“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested,” wrote Francis Bacon in his 1625 essay “Of Studies”, adding: “that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
That offers a touch of solace to a reader such as myself, who so often reads books in bits, pieces, and parts—sometimes due to necessity, sometimes because of my lack of perseverance, and occasionally because the book in question is found lacking. As we all know, the number of books available is simply overwhelming; there are over 300,000 new titles published each year in the United States alone.
But if books, as it has been said in various ways, are like good friends, it is also true that the suggestions and recommendations of friends and trusted acquaintances are what so often introduce us to new books and new books—or even old books by old authors. This year marks 15 years of the “Best Books I Read in …” list, which began on Ignatius Insight and has been a beloved feature here at CWR for several years now. As I observed last year, this list is “a bit like wandering through an eclectic bookstore filled with new and old books—preferably with many of them overflowing the shelves and stacked on the floor.” Granted, nothing can ever take the place of a physical bookstore, but perhaps this compilation—consisting of 41 lists—can be something of a guide next time you visit your local bookstore. (And while I know that some of the more obscure or out-of-print titles cannot be found at your local Catholic bookstore, please do support those bookstores at much as possible.)
Saint John Henry Newman, one of the most gifted authors to ever put pen to paper, once wrote that “it is our duty to live among books, especially to live by ONE BOOK, and a very old one…” He thereby, writing this five years before becoming Catholic, touched on the central place of Sacred Scripture, along with Sacred Tradition, in the Faith, and also hinted at the incarnational quality of books, by which we can and should learn so much about being a disciple of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
May all of the words we read—novels, poems, essays, histories, theology, philosophy, and everything else—further our love for truth and for the Author of all Truth!
Carl E. Olson
Editor, Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight
Even before Catholic World Report published a tribute to Scottish novelist Bruce Marshall a few months ago, I had already supped on two of his books earlier this year: the famous and fabulous The World, The Flesh, and Father Smith (published in England as All Glorious Within) and the less famous but perhaps even more remarkable Yellow Tapirs for Paris, about France in the years and months leading up to World War II. I’ve read at least ten of his novels and have savored every one of them—great stories, great characters presented with a combination of wit and insight and eloquence.
God’s Apology by Richard Ingrams, about the friendship between Hugh Kingsmill, Hesketh Pearson, and Malcolm Muggeridge.
Johnson Without Boswell (edited by the above-mentioned Kingsmill), a collection of all the source writings on Samuel Johnson that were not written by James Boswell. A fascinating supplemental, if not alternative portrait of the great Dr. Johnson.
Saint John Berchmans by James J. Daly, SJ.
King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It by Shakespeare.
Born Crooked by Kim Y. Wittel. A history of “the forgers whose audacity challenged the Pinkertons.”
Church of Spies by Mark Riebling. Riveting account of Pope Pius XII’s secret war against Hitler.
Radio Replies, Volumes I and III, classic Catholic apologetics from the 1940s by Father Leslie Rumble and Father Charles Carty, and prefaces to both volumes by a certain Msgr. Fulton Sheen, who sure quotes Chesterton a lot without attribution. I’ve got to hunt down Volume II now.
The Death of Yesterday, a book literary essays by Stephen Graham, a contemporary of G.K. Chesterton.
Peace, War, and Adventure: An Autobiographical Memoir (1853) by G.L. Chesterton. Not G.K. Pay attention. It was written 21 years before GKC was born. George Laval Chesterton indeed lived an adventurous life that took him to America, where he fought in the War of 1812 and helped invade Washington, DC; went to South America as a soldier of fortune, where he had to tramp through jungles, mountains, and deserts, and deal with near starvation, no pay, incompetent rebel generals, alligators, rats, mutiny, and mosquitoes. He eventually returned to England, where he became a prison warden at Cold Bath Prison, at the time the largest and most corrupt prison in the world. He led a movement for prison reform and cleaned the place up and became friends with Charles Dickens. He was GKC’s first cousin, four times removed.
And as for Gilbert Keith Chesterton, I’ve been going through his essays in the New Witness, one of which contains this line: “The hagiological way is the logical way, though its embodiments may seem extreme and startling, as logical things often do.” Very fitting, since we are working towards getting Chesterton’s cause opened. GKC is ever-logical and ever-startling.
I also re-read The Canterbury Tales, which we always teach to high school students, when we should be reading it and enjoying it ourselves. As the first English printer, Caxton, said of Chaucer, “He hath no void words.” To go with it, I also re-read Chesterton’s book on Chaucer, which unexpectedly and prophetically points out what happens when the Church and world are suffering from corruption, when there seems to be nothing that is reliable. He says that at moments “when the world is becoming much less solid” there are “people who are more serious. When corruption and chaos are disturbing ordinary minds, and many good men are only worried and serious” then a great man will appear in history who is not so worried and so serious. Someone to point us back to sanity and happiness. Perhaps a writer. Perhaps a saint.
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and author of Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G.K. Chesterton.
Alan L. Anderson:
The life of a high school theology teacher often affords one the opportunity to read some of the best of Catholic writing while offering the illusion one is actually working. Thus, two works to recommend from my “work” life (snicker, snicker).
First an oldie, St. Athanasius’ On The Incarnation. Reading Athanasius highlights one of the true oddities of the 20th century, agitated as it was by the proponents of the nouvelle theologie. These proponents claim one of their primary goals was to return to the writings of the early Church Fathers for the purpose of recovering a “purer” form of theology. Yet, to read the verbiage of a Rahner or a Kung when juxtaposed against the sheer clarity, intellectual verve, and spiritual vitality of an Athanasius is to lead one to the conclusion something went terribly wrong.
Some of the practitioners of the nouvelle theologie were far more successful, though, particularly our Pope Emeritus, Benedict XI, who penned the second book I would recommend, his Principles of Catholic Theology. Beginning with a lucid analysis of the Catholic view of what constitutes the “formal principles” of Christianity, through an examination of the points of contention in the enterprise of ecumenism, to a basic presentation on just what, today, constitutes “theology”; His Holiness presents a sweeping framework for understanding the major controversies currently roiling the field. For example, his discussion of the tension between Faith and modern educational principles based on a scientific, materialistic paradigm presented in the last section of the book goes to the very heart of not just problems in the field of Catholic education, but also the current tensions in—and, sometimes, even between—efforts at evangelization and catechesis.
For fiction this year came an American Catholic classic probably familiar to many readers, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. In the title character, Binx, one senses an almost anti-Percy, as if Percy were trying to discern just who he would be without his faith. In so doing he captured the shallow, faux-compassionate, ever-contrived, and vapid culture rapidly overtaking a once Christian America. And the publication date of 1961 shows us the process started long before the advent of the ’60s revolutions.
Finally, as I’ve noted the last three years, there is always one book I simply don’t want to end and this year’s offering shares authorship with the one two years ago. Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Day is Now Far Spent, is a realistic, yet hopeful take on the current problems facing the Church. His discussion of priestly celibacy will move you to your knees to pray for our priests and our Church, so beautiful is his disquisition.
Alan L. Anderson teaches theology at Chesterton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Peoria, Il.
Bradley J. Birzer:
Kevin J. Anderson, Stake. An Audible-only thriller filled with secret societies, conspiracies, a jaded police detective, a gullible social media queen, and the possibilities of vampires in Colorado Springs. What’s not to love?
Irving Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism. The famed (or infamous) Harvard professor’s critique of the modern world, finding the root of modern ills in the distorted thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Cicero, How to Think About God. A pagan version of Mere Christianity, edited and translated by Pepperdine University’s Philip Freeman.
James Como, C.S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction. A brilliant, beautifully written, and truly compact examination of one of the 20th century’s most important thinkers.
Greg Cox, The Court of Owls. Like Stake, a book filled with secret societies, conspiracies, zombie assassins, and all against America’s darkest superhero, Batman.
Richard Gamble, A Fiery Gospel. A genius of a book, examining, in detail, the life and ideas of one of America’s most important 19th-century radicals, Julia Ward Howe.
Samuel Gregg, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization. A mighty and powerful defense of the best of Western Civilization against her myriad of critics.
Stephen King, The Institute. More conspiracies, as children are secreted away into labs to predict the future. An excellent story of resistance against abuse.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction. The most important American horror/gothic writer between Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King, Lovecraft knew how to create the eeriest of atmospheres and nail-biting suspense regarding farm families as well as college professors. Dark and ancient gods lurk everywhere and never to the benefit of humanity.
Nick Mason, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd. Mason offers a fascinating look at rock culture from within, explaining the genius as well as exposing the darker side of creativity, from the 1960s through the 1990s.
Jon Peterson, Playing at the World. A comprehensive history of gaming—especially fantasy role playing and war gaming—and its relationship to social modeling, free will, and the culture at large.
- Michael Straczynski, Becoming Superman. Arguably the most disturbing as well as the most uplifting book of the year. Straczynski—the famed and iconoclastic Hollywood writer—knows very well how to tell a story, and one can’t come away from this autobiography without loving the author even more.
- Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind. Focusing on the influence of John Locke on the American founding generation, Thompson offers nothing less than the most important reinterpretation of the era since the early 1990s. A gripping and important read.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Gondolin. The last of the three great tales of the First Age to be published, Tolkien’s Fall of Gondolin, not surprisingly, is filled with awe, mystery, heroism, and betrayal.
