World Report
, is a Catholic
writer living in Newport Beach, California.
& 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
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.
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.
the managing editor of Catholic World Report
and Eve After the Pill,
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
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
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 bookincluding motherhood (both physical and spiritual), the
tension between the personal and the communal aspects of the Christian life,
and personal loss and sacrificemake it more than a depiction of the life
of a religious community. Of course it is that, as welland a beautiful,
absorbing depiction, too.
by Abby Johnson. Am I the last person to finally
read this book? Seems like itmost 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 schoolhonestly, 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