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The Summer Reading List

Suggested books include works on John Hay, Elizabeth Ann Seton, America and the world order, Justice Antonin Scalia, baseball, and more.

(us.fotolia.com/Toshe)

Continuing a venerable tradition, I offer the following for your canicular reading pleasure:

John Hay spent decades at the center of American public life as Lincoln’s secretary and biographer, a Republican political operative, an accomplished diplomat, and Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state. And what’s not to like about someone who replied to Andrew Carnegie’s gift of Scotland’s finest in these terms: “I thank you kindly for the ‘corpse reviver.’ If a man could only drink enough of it, he would either never die, or wouldn’t care whether he did or not.” John Taliaferro’s biography is terrific: All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt (Simon and Schuster).

Two distinguished Notre Dame historians shed light on U.S. Catholic history with two fine books. Father Wilson Miscamble’s American Priest: The Ambitious Life and Conflicted Legacy of Notre Dame’s Father Ted Hesburgh (Image) is a fair-minded portrait of a good but complex man too often turned by propaganda into a superhero. In A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American (University of North Carolina Press), Kathleen Sprows Cummings explores how the changing fortunes of the canonization causes of Elizabeth Ann Seton, Frances Xavier Cabrini, and John Neumann illustrate the shifting tides of U.S. Catholic self-understanding — and the quirks of the Roman saint-making process before John Paul II’s reforms.

The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, by Robert Kagan (Knopf): I’ve got my quarrels with my friend Kagan’s understanding of the Enlightenment and its role in shaping political modernity (and thus America), but his dissection of various forms of isolationism, and his analysis of contemporary threats to a decent world order, are required reading for serious citizens.

Bob Kagan and many others should spend some time this summer with Robert Louis Wilken’s new masterpiece, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom(Yale University Press), which demonstrates from primary sources (including a second-century African theologian and a feisty, 16th-century German nun) that what we know as religious freedom has far, far deeper roots than Enlightenment skepticism.       

The late Justice Antonin Scalia, perhaps the most influential American jurist of the past half-century, was also a reflective Catholic who wrestled thoughtfully with life at the crossroads of an ancient creed and a post-modern world, as you’ll discover in On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer, by Antonin Scalia, edited by Christopher J. Scalia and Edward Whelan (Crown Forum).

The 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” is a good time to relive the extraordinary achievement that took Americans to the moon. The canonical text remains A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin (Pengiun Magnum Collection). A vividly personal account of the U.S. space program’s first decade can be found in Moonshot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon, by Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, and Jay Barbree (Open Road).

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner (Doubleday): “K,” for the culturally deprived, is the baseball scoring symbol for a strikeout. The pitches in question are the slider, fastball, curveball, knuckleball, splitter, screwball, sinker, changeup, spitball, and cutter — and the book is the perfect gift for those poor souls who think little or nothing “happens” in a baseball game.

Apologetics — explaining the faith in a sub-pagan culture — is making a comeback in Catholic publishing. David Bonagura’s Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media LLC) is a welcome addition to the genre.

It’s gratifying to see arguments one has been making for years — that any development of religious freedom in the Islamic world must proceed from Islamic sources, and that Catholicism’s path to the affirmation of religious freedom at Vatican II might provide a template for Muslims to consider — reaffirmed by others. My former student Daniel Philpott is a bit more sanguine about the evolution of an Islamic theory of religious freedom than I am, but his painstaking analysis of contemporary Islamic societies, their diversity and their challenges, should be required reading in the Department of State and the National Security Council; you’ll find it engaging, too: Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today (Oxford University Press).

And for the youngsters, the young of heart, and all who’d like to expand their moral imaginations and their vocabularies, there’s Matthew Mehan’s Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals, with wonderful illustrations by John Folley (TAN Books).


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About George Weigel 223 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). He is the recipient of nineteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

2 Comments

  1. I am so glad and grateful for good books recommended by good people such as George Weigel.
    I would urge a new book by Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea, “How Christianity Saved Civilization… And Must Do So Again.”
    To me, books of this ilk are doorways into an exciting, though largely unexplored, arena of what I call “Cultural Apologetics.”
    Contrary to all of the propaganda of the Secularists, it is traditional Christianity that is the original wellspring of all the good things in life, all that truly satisfies. Uniquely, Christianity is our best bet for happiness in this life as well as the next, here and hereafter, now and forever.
    In the spirit of seeking first Jesus and his kingdom, and the rest will be added unto us — let us rejoice in the good things our Catholic Church, as the continual home of Jesus, has brought forth to brighten our fallen and often heartbreaking world. It is this paradox of priority that is the key to saving America, and all modern civilization.
    Into the darkness and brutality of the secularized Roman world the early Christians brought all manner of, not only spiritual meaning, but earthly aid to the afflicted and oppressed — a splendid array of charities for the general public such as hospitals and orphanages which were previously unavailable, even inconceivable, in other words radically new and different.
    The foundations for all of these good works was the revolutionary belief instilled by Jesus to his followers that all humans are equally worthy, and indeed wonderful without exception, priceless and precious and irreplaceable. There are no mistakes, no rejects, no throwaways.
    It was a concept heretofore unheard of, indeed unimaginable, to the even the best representatives of the ancient world, and it was to be the emancipation of slaves, the elevation of women, the exaltation of childhood, and the celebration of the common man. It is ultimately the source of our cherished belief in America that all of us are created equal, and endowed by our Creator with certain human rights that cannot be taken away by men.
    Another excellent entry into this genre of Cultural Apologetis includes Thomas Woods’ recent publication (and EWTN series), “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.”
    Also, there’s the works of the Rodney Stark, notable as a non-Catholic (at least for now), including, “The Rise of Christianity,” and, “Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History.”
    The late but recent French historian, Regine Pernoud, is also a treasure, such as her, “Women in the Days of the Cathedrals” — I hope soon to be brought back in print by Ignatius Press. She helps to show us the glory of the Middle Ages, an era admittedly flawed, but also surprisingly vibrant and prosperous and festive and fulfilling.
    Finally, a vintage masterpiece of ongoing relevance is Chesterton’s, “The Everlasting Man” — which could be enhanced with an annotated version and commentary by the likes of a Timothy O’Donnell, who has taught this book at Christendom College.
    I encourage others to add other suggestions for Cultural Apologetics — what makes for the simple pleasures and lasting joys of a truly “Wonderful Life,” that is the subtle succor of Bedford Falls, as opposed to the garish glitz and inevitable despair of Pottersville.
    We can beat the Secularists at their own game, adding the best the world has to offer to the hope of eternal bliss. We can have our celestial cake and yet consume a fair measure of sweetness here below.
    May we surrender ourselves to the God of love, and give heartfelt thanks — for, to paraphrase Hilaire Belloc, wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s music, laughter, and good red wine!!!

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