Charles Williams, The Image of the City; Outlines in Romantic Theology; and Taliessin Through Logres. My much younger self didn’t like Charles Williams at all. Indeed, I found him repulsive—especially given his flirtations with the occult. Picking him up again this year, I found much more to like, and I was able to see past his own weirdnesses. He was, I think (and even thought 20 years ago when disliking him), a genius. The Image of the City is filled with insights on modern culture; Outlines in Romantic Theology anticipates much of the theology of the body; and Taliessin is just psychedelically weird.
James Matthew Wilson, The Hanging God. The best volume of poetry in a generation or more. Gripping as well as contemplative.
Bradley J. Birzer is Professor of History at Hillsdale College, and the author of biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Christopher Dawson.
Any book can be read, but it takes a special book to be reread until the dust jacket is tearing, the corners rounding, and the spine cracking with honest wear. Some entries in this catalogue are predictable: Pride and Prejudice, The Lord of the Rings, and The Republic. Others are less famous but no less worthy, and Leave it to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse is such a book. Familiarity decreases none of the charms of my favorite work by the greatest comedic writer of the last century. From the opening description of Lord Emsworth as “normally as happy as only a fluffy-minded man with excellent health and a large income can be,” to the satisfying conclusion, it is one of Wodehouse’s ripest efforts.
Psmith (“the p is silent”) is a more intelligent hero than Wodehouse usually offered, with wit and a studied eccentricity. He is the sort of young man to declare, upon leaving a family job in the fish business, that “I like to be surrounded by joy and life, and I know nothing more joyless and deader than a dead fish. Multiply that dead fish by a million, and you have an environment that only a Dante could contemplate with equanimity.” His whimsical persiflage enlivens this amusing tale of love, imposters, poetry, flower pots, and jewel thieving.
Leave it to Psmith is an excellent entry point into Wodehouse’s oeuvre, though those with a preference for reading books in order should know that it concludes the Psmith series and is an early entry into the Blandings Castle stories. The coming year will no doubt bring its share of gloom, but this bright book will offer some cheer when I inevitably read it once again.
Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.
The one book, or rather booklet, that I read every day during 2019—and plan to read in 2020—is Magnificat, the excellent monthly prayer-book that arrives by post. Always beautifully illustrated, and with a pleasing look and feel, it begins and ends my day. Morning and Evening Prayer, information about the saints’ days, the full text of the Propers for all the Masses during the week…it’s indispensable and a joy to use. It is printed on creamy tissue-style, traditional prayer-book paper, with traditional red and black print. It is a convenient size for carrying about—once or twice I have exchanged a nod of solidarity with a fellow traveller on a London bus or tube as I have produced my own copy to tackle Morning Prayer and he is busy with his. Highly recommended.
George Weigel’s The Irony of Modern Catholic History is a great read, taking us from the 18th- and 19th-century popes via two Vatican Councils to the modern day. He is fair and balanced to Pius IX, and makes a good case for the popes of the 20th century, grappling with the horrors unleashed during that time. He is, of course, already well-known as a biographer of St. John Paull II—if you haven’t read his extremely readable Witness to Hope, get yourself a copy soonest—but still offers fresh insights into that most remarkable of men. Like all Weigel’s books, Irony is well-researched and has plenty of follow-up material, but it’s also a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable read. I’d rate it as my book of the year.
My father was a great fan of Rudyard Kipling, and we used to recite Kipling’s poetry on family occasions…an unfashionable poet today so it was a delight to come across a modern edition of his collected works. Small, pocket-sized, hardback, with a ribbon marker, Kipling: Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Pets) has all the favourites: “Gunga Din,” “The Law of the Jungle,” “My Boy Jack,” and, of course, “If.” Reading “My Boy Jack” in November, with scarlet poppies on granite war memorials, and the knowledge of Kipling’s son killed in 1915 on the Western Front, is almost unbearable. Reading “The Roman Centurion’s Song” made me realise that getting a grip on Kipling is one way of communicating something of Britain’s history, and I’ll use it in talks and London walks in the year ahead.
I read Joseph Ratzinger hungrily when I first came across his work, and now I re-read him with joy. He’s essential for the modern Catholic apologist, he is spiritually nourishing, he is at once challenging and satisfying. He really does do his theology “on his knees,” and so he lifts us up to God as we study him. A Doctor of the Church one day? Probably. Meanwhile, I’ve been re-reading Values in a Time of Upheaval (Ignatius Press 2004); it’s doing me good and will do you good too.
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom.
That time again? So soon? Change of the calendar year? Well, my book list follows the annual disclaimer: I don’t list Ignatius Press titles I have read in the year, whether in published form or in manuscript, even if I regard them as among the “best books I read.” Otherwise they’d dominate my list!
In no particular order:
Never Doubt Thomas: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant, Francis J. Beckwith. I’ll not say much about this book here because I likely will be writing a review of it. However, I will say I enjoyed it and learned a lot from it. It strikes me as fascinating that St. Thomas can be a point of unity between some Protestants and Catholics. I feel about Frank Beckwith’s new book as I did about Arvin Vos’ Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought, published in the mid-1980s. Beckwith’s contribution, though relatively short, is better than Aquinas Among the Protestants, edited by Svensson and VanDrunen, and Norm Geisler’s Should Old Aquinas Be Forgotten?
Ivanhoe, Walter Scott. Book club pick. Better than I thought it would be. Decades ago I tried to read it but found it dull. As it turns out, the dull stuff is almost entirely at the beginning of the book. Because I had to get through it for the book club, I plowed through only to find it got a lot better. Robin Hood plays a role but he isn’t the star, believe it or not. An interesting story of late 12th-century England, plus a fun yet somewhat creepy “resuscitation” from the dead, a relatively sympathetic treatment of medieval Jewry, and much more.
A Bloody Habit, Eleanor Nicholson. Generally, I don’t list Ignatius Press books but, in this case, I read it as a book club title so I count it. A Dominican priest-vampire hunter. An agnostic lawyer. A colorful heroine. A vampire. Drama and adventure. Your typical Ignatius Press novel, what else can I say? I guess: you should get a copy, read it, rave about it, and share it with friends.
Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis. This is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it four or five times. It, too, was a book club pick. A mythical retelling of a myth—the Psyche/Cupid myth. Only this is how it really happened. Why don’t the gods answer us to our face? C.S. Lewis tells us, if we have ears to hear.
A Short Primer for the Unsettled Laymen, Hans Urs von Balthasar. Re-read. Everyone should read and reflect on this book. It was written in the postconciliar confusion. As a measure of confusion has returned in the Church—although nothing like the 1970s—this book is a good resource. It has Balthasarian balance.
Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, Lee Smolin. The problems with Quantum Theory. Or actually, the problems with various forms of Quantum Theory. Lee Smolin continues to make trouble for physics.
Arguing Religion: A Bishop Speaks at Facebook and Google, Bishop Robert Barron. For those who do it, who don’t do it, but who want to know how to do it. Every evangelist and apologist should read this book.
The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Matthew Levering. A sympathetic Thomistic account. He calls for thoughtful and challenging dialogue but an end to the warfare between some Thomists and Balthasarians.
Introduction to Vatican II, Matthew Levering. A great overview by a superb theologian.
Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, Sabine Hossenfelder. An interesting book. It rightly challenges people who develop what purport to be scientific theories to root them in observations and testing, rather than sheer mathematical beauty. The “poetic” aspect of truth, which is linked to the transcendental of beauty, is often employed in mathematically based scientific theories, and allows for variations all of which are “true” poetically, without being true in reality or descriptively true. Thus, just because a theory is beautiful doesn’t mean it has descriptive truth—that it corresponds to reality. Hossenfelder doesn’t directly develop this link of philosophical reflection. She does, however, call attention to subjective aspects of beauty in scientific theorizing and the need for theories to be subject to testing.
The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury. Re-read. Read the edition with the original dates for each story. Bradbury is a great writer. He makes me want to visit Mars. So long as I am not among the first to attempt to do so!
Work on Oneself: Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Psychology, Fergus Kerr. Part of my ongoing effort to understand Wittgenstein’s pertinence to philosophy and theology.
Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief, Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by Cyril Barrett. See note above.
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, Brant Pitre. A good popular apologetical work rooted in solid biblical theology, by one of today’s top Catholic biblical scholars writing in both the popular and scholarly modes.
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip Zaleski, Carol Zaleski. A well-done biography of the main Inklings—Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Charles Williams.
Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion, Abigail Rine Favale. Testimony of the author’s conversion from Evangelicalism through postmodern feminism, and into the Catholic Church.
Everything that Rises Must Converge, Flannery O’Connor. Re-read. Always delightful, challenging, sometimes unsettling stories by one of the best writers of the 20th century.
Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, Robert Louis Wilken. The title and subtitle say it all. Wilken shows how the foundations of the idea of religious liberty were established in the ancient church, not in the Reformation or in the Enlightenment.
Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine, Thomas G. Guarino. Everyone who utters the words “Vatican II” needs to read and reflect on this book.
The Catholic Writer Today, Dana Gioia. Outstanding essays by one of the great Catholic poets and writers of our time.
Why Celibacy? Carter Griffin
The Irony of Modern Catholic History, George Weigel. Where we are, how we got here, how we can get to where we should be, as a society and the Church. Modernity was not the end of Christianity. Through the mutual encounter, the Church renewed her evangelical zeal and strives to help modern societies to thrive. In short, it takes Catholicism, properly understood, to keep what’s right about modernity on track.
The Bible is a Catholic Book, Jimmy Akin. The best concise treatment of why the Bible is Catholic and why the Catholic Church is biblical.
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.
Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by John Jacobs and Tim Reiterman
The Jonestown cult leader wasn’t made overnight. Such a personality takes decades to bloom.
From an early age, Jim Jones was a showman. For hours on end, he would entertain other kids in his hometown. But in his teenage years, these other kids grew to view him as more of a misfit than an entertainer. They largely began to avoid him. Jimmy hated losing followers. And he began to exhibit disturbing behavioral traits.
As an adult and the leader of the “Peoples Temple,” Jones had become more of a showman than ever. He had also grown very adept at holding onto his followers, by any means possible. It’s astounding to learn how he treated people who believed so much in his purported egalitarian ideals. Hundreds of pages are needed to convey the depths of this man’s narcissism and depravity.
This book is an eerie portrayal that expertly traces the development of a cult leader and human time-bomb.
The Gate by François Bizot
This book truly offers a unique perspective: the author—a French anthropologist who had been conducting research in Cambodia—would become the only westerner to survive Khmer Rouge imprisonment. Other KR shot-callers wanted him executed, and yet he remained alive—thanks to the efforts of an officer directly in charge of his captivity. This benefactor, who protected the author’s life at great personal risk to his own, was a soft-spoken but strong-willed intellectual and idealist named Kaing Guek Eav, later known as Comrade Duch, the lord and master of Tuol Sleng, a former Phnom Penh high school turned Khmer Rouge interrogation center and arguably the most sadistic venue in the whole Cambodian genocide.
Though he survived, Bizot had learned all too well about the homicidal tendencies of the Khmer Rouge. He tried to share this knowledge, but nobody important wanted to listen. The world had decided to turn its back on Cambodia.
Published in 2003, this book provides a poetic and touching tribute to a tragic country, and a haunting portrait of a once-principled man who later became a monster.
Dry Guillotine by René Belbenoît
The mention of “French Guiana” probably doesn’t mean much to most people. But from the 1850s to the 1950s, this obscure South American colony became synonymous with abuse, disease, and despair for tens of thousands of convicts hailing from France and its territories. The vast majority of prisoners sent to French Guiana died before completing their sentences. And those who survived the violence, exploitation, and backbreaking forced labor typically ended their days with broken bodies, if not broken minds as well.
The author, a convicted thief, became one of the very few to successfully escape from French Guiana. Toothless and emaciated, he arrived in the US and found publication for his memoir—a bleak but mostly engaging account of a place where punishment always exceeded the crime.
Ray Cavanaugh has written for such publications as the Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.
Anthony E. Clark, PhD:
We live in hurried times, and one of the truest ways to ease the unhealthy pace of our era is to turn off the frenzy around us and turn the pages of worthy books. Monsignor Ronald Knox, who lived in more genteel precincts than our own, wrote, “A rush age cannot be a reflective age.” This year’s reading centered on two main topics: the pilgrimage of life and the history and meaning of Christian worship. I have mourned the death of several colleagues lately, and I shall soon be teaching a course on the history of Christian liturgy; one strand of reading responded to circumstance and the other to necessity. Being Catholic, one is blessed with a surfeit of insightful works to help one brave the vicissitudes of life and death; and being an Eastern Rite Catholic, one is sometimes confronted by the “liturgical wasteland” of the Western liturgy in recent decades. Presently, the Western Church is commemorating the anniversary of the New Rite of Mass promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI, and writers are reviving hackneyed critiques of “the old Mass,” such as the “flaws” of “facing away from the people,” “repeated phrases,” and “gaudy churches.” These critics, of course, sting the sensibilities of Eastern Rite Catholics as much as those who attend the Extraordinary Form of the Western Mass—East and West were more liturgically aligned before the Council. God’s Providence shall resolve the conundrums of life, death, and liturgical disputation, and in the end, we are all on this pilgrimage of faith together, and good reading makes for good living in this “rush age.” As the Carthusians repeat, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (“The Cross remains steady while the world turns around it”).
Perhaps the highlight of this year was the final recognition of St. John Henry Newman’s sanctity, and as life and death were among the leitmotifs of this year, I finally read his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. A theologian at my university informed me that when he assigned this work in one of his classes, “The students were flagging in zeal and gave up.” If you’re one who started Newman’s apologia and stopped, pick it up again and slog through. If you haven’t yet read this masterwork, get a copy and read it…to the end.
It might seem odd to read The Hobbit for insights into the meaning of life’s pilgrimage, but for those who have read J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterful bildungsroman, Baggins’ adventure to Smaug’s lair and home again tells us everything about a life well lived. Reading this novel for the first time in my fifties was not at all too late: “Roads go ever on / Under cloud and under star / Yet feet that wondering have gone / Turn at last to home afar.”
Perhaps the best book I read this year was Nicolas Diat’s series of essays on how monks have passed from life to death. A Time to Die is a thought-provoking book because it challenges us to remember our mortality by reading of how monks die, sometimes gracefully and often brutally. This timely (pun intended) book begins with a description of Rome’s famous Capuchin crypt, a grim display of the bones and bodies of deceased friars that juxtaposes acutely with another Roman product, Federico Fellini’s film about the city’s more debauched side, La Dolce Vita. While Fellini mused on the “sweetness” of life, Diat reminds his readers of the authentic sweetness that death can bring. A sign near the Capuchin bodies exhorts: “We were like you; you will be like us.” Diat does not allow his readers to avoid this reality.
And in the area of liturgy I read several books ranging from academically rigorous to ideologically ridiculous. It is always important to read original texts when attempting to understand how Christians worshiped in the early Church, so I read the anthology of liturgical texts compiled by Lucien Deiss, Springtime of the Liturgy. Reading these ancient sources, from Clement of Rome to the Didascalia of the Apostles, fortified my appreciation for being Catholic rather than an inheritor of the liturgical ruptures of the Reformation. The earliest writings on Christian liturgy underscore the importance of returning to practices now largely abandoned, such as turning all our priests again toward the altar, toward the East. One book that exposes the dreadful results of ideology supplanting informed sobriety is Yves Chiron’s balanced biography Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy. I have heard more than one Roman Rite priest say to me, “Only fanatics and disloyal Catholics support the old Mass,” and Chiron’s scholarly work discloses through an impressive exposition of archival sources that such assertions themselves derive from the fanaticism of Bugnini and his admirers. Eastern Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics who attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass will read this book with nods of agreement, and the hope that the Western Church will at last return to the lost riches of its liturgical heritage.
Advent, or the Nativity Fast, has begun, and we recall the entry of the Theotokos into the Temple and the eventual birth of her Son whose infancy is recalled in the Nativity liturgy. Snow is making its first appearances outside my office window, and the days continue to shorten so that stars already shine above when we gather for our evening meal. “Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom. For by it those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore You.”
Anthony E. Clark is professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University.
Father Seán Connolly:
I finally got to G.K. Chesterton’s most famous novel, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. It’s a lot of fun. Nothing in this zany detective story is what it seems. The book begins with a description of a sunset and ends with a description of a sunrise. The most meaningful takeaway for me lies in this. The temptation to discouragement or despair in the midst of these terrible times in which we live must be resisted. We must never forget that suffering leads to redemption.
Michael Brendan Dougherty’s My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home, which I reviewed here, articulates well the often controversial but noble and important sentiments of nationalism.
In preparation for writing this article, I read Theodore Maynard’s biography of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Too Small a World: The Life of Mother Cabrini. I love reading the lives of the saints, and this book now ranks among my favorites of this genre. We most often read about saints from the distant past and the heights of their sanctity can seem unattainable—an ideal not rooted in reality. The life of Mother Cabrini can help dispel this notion. It is an encouraging thought that the woman whose apostolic activity surely
ranks among the most extraordinary in Christian history did not live and die in some far off land or bygone era. She was an American citizen who lived only last century. Mother Cabrini managed to establish 67 institutions—hospitals, schools, and orphanages—in her 67 years of life, crossed the Atlantic a staggering 23 times by boat, and even road a mule over the Andes Mountains to continue her
apostolate. Maynard’s book on her life makes the possibility of sanctity a felt realization. It makes the desire to do something great for God a felt possibility.
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography is a comprehensive, readable, and exciting history of the Holy City told through the lives of historical figures. I can’t remember enjoying a history more than
In addition to the lives of the saints, my other favorite genre of literature are works detailing the life of Christ. For Advent reading, I took up Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Man Born to Be King and finished it
within a week. It now ranks among my very favorite books on the life of Christ. This is a cycle of 12 plays, written for radio broadcasting, that was performed to great success on BBC during the Second World War. Sayers gracefully weaves together different incidents and characters of the Gospel, which makes for brilliant drama. The connections she makes between these incidents and characters brings a third dimension to them worth more than a hundred biblical commentaries. Though it is a bit of a reinvention of the Gospel, it in no way contradicts orthodox Christian teaching. C.S. Lewis made these plays his annual Lenten reading. After I read it, I felt a sense that I now know and love Jesus more. What higher recommendation could there be for any book?
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York who currently serves as parochial vicar at the Parish of St. Joseph in Middletown, New York.
David Paul Deavel:
Let’s start with charming essays. The great Alice Thomas Ellis’ Cat Among the Pigeons, a collection from her Catholic Herald essays, wittily dissected late 20th-century Church and culture. Hilaire Belloc’s quintessentially serious/unserious On was perfect bedtime reading. Jake Frost’s Catholic Dad 2 provided inspiration for fathers who want to provide a golden childhood for children.
Biographies and studies of writers and thinkers included a long-desired read, W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, which, along with the Yale Johnson volume Prayers, Diaries, and Annals, made me love and revere this great, odd man all the more. Jessica Wilson’s two books on Walker Percy did the same for me: Reading Walker Percy provides a great introduction and book-by-book evaluation of Percy’s work, while Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and the Search for Influence really advances the question both of how influence operates and where Percy looked for it when he tried to write. Brian A. Smith’s Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer is the best extended systematic account of Percy’s anthropological, social, and political thought. Finally, Khalil Habib and Joseph Hebert’s The Soul of Statesmanship provided academic but very interesting takes on the Bard’s political insights.
Of fiction and poetry itself, I admit I’m still always pleased to read Austen again: Pride and Prejudice (every year!) and Persuasion. The wit and insight of Jane seem ever-flowing. But I also taught The Aeneid in Allan Mandelbaum’s translation and found doing this right before Augustine’s Confessions (in John K. Ryan’s translation) was just right to see what Augustine is up to. I returned to Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop after 15-20 years and found it even more moving this time. Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons was a bawdy pleasure, but revealing about where higher education was going even 15 years ago. Solzhenitsyn’s Apricot Jam and Other Stories shows how problems aren’t just in the Gulag, but in the human heart. The best pure pleasure-read was a John Mortimer Rumpole collection, Rumpole on Trial. It inspired me when I saw a complete DVD edition of the Rumpole television series, so I’ve been working through that on odd evenings as I fold laundry.
For political/social/economic writing, Solzhenitsyn’s essays, most notably his American speech collection Warning to the West provided great substance. Michael Anton’s The Flight 93 Election brought together his original essays and a longer philosophical essay on what the American experiment is about. Sam Gregg’s Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization compellingly recounts why our current blessings are due to Athens and Jerusalem (as both Jewish and Christian center). Two colleagues had delightful books recently published: Robert G. Kennedy’s Justice in Taxation looks at Catholic social teaching applied to the tax man. Michael Naughton’s Getting Work Right offers a vision of integration and true leisure as the answer to “work-life balance.”
In higher education, Jared Staudt collected my late colleague Don Briel’s essays (shameless plug: I wrote the preface) in The University and the Church. Briel limns the needs of Catholic universities in a truly Newmanian vein, as John Sullivan does the needs of professors in The Christian Academic in Higher Education: The Consecration of Learning.
In Church history and spirituality I found George Weigel’s The Irony of Modern Catholic History stimulating and lucid if not entirely correct. I benefited particularly from Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom’s advice in Living Prayer, as well as the Soviet-era remembrances translated by Vera Bouteneff as Fr. Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father. Finally, I’m finishing Teresa of Avila’s charming and moving Interior Castle (translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez in Collected Works II.)
David Paul Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.
Adam A.J. DeVille:
On the plane to Romania in January, I avoided all the inane movies by reading Cynthia Haven’s very interesting biography, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.
Anything Serhiy Plokhy writes is a must-read for those interested in East-Slavic history. This year I read his Yalta, which is a superb analysis of the last wartime summit of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin.
The literary scholar and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips is always worth reading, including, this year, his aphoristic On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life.
Guy Beiner’s Forgetful Remembrance: Social Forgetting and Vernacular Historiography of a Rebellion in Ulster is a dense but deeply fascinating analysis of Irish historiography from 1798 onward and of the various ways we both repress and remember our conflicts.
My friend Bill Mills is an Orthodox priest and has written a very honest, moving, and funny book about the realities of parish life: Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding.
David Kynaston, Family Britain 1951-1957. On last year’s list, I recommended the predecessor volume, Austerity Britain 1945-1951. So this year I read the 1950s volume, which is equally marvelous.
John Campbell’s Aneurin Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism was surprisingly enjoyable as a study of the great Welsh leader who founded Britain’s National Health Service and rivalled Churchill in political oratory.
A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop by Rembert Weakland. I confess to boatloads of schadenfreude when he was disgraced nearly two decades ago. But I bought his memoirs this summer for $1 at Hyde Brothers, the best bookstore in Ft. Wayne. And I’m glad I did. It not only reveals his fascinating life, but tells a small slice of deplorable history of which I was unaware: the post-conciliar pressure to turn the worldwide abbot-primate of the Benedictines (which role Weakland filled for several years) into a micromanaging quasi-papal figure, and the international Benedictine Federation into a highly centralized body trying to control Benedictines everywhere. Weakland commendably fought both moves.
The priest Christiaan Kappes is a dynamo of a scholar whose newest book, The Epiclesis Debate at the Council of Florence, is an exhilarating ride, sharply challenging Catholic and Orthodox apologists and historians, not least over their grossly tendentious treatments of that controverted figure, Mark of Ephesus.
Juan-David Nasio, Psychoanalysis and Repetition: Why Do We Keep Making the Same Mistakes? This is a very short book whose subtitle says it all. Nasio offers singular insights into the role of trauma and the question of why we continue to repeat habits destructive of ourselves and our relationships with those we love, God included.
Pia Sophia Chaudhari, Dynamis of Healing: Patristic Theology and the Psyche. The author is both an Orthodox scholar and a Jungian analyst in training, and has written one of the most discerning books I have ever seen linking patristic thought (especially Maximus the Confessor) with depth psychology in ways that prompt one to pray and think differently. There are winsome and moving insights here.
A dear friend, a retired history teacher, died in June, and we inherited her library. In it I found, and rather enjoyed reading, Margaret Truman’s 1973 book Harry S. Truman, which is part memoir and part family biography.
I also inherited Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which apparently provided some inspiration for the 2012 Spielberg film, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. I was captivated by the movie after watching it with my kids this fall, and so decided to pick up the Goodwin biography, which I’m part-way through and rather enjoying.
Dr. Adam A.J. Deville is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN).
William Doino, Jr.:
Among the most dynamic books I read this year is Tom Holland’s 600-page magnum opus, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World—a fascinating, often enthralling, account of how Christianity transformed Western civilization like no other force has or ever will. Although Holland, an award-winning historian, does not write from an explicitly Christian perspective—clearly skeptical of some of its claims—he cannot hold back his overall admiration for Christianity’s achievements, which, in his view, are unparalleled and far outweigh its sins. A thoughtful and courageous book, especially in our secular age, I cannot recommend this work highly enough.
A much earlier book, which foreshadowed Holland’s epic, is Christianity and the New Age by the eminent Catholic historian Christopher Dawson. First published in 1931, it has never lost its freshness and vitality. In a little over 100 pages, Dawson argues eloquently for a return to Christian humanism, which he clearly distinguishes from its counterfeit, pagan humanism. The latter, Dawson convincingly shows, simply does not have the transcendent moral and spiritual values necessary to sustain it: only Christianity does. On every page of this timeless work, Dawson reminds us of the Biblical caution, “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.” (Psalm 127).
One of my favorite novelists, who died earlier this year, was Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny (1951, Pulitzer Prize), among many other accomplished works. What many of his readers do not know, however, is that Wouk, the master novelist, was also a faithful member of the Jewish community, and wrote a beautiful book about his faith, This is My God. It was originally published in 1959, but Wouk revised and updated it many times, and I re-read it after his death. I found it an excellent introduction to Judaism, and especially helpful in understanding why Judaism has such a unique relationship to Christianity—a fact explained in Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, and developed by the popes since.
Francis’ recent trip to Japan reminded the Church of the many sacrifices and ongoing challenges Japanese Catholics (and Christians of all denominations) face in the country. A gripping historical overview of their sufferings and endurance can be found in John Dougill’s In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians: A Story of Suppression, Secrecy, and Survival (2012)—which reveals just how enormous their sacrifices for Christ have been.
Finally, Terrence Malick’s acclaimed new film, A Hidden Life, on Franz Jaggerstatter, the Austrian Catholic martyr who was executed for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler—brought me back to Jaggerstatter’s immensely moving letters to his wife (which are quoted throughout the film). Franz Jaggerstatter’s Letters and Writings from Prison (edited by Erna Putz, 2009), with an introduction by Jim Forrest (Dorothy Day’s biographer), makes for powerful and unforgettable spiritual reading during this Christmas season, on what Christian discipleship truly means.
William Doino, Jr. has written about religion, history, and culture for many publications, including First Things, the Times of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, Inside the Vatican, and America.
Thomas M. Doran:
I’m getting to the age when the world is speeding up, like those football players for whom the game’s moving too fast. So, I’m now trying to take life at a Fred Rogers or Elwood P. Dowd pace: “You must be oh so smart or so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” I’m still reading The Lord of the Rings (as I was last year) at two pages a day. Apart from the Bible, the LOTR has taught me more than any other book I’ve read. I enjoy re-reading Patrick O’Brian, a modern Dickens: inspired storyteller, erudite, and he isn’t afraid of First Things. Joseph Pearce’s Further Up & Further In: Understanding Narnia, like Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien, is a rich exploration of the truth behind Lewis’ myths. Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans is smart, masterfully crafted, downright compelling in places, but resigns human beings to a cage from which there is no escape. He’s Graham Greene without the larger life, even when it seems to be out of our grasp.
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam and its sequel, The Lucifer Ego.
Another year, another smorgasbord of books. There were great novels, some poetry, and good non-fictions works.
First, the novels. I finally read Morris West’s The Devil’s Advocate. I wrote about the novel here, but now will just say this. West’s novel, about a dying priest who travels to southern Italy to investigate the canonization cause of a mysterious foreigner, presents a beautiful story of grace, prayer, sin, and mercy. I also read Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus. It is an enchanting book set, mostly, in 15th-century Russia. At the heart of this book is Russian mysticism. One David Lodge novel per year is a way to maintain laughter and sanity. This year I read Changing Places, which details a professor swap between a fictional Berkeley-like campus and fictional Birmingham, England-like campus, all set in the roiling year of 1969. Hijinks ensue. Laughter follows.
Second, this was the year I was introduced to James Matthew Wilson’s beautiful poetry. I read The Hanging God and the revised and expanded version of Some Permanent Things. And to my great joy I was able to host Michigan-native Wilson reading his poetry in the summer. I’ll be returning to these beautiful poems. They are haunting.
Turning to the Church, I read French historian Yves Chiron’s incredibly efficient and substantive book, Annibale Bugnini: Reformer of the Liturgy, which I review here at Catholic World Report. If you want to understand the Western liturgy we have today, you need to read this book. I listened to George Weigel’s poignant Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II. The book is a nice concluding volume to Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. I enjoyed Weigel’s very moving personal reflections. I also reread Joseph Ratzinger’s What It Meant to Be a Christian. This book of three Advent sermons from 55 years ago seems like it could have been written today. It is a profound book in which I find new gems each time I reread it.
To round it all out, let me mention two other books. I listened to the hilarious and depressing This Town by Mark Leibovich. Leibovich, a New York Times Magazine reporter, profiles Washington, DC and everything that is wrong with it. This portrait of the shallowness, vanity, and uniformity—no matter which party finds itself in power—of Washington, DC is laugh-out-loud funny. One also realizes why nothing will ever change because Washington exists to serve itself and its perpetual ruling class. At the beginning of Lent, I read Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Lanier is a computer scientist and thinker who makes a winsome case for getting off of social media—stat! In part, because of Lanier’s argument, I deleted my Twitter account, and I come closer every day to shucking Facebook.
Conor B. Dugan is a husband, father of four, and attorney who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Father Charles Fox:
My program of reading, one I try to pass on to the seminarians I teach, is to have at least one book of theology, one of spirituality, and one in some other genre (novel, poetry, history, etc.) going at any given time.
The Virgin Mary and the Priesthood, Cardinal Pierre Paul Philippe, OP. Cardinal Philippe participated in the Second Vatican Council, after having served as a renowned professor of ascetical and mystical theology at the Angelicum University in Rome. In this book, he considers the uniquely intimate relationship between the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Lord Jesus, particularly Christ crucified, and the implications of that relationship for Mary’s relationship with priests. Philippe’s reflections are supplemented by excerpts from the writings of one of his former students at the Angelicum, Pope St. John Paul II. The book is an excellent introduction to Marian and priestly spirituality.
The Last Things, Romano Guardini. The originality of Guardini’s thought always strikes me powerfully, and nowhere more so than in this brief volume on eschatology. I did not count, but I bet there are fewer than ten footnotes. Yet I hasten to add that Guardini’s thought is not “new” in the sense that must always be pejorative with reference to Christian theology. Guardini is a theologian steeped in the magisterial and theological tradition of the Church, yet he is able to express himself with great originality, and thereby engage the modern world in a way that is most effective.
The Mating Season and The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse. Never was such beautiful English prose expended on such seemingly inconsequential stories as in the works of P.G. Wodehouse. And yet the reader of depth and sensitivity will discover that there are treasures to be discovered in the bromidic adventures of Bertie Wooster: joy, the interplay of order and disorder, the last vestiges of a truly Christian culture, and self-sacrificial loyalty to one’s family and friends. The Mating Season is not my favorite Jeeves novel, but it was still a delight to read. Jonathan Cecil is a particularly felicitous narrator, for those who prefer an audio-book version. Martin Jarvis is also very good.
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens. Oliver Twist is in some respects the quintessential Dickensian novel, with its blend of pathos and humor, its championing of the poor, and the fairy tale-like quality of the reversal of fortunes enjoyed by its eponymous hero. Personally speaking, I very much prefer David Copperfield, which has many of the same strengths without the regular dose of sarcasm Dickens injects into Oliver Twist. Dickens seems very much to be taking certain neglectful members of the English middle class to task in Oliver Twist, and his sarcasm is not nearly as artful as his character development or plot.
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh. I have read Brideshead three times, and continue to extract more of its beauty and truth each time I read it. Interestingly, I have struggled to extract more of the third transcendental, goodness. Brideshead is a book about the goodness of God, and his ability to sanctify those who will at least open themselves up a smidgeon to His grace. But it is not really about characters who themselves exemplify goodness. The novel examines the narrow victories of grace in the lives of those who, generally, have not been good, but who at some decisive moment allow their hearts to be invaded by the goodness of God, having been enticed to this moment of surrender by beauty and truth.
Father Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin:
Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow. Epic life of an epic man, by one of the best biographers of all time. Somebody should make a musical about this…
Grant, by Ron Chernow. The much-maligned Ulysses Grant gets a fair treatment here. Seriously, nobody writes like Chernow. Highlights include Grant defeating his alcoholism and Mark Twain reducing the famously stoic general to paralyzed, hysterical laughter. Oh, also, the Civil War.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder. Pulitzer-prize-winning theodicy. Brilliant prose. Makes me weep every time.
Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. This is probably Chesterton at his absolute best. Spot-on apologetics, coupled with his upside-down look at things we take for granted.
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin is a writer and assistant professor of English at Hillsdale College.
Joseph M. Hanneman:
Tolle, lege. Tolle, lege. As I listened to the sermon on the first Sunday of Advent, I heard Father speak these words from St. Augustine’s Confessions, as the Lord bade Augustine to “take up and read” a passage from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. So he did—tolle, lege—and it transformed his life.
Those words seemed so appropriate as they relate to two wonderful books I read for the first time in 2019. These volumes, from the pen of the indomitable Father Francis Xavier Lasance (1860-1946), seem to call out from my bookshelf every day, take up and read.
The New Roman Missal by Rev. F.X. Lasance and Rev. Francis Augustine Walsh, O.S.B., has for me become a frequent source of learning, inspiration, and wisdom. It is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in the Traditional Latin Mass, but all Catholics will find a rich reward from spending time with this 1,852-page missal.
It includes a devotional treatise on Holy Mass, Latin and English text of the Ordinary and Propers of the Mass, and a very handy study plan for learning the Tridentine liturgy. The general devotions section has an impressive compilation of indulgenced prayers. One of my favorite sections contains brief accounts of feast days and the lives of the saints. I bought the missal from Daughters of Mary Press, although a number of other traditional Catholic publishers carry newly printed versions of the missal, with imprimaturs from 1937 and 1945.
Father Lasance spent most of his more than six decades of priesthood toiling as “the priest of silent suffering,” according to the late Cincinnati Archbishop John T. McNicholas. Father Lasance suffered from debilitating, chronic headaches and raw nerves, hidden in the seclusion of his quarters at St. Francis Hospital. He dedicated his time to compiling and editing (he would not call himself an author) more than 30 books on prayer, devotion, and inspiration. Millions around the world learned to pray via a Father Lasance devotional book. Pope Pius XI bestowed special honors on Father Lasance in 1927, but the humble priest would not allow a public presentation.
I found great wisdom in another Father Lasance work: The Young Man’s Guide: Counsels, Reflections and Prayers for Catholic Young Men. Although no longer a young man, I found the writing refreshingly relevant for our troubled times. “The young man’s lot is to go out into a hostile life,” the book begins. “You must, therefore, put on a strong suit of armor, one which is capable of protecting you.” In other words, prepare for battle. There is no namby-pamby sentimentalism here, only sage advice that first hit Catholic bookshelves in 1910.
Major sections include “Panoply of War,” “Conflict & Conquest,” “On the Journey Life,” and “At the Parting of the Ways.” The rest of the ample 782 pages is devoted to an arsenal of daily prayers (Latin with English translation), devotions, prayers to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, prayers to the Blessed Virgin, and much more. Father Lasance ends the tome with a section from London Opinion magazine called “Quit,” as in quit gossiping, quit fault-finding, quit nagging and worrying, quit pitying yourself and bemoaning your lack of opportunities, etc. Very pithy. There is plenty of advice from which to profit in this book—for the young and not-so-young.
Newly printed copies of The Young Man’s Guide (and its predecessor, The Catholic Girls Guide) are available from Daughters of Mary Press and other vendors. A number of Father Lasance’s other prayer books (My Prayer Book, Our Lady Book and The Blessed Sacrament Prayerbook) are also available.
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.
One of the best books I read this year was The Hack, by Wilfrid Sheed, which I picked up after reading Amy Welborn’s posts about the book. It’s the story of a writer eking out a living producing sentimental stories and poems for Catholic periodicals, and it should be required reading for everyone working in Catholic media and publishing. The novel’s midcentury setting may seem remote from our digital environment, but its questions—about the pitfalls for “professional Christians,” the distance between the realities of the Christian life and how it is packaged—remain relevant in an era when everyone is, in a sense, the manager of his own social media “brand” and online persona.
I did a deep-dive into the works of Flannery O’Connor this summer, and read the massive collection of her letters, The Habit of Being, from cover-to-cover for the first time. The book takes us from her efforts to find a publisher for her first novel to her final letter to a dear friend, found on her desk and mailed by her mother following her death. The tragedy of her death at the age of 39 is driven home especially as one reads letters from the last year of her life—the possibilities she saw in the characters from her story “The Enduring Chill,” whom she was careful not kill off in case she wanted to write more about them in the future; the new tone and depth developing in her last stories, completed just weeks before her death.
At the urging of CWR editor Carl Olson, I read Abigail Rine Favale’s conversion memoir Into the Deep, and, like Carl, found it to be beautifully, powerfully written. While Favale’s spiritual journey, like all conversions, required a turning away from previous beliefs and convictions, what she depicts so compellingly is how coming to the Catholic faith led to a deepening of experiences she already treasured—her relationship with God, certainly, but also her femininity and her motherhood. A wonderful book!
Another book dealing with conversion—or the aftermath of a conversion—is English poet Sally Read’s Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World. In this little book, Read uses the episode of the Annunciation as her starting point for reflections on Christian life and belief. She addresses the book to her young daughter, who is experiencing some of the same doubts and questions that Read tangled with during her own conversion several years before (that story is told in another excellent book, Night’s Bright Darkness).
Theology of Home: Finding the Eternal in the Everyday by Carrie Gress, Noelle Mering, and Megan Schrieber, is an extended meditation on a seemingly mundane topic: the houses we live in and how we take care of them (and of the people who live in them with us). But this isn’t a DIY or how-to book, and it isn’t about interior design in the conventional sense. It’s an invitation to reorient how we think about our home toward the transcendent, toward our final, true Home. I interviewed the authors of this lovely book here.
My favorite family read-aloud this year was Five Children and It by E. Nesbit. Hilarious, exciting, and full of insight into the human condition, it was a delight from start to finish.
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.
Thomas S. Hibbs:
Barbara Kellerman, The End of Leadership. From an industry insider who teaches leadership at Harvard comes a devastating critique of the leadership industry—both in universities and in corporate America. The book argues that the explosion of leadership training, instead of improving things, may actually be making matters worse. It also suggests that some versions of traditional liberal education may be a better starting point for educating leaders.
Michael Zantovsky, Havel: A Life. A gripping biography of the life of the great Czech dissident and politician, whose notion of “living in truth,” a way of resisting the ideological distortions of communism, is remarkably germane to our own time.
Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—And the Unexpected Solutions. A controversial book for its dismissive attitude toward the current practice of treating depression, the book’s strength consists in its directing our attention to the ways in which depression can have roots in the absence of basic human connections—disconnections from meaningful work, from friends and family, from nature, and from a hopeful future.
Paul Shrimpton, The “Making of Men.” The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin. An important book on what Newman has to teach us about the education of young adults, Shrimpton’s book focuses on Newman’s work as the first rector of the Catholic University of Dublin. It is especially strong on Newman’s vision of character and faith formation in the area of what we today would call student life.
Thomas S. Hibbs, Ph.D., is president of the University of Dallas.
It’s hard to do a top 10 list, so I’ll just mention a few books I liked. First, a couple that provide background for our present situation:
Roberto de Mattei, Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church. A book for Catholics trying to keep their bearings in a confused time. It covers the historical and philosophical background of secularizing trends as well as the papal office, past papal missteps, clerical and lay responses, and the present outlook.
Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism: Action Francaise, Italian Fascism, National Socialism. An historical and philosophical study of three wholly this-worldly attempts to counter the disintegrating effects of modernity that brings out both their logic and their irrationality and hopelessness.
And then a couple of very different novelistic slices of 19th century life:
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop. An unusual view of the Old West, presented through the experiences of the first Catholic bishop of New Mexico after its acquisition by the United States. Mexicans, Indians, Anglos, Catholic clergy, and the wide open spaces, all presented sympathetically.
Anthony Trollope, Framley Parsonage. The fourth novel in the Chronicles of Barsetshire continues to cover clerical and political maneuverings in English country society. Trollope portrays his varied characters sympathetically, with their mixture of virtue, weakness, heroism, vice, and very ordinary hopes and ambitions.
John Milton, Paradise Lost. It seemed time to read it again. I like Samuel Johnson’s comment about the author: “he was born for whatever is arduous; and his work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first.”
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Timothy D. Lusch:
Every year when Carl Olson asks me to write this bit I get excited and exhausted. I get to spend time telling you what you should read. But other contributors tell me what I should read and I think, my God, I missed that. Into the “To Be Read” stack it goes. This, of course, alarms my wife. Whenever a door slams, there is a gentle sway in the tower. I just look away.
Kicking things off on a happy note, I read three books on death. Nicholas Diat’s A Time to Die (which I reviewed here) is simply terrific. Monks face death—they are human after all—as we do. But they also die differently if only because they spend years preparing for it. James S. Romm’s fine collection of Seneca’s writings on death, How to Die is not to be missed. Seneca was a Stoic, not a Christian, so he faced the end without Hope. But he faced it. And died well. Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die isn’t about death so much as how the Vikings faced it. This nasty, smelly, violent mass of humanity has plenty to teach us. It takes some work but if you stick with it you will appreciate the Vikings anew.
Les Murray, the enormous and enormously gifted Australian poet, was plagued by depression his whole life. So he thought about death a lot. He persevered—dying naturally this year—and produced some visceral and haunting poetry. He also wrote Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression. It is reminiscent of Styron’s Darkness Visible, though Murray dissects his madness in more detail. It is heavier and more harrowing.
Needing something peppier, I read Josef Pieper’s The End of Time. A Catholic philosopher’s meditation on Time, the End, and Eternity is a bit heady in places but is actually quite comforting. It is a very effective ego-reducer. A reduced ego is not something detectable in Auberon Waugh’s journalism. But his crisp, cutting commentary in Brideshead Benighted never grows stale, even if the underlying details have gotten moldy. Saul Bellow is another writer who stands the test of time even if firmly rooted in a particular piece of it. Seize the Day and Ravelstein, written at the beginning and end of his career respectively, are short on the Bellow scale but his insights and observations are still literary gold. Andreí Makine’s The Woman Who Waited is simple, slow, and will stick in your imagination as the memories of other novels slip away.
Michael Howard’s skinny book The First World War is an excellent introduction to a war few understand. David Nicolle’s Crusader Castles in the Holy Land concerns fortifications built by people who knew exactly why they were fighting. Jihadists, despite what Western elites say, also know exactly why they are fighting, as Robert Spencer makes clear in The History of Jihad. Herman Melville’s poetry, especially his Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, capture something of the Great Unspoken that lingers at Gettysburg or Antietam.
And the Why Not? Book of the Year Award goes to Robert Caro’s Working. It appealed to me because it is short. All his other books are ginormous. It is a fine memoir and makes me want to read those fat biographies. Eventually.
Timothy D. Lusch is a writer.
Daniel J. Mahoney:
The Catholic Church is drifting, if not galloping, towards an unreflective de facto pacifism, ignoring its own age-old wisdom in the process. In this new utopian and hyper-moralistic understanding, it is more or less taken for granted that Our Lord Jesus Christ himself argued for pacifism and is a compelling witness to the absolute and permanent moral necessity of non-violence. This view is vigorously and effectively challenged in a superb booklet, Jesus and Pacifism: An Exegetical and Historical Investigation, authored by Andrew A. Fulford and published by the Davenant Trust in Lincoln, Nebraska. Davenant is an impressive wellspring of Reformed Protestant natural law reflection. I will not give the arguments away. But, succinctly put, Fulford argues that the magisterial just war tradition, Protestant and Catholic, provides the proper response to the scourge of violence in this or any other time. A valuable book of great contemporary relevance.
Cluny Media in Providence, Rhode Island is single-handedly recovering the Catholic classics of the twentieth century. These are all but forgotten in an age of reflexive theological and political progressivism and secularist indifference. In beautifully produced volumes, almost all priced at $17.95, Cluny Classics allows us to reconsider the Catholic wisdom that flourished before the great eruption (and accompanying loss of Catholic self-confidence) that was the so-called “spirit of Vatican II.” Instead of “kneeling before the world,” the admirable French Catholic poet, philosopher, and essayist Charles Péguy offered his readers a compelling vision of spiritual and temporal “communion.” This inspired poet-philosopher never forgot the “carnal” dimensions of the Catholic faith, or the intimations of transcendence inherent in the city qua city. The sacred and profane are always intermingled, and are never simply identical. For a taste of Péguy’s spellbinding incantatory prose, and his rich and enduring reflections on heroism, sanctity, the sterility of a modern world without a place for heroes and saints, and the greatness and glory of Joan of Arc (who was that rarest of things, a hero who was a saint, and a saint who was a hero), turn to Basic Verities and Saints and Sinners. Both volumes were brilliantly translated by Anne and Julian Green. They have recently been reissued by Cluny Classics with lovely covers and stylish print. For those who wish to further explore Péguy’s intellectual and moral greatness, I recommend Matthew W. McGuire’s Carnal Spirit: The Revolutions of Charles Péguy, published in the summer of 2019 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. McGuire expertly captures the multiple paradoxes that surround Péguy: he was an inveterate and compelling critic of historicism who was very much a product of the intellectual currents of his time (including that of Henri Bergson), a socialist who hated Marxism and progressive illusions, a Catholic and a Dreyfusard, a defender of humble souls who thought Christians, too, must aspire to pagan honor in the noblest sense of the term. May these books give rise to a most welcome (American and American Catholic) Péguy revival!
I have always been a fan of Malcolm Muggeridge’s. A God-obsessed libertine for many years, he travelled to the Soviet Union as a young man and saw the truth about famine, tyranny, and collectivization before almost anyone else. He had that indomitable gift that Solzhenitsyn so aptly called “the courage to see.” Figures such as Solzhenitsyn and St. Teresa of Calcutta, combined with this prophetic aversion to the sexual revolution and the cult of abortion in the Western world, brought him to a more emphatic Christian affirmation in the last two or three decades of his life. In 1982, he and Kitty Muggeridge joined the Roman Catholic Church, even as Muggeridge feared he was walking on to a sinking ship. A superb journalist and memoirist, a sometime spy for the British secret services, a critic par excellence of totalitarianism and liberal decadence, and a man of mordant wit, Muggeridge remains worthy of our respect and admiration. The whole story is told lyrically and well in his final brief book, Conversion: The Spiritual Journey of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim, still available in paperback from Wipf and Stock Publishers. This is a book readers come to love. Long live St. Mugg, as he came to be appreciatively, and ironically, called.
Radical secularism, soulless and dogmatic, cannot begin to do justice to the American proposition or our lived experience of liberty worthy of human beings. As Tocqueville already observed in 1835, since our Puritan “point of departure,” “the spirit of religion” and the “spirit of liberty” have come together in the United States in varied and sometimes unexpected ways. In Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, and Falwell (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), the young Catholic political scientist James M. Patterson discusses three unique and influential American conjugations of religion and political life in the American twentieth century: those represented by Fulton J. Sheen, Martin Luther King, and Jerry Falwell. The latter two are the best known today. Patterson writes clearly and well and is a trustworthy guide to his subjects. His heart is clearly with Fulton J. Sheen, who argued persuasively in the middle of the twentieth century that Catholic wisdom should inform and deepen America’s noble opposition to soul-destroying totalitarianism. An immensely learned popularizer, a graceful writer, a witty and intelligent Catholic apologist and a passionate patriot, the media-savvy Sheen deserves to be introduced or reintroduced to new generations. This book is a good place for the serious reader to begin.
Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Studies at Assumption College.
Lauren Enk Mann:
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle. An eye-opening examination of the effects of the digital communication on the individual and on human society, from the family to the classroom to the office.
Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout. Good old-fashioned American murder mystery fun.
A Memory for Wonders by Mother Veronica Namoyo Le Goulard. Vivid and moving memoir of the daughter of anti-Catholic socialists who found her way to God and her vocation to become a cloistered nun in French Morocco. Her story is a testament to the power of the sacramental grace of baptism.
My Antonia by Willa Cather. Quiet and gritty yet hopeful portrait of an immigrant pioneer woman.
To Raise the Fallen: The Writings of Father Willie Doyle. This book is absolutely gold: a soul-stirring account of his faith and trials as a chaplain in the trenches of World War I, as well as excellent spiritual reading.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Set in England during and immediately after World War II, this novel hits all of Greene’s favorite themes: earth and heaven, ugly sin and the inscrutable workings of grace. Each word is perfectly selected to shine light on the hidden tug of war between selfishness and love in the human soul. Best for mature readers.
Lauren Enk Mann is a freelance editor residing in Northern Virginia.
Five books about journalists and journalism:
The Same Man: George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh in Love and War by David Lebedoff
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
The Hack by Wilfrid Sheed
Reforming Journalism by Marvin Olasky
Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey by Jeremy Treglown
Four sterling instances of applied theology:
None Greater by Matthew Barrett
“He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday by Matthew Y. Emerson
Spiritual Depression by Martyn-Lloyd Jones
The Splendor of the Rosary by Maisie Ward
Three titles that challenged my assumptions:
Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought by Terrence C. Wright
The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Mormon Christianity by Stephen H. Webb
Two tomes that cut against the current Catholic zeitgeist:
The Genealogical Adam and Eve by S. Joshua Swamidass
Charitable Anathema by Dietrich Von Hildebrand
One sobering reality check:
Dying and the Virtues by Matthew Levering
Other loose ends:
Petty by Warren Zanes
Arts & Architecture 1945-1949 by David Travers
Semicolon by Cecelia Watson
Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager
Works of Mercy by Fritz Eichenberg
Cartoons Catholic Jean Charlot
Angels (& Demons) by Peter Kreeft
Desert Dove Michaela Anne
Be Clean Again Heath McNease
Ultra-Lounge Christmas Cocktails, Part I
Consistently encouraging online voices:
Reporter Sophia Lee (at WORLD)
Editor R.R. Reno (at First Things)
Father George Rutler (via Church of St. Michael the Archangel emailed columns)
Blogger Amy Welborn (at Charlotte Was Both)
Joseph Martin is chair of the Department of English, Communication, & Language at Montreat College.
The best novel I read in 2019 was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin. While Singer was a very Jewish writer both in terms of subject matter and because he wrote in Yiddish, this book can have unquestionable appeal to Christian readers. It tells the story of Yasha Mazur, a half-Jewish, half-Gentile freethinker and libertine who is something like the David Blaine of Russian-ruled Poland in the late 19th century. Mazur has numerous love affairs while he ignores his infertile wife, Esther. The protagonist does all he can to avoid God, tradition, and morality, but eventually everything collapses on him. This is a powerful, engrossing read about the folly of man’s thinking he is above God and about how sexual “liberation” is not liberation at all.
As Catholicism is booming in Sub-Saharan Africa, studying the home of a growing number of our brothers and sisters in Christ seems timely. Thus, I picked up the famous war-correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun. Although Kapuściński has been accused of blurring the line between reporting and his imagination at times, the book—a collage of Kapuściński’s descriptions of his African travels and frequent brushes with death; keen sociological observations of African societies; and illuminating lectures on Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin or the historical origins of the Rwandan genocide—is a fascinating and informative primer on the continent.
Although it was published in 2002, George Weigel’s The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church is as relevant as ever. It deals with the painful issue of the sexual abuse of minors by some members of the clergy and the scandalously inept treatment of such cases by their superiors. In recent years, a tendentious film on this topic, Spotlight, filled with all sorts of balderdash (for example, it falsely claims that celibacy is the root of this problem and that homosexuality has nothing to do with it) was a box office success and won an Oscar for Best Picture. Weigel’s book does an excellent job of debunking these myths, instead showing that it has been caused by the abandonment of fidelity to Christian witness by some priests and adopting the pagan Zeitgeist of 1960s morality embodied by cultural icon and NAMBLA co-founder Allen Ginsberg and “free love.” Furthermore, The Courage to Be Catholic features a wise and persuasive model of reform for how to get out of this crisis and prevent such abuses in the future; one can hope that bishops around the world will read it carefully.
Among my favorite Catholic saints and blesseds is Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer who was martyred for refusing to serve the Third Reich’s army. Given the nearly unchallenged support for Hitler in his native Austria (in 1938, 99.7 percent of Austrians voted in favor of annexation by Nazi Germany), his witness was completely countercultural and solitary. Would we have such courage to preach the Gospel if practically our entire society opposed us? I was inspired by reading Erna Putz’s biography of him, Franz Jägerstätter, Martyr: A Shining Example in Dark Times.
Another great martyr of the 20th century I enjoyed reading about in 2019 was Blessed Pino Puglisi, a courageous Palermo priest killed by the mob in 1993 for speaking out against Cosa Nostra’s violence and for defending its victims. Vincenzo Caruso’s biography of him, Don Pino Puglisi: A mani nude (“With Bare Hands”), is helpful in understanding Blessed Pino’s spiritual background and the historical context of the mafia and its relationship to the Church in southern Italy; hopefully, the book will be translated into English someday.
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian.
Justin McClain, OP:
Abide in the Heart of Christ: A 10-Day Personal Retreat with St. Ignatius of Loyola by Father Joe Laramie, S.J. (Ave Maria Press, 2019). Jesuit priest Father Joe Laramie takes his readers on a 10-day walk with the Lord, reinforced by the spiritual guidance of St. Ignatius of Loyola. This book will particularly help those interested in learning more about Ignatian spirituality and conversion on a daily basis.
Discernment Do’s and Don’ts: A Practical Guide to Vocational Discernment by Father George Elliott (TAN Books, 2018). It can often be a challenge for those who are otherwise open to God’s will in their lives to know exactly where he is leading them. Father George Elliott, a priest of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas, and head of Catholic CAST Media, guides his readers through the process of faithful discernment.
Forgiveness Makes You Free: A Dramatic Story of Healing and Reconciliation from the Heart of Rwanda by Father Ubald Rugirangoga with Heidi Hess Saxton (Ave Maria Press, 2019). This book will draw you to understand why forgiveness and reconciliation are vital to advancing in the spiritual life. Father Ubald’s accounts are at once sobering and refreshing.
God’s Wildest Wonderment of All by Paul Thigpen (author) and John Folley (illustrator) (TAN Books, 2019). My wife and I have enjoyed using this as a bedtime story for our four young children (8, 6, 4, and 2). Children—and adults—of all ages will be pleased by how such a relatively short book can be so profound in its implications.
Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis by Bishop Robert Barron (Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, 2019). This book by Bishop Robert Barron, an acclaimed Catholic communicator and courageous shepherd, will help you to make sense of the senseless: how the Church got here, and how we can move forward by learning from the past.
Made This Way: How to Prepare Kids to Face Today’s Tough Moral Issues by Leila Miller and Trent Horn (Catholic Answers Press, 2018). In an era charged with tensions over “hot-button” issues, how do parents talk about certain difficult issues with their children? Leila Miller and Trent Horn confront such matters as abortion, contraception, divorce, fornication, pornography, same-sex relations, transgender ideology, and other circumstances that should be considered in light of Church teaching.
My Queen, My Mother: A Living Novena—A Marian Pilgrimage Across America by Marge Fenelon (Ave Maria Press, 2019). Amid the numerous crises of these times (both within and outside of the United States), Marge Fenelon shows how Mother Mary can help us along the way, via her powerful intercession. Take a tour, whether in the armchair or (hopefully) in person, to various Marian shrines throughout the United States.
The Priests We Need to Save the Church by Kevin Wells (Sophia Institute Press, 2019). Kevin Wells, as both an experienced journalist and lay observer of the institutional Catholic Church, provides insights regarding how the laity can help to support faithful and courageous priests and shepherds, building up the kingdom of God in the process.
Raising Catholic Kids for Their Vocations by John and Claire Grabowski (TAN Books, 2019). The Grabowskis show Catholic parents how to have faith, courage, and perseverance in drawing their children into the sacramental life and a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ. I recommend reading this in conjunction with Father George Elliott’s Discernment Do’s and Don’ts (listed above).
The Sexual State: How Elite Ideologies Are Destroying Lives, and Why the Church Was Right All Along by Jennifer Roback Morse (TAN Books, 2018). Morse, the legendary opponent of the Sexual Revolution, delivers again in this text, which extensively details the destructive nature and underpinnings of various facets of the Sexual Revolution. This book, while stunningly sobering, will provide you with the rhetorical tools necessary to counter arguments by those who actually enslave, rather than truly liberate, with their damaging mindsets and practices. In the process, Morse aids her readers to grow in personal holiness during their walk with the Lord, recalling his words in Luke 9:23, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Justin McClain, OP (a lay Dominican), has taught theology and Spanish at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland since 2006.
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ:
Father James Schall, SJ (beatae memoriae) once challenged me to read something from or at least about Shakespeare every year, and this year’s book was Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton), which serves as both biography as well testimony to a genius’ regard for truly what is, as Schall himself would insist.
Gearing up for a new major here at St. Louis University through our Catholic Studies Centre—Catholic Humanities and Culture—I spent most of my free time reading a slew of works treating the intersectionality of the humanities and highly recommend:
Michael Kurek, The Sound of Beauty: A Classical Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life (Ignatius Press), which argues that the real purpose of sacred music is not simply to tickle the emotions but deepen the intellect;
Christoper Pramuk, The Artist Alive: Explorations in Music, Art & Theology (Anselm Academic), also advances the thesis that the arts (music, but also film and art) are ultimately to be vehicles of truth and conduits of the divine, truly the Catholic imagination at work;
Nicola Gardini, Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language (Farrer, Straus and Giroux), makes the case for the “uselessness” of the liberal arts and Latin in particular, a real foray into some forgotten voices for me;
Edward Baring, Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy (Harvard University Press), is not for the novice but worth the time, as Baring first argues that phenomenology is the real philosophy of Europe and then shows why it became so attractive to so many important Catholic thinkers in the 20th century, Edith Stein and Wojtyla making appropriate appearances;
Claude Pavur, SJ, In the School of Ignatius: Studious Zeal and Devoted Learning (Boston College Institute of Jesuit Sources), which is roadmap of the Ratio Studiorum and required for anyone who wants to know what “Jesuit education” really is; and finally,
Thanks to one of my oldest best friends, Dr. Chris Thompson of St. Paul Seminary, I also prayed through and highly recommend Jean Moroux, The Meaning of Man (Sheed & Ward, 1948), and its ability to present creation as a participatory reflection and the human person as embodied icons of Triune Love.
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ is Professor of Patristic Theology and the Director of the Catholic Studies Centre at Saint Louis University.
This year, I’m grouping my favorites by topic.
Carlos Eire, The Life of St. Teresa of Avila: A Biography (2019). A leading Reformation historian surveys the life of the book as well as the saint, from arduous composition to suspicious reception, to modern misreadings.
Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena (reprint 2009). Catholic Nobel-laureate Undset gives a warm, engaging portrait of her favorite saint as a daughter of urban medieval Italy.
John Howe, The Middle-earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor (2018). Howe, one of the conceptual artists for Peter Jackson’s films, beautifully and believably illustrates Tolkien’s world.
Jonathan S. McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas and the Metaphysics of Faerie (2017). Despite my meager acquaintance with Thomism, I found McIntosh’s deep and subtle interpretation quite accessible as well as stimulating.
John D. Ratecliff. ed., A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger (2018). Ratecliff packs this Festschrift for a great Tolkien critic with excellent essays by her gifted admirers including Jason Fisher, Thomas Honegger, and Richard C. West.
Claudio A. Testi, Pagan Saints in Middle-earth (2018). Equipped with a doctorate from the Pontifical Lateran University, Testi convincingly resolves the long debate over Christian and Pagan aspects of Tolkien’s work.
Edward Brooke-Hitching, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies, and Blunders on Maps (2018). This delightful and lavishly illustrated compendium opened new vistas for me. I’d heard of Hy-Brasil and Cosmas Indicopleustes but not Sanikov Island or the Mountains of Kong.
Martin Booth, A Magick Life: A Biography of Aleister Crowley (2000). Working from Crowley’s own papers, Booth provides a relentlessly sober account of the Great Beast’s wicked life. Crowley’s encounters with famous contemporaries can surprise: G.K. Chesterton initially rated him a promising poet.
Owen Davies, America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem (2013). Davies collects forgotten stories of countless red, white, black, and brown Americans accused, harassed, or even murdered as witches right into the 20th century.
David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (2019). Mining a little-known local archive, McCullough presents the founders of Marietta, Ohio as embodiments of the Northwest Ordinance in their dedication to religious freedom, education, and the abolition of slavery.
David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (2014). Reynolds dissects the impact of the War’s horrors on the contending powers, yielding a condensed political, cultural, and social history of the inter-war years.
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer.
Ines Angeli Murzaku:
Sparta, the city where I live in New Jersey, was hit hard by a storm in early December (1-4). In fact, winter came in like a lion, dumping ice, snow, freezing rain, and ushering in very cold weather. People have been without power, heat, Internet—indeed, a December to remember, as the saying goes. I am writing this reflection in the Sparta library, among so many people, young and old, who are seeking to charge phones and computers, besides finding a warm place to be. I do not frequent my local library, but I guess this is one of the benefits of the storm—bringing a community together in the library so everyone can read. I saw children in the children’s section reading books and adults doing the same in the adult section, and I am impressed. Reading is indeed a privilege. My students do not prefer hard copies and physical books anymore. They fare better with everything electronic, using all their devices. As for me, this past year I have read both—hard copies and electronic. Many titles have been added to my Kindle library and I do like the feel; once you have the urge for a book, the book is yours in seconds to read.
My reading this year has concentrated for the most part on Saint Mother Teresa, as this summer I finished writing a book manuscript on her: Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries Who Became Catholicism’s Centerpiece (forthcoming Paulist Press, 2020). I learned a great deal from Mother. Her thinking was active and theologically sophisticated at the same time; she never shied away from saying things as they were, or from teaching by example what the Church has taught for centuries.
Robert M. Garrity’s Mother Teresa’s Mysticism: A Christo-Ecclesio-Humano-centric Mysticism, (Lectio Publishing, 2017) is well researched, written, and presented. It explores the mysticism of Mother Teresa and her dark night of the soul, which was exceptionally long compared to those of other saints who experienced the same darkness. As Garrity put it: “Christ had come unmasked to her but had left. However, she was confident in one thing: [The voices and visions] had helped her to be more trustful and draw closer to God.” Again, on Mother’s mysticism, I found the volume edited by Michael Dauphinais, Brian Kolodiejchuk, and Roger W. Nutt, Mother Teresa and the Mystics: Toward a Renewal of Spiritual Theology (Sapientia Press: Ave Maria University, 2018), exceptionally rich and learned.
I highly recommend Father Augustine Thompson’s book Francis of Assisi (Cornell University Press, 2012) to all interested in one of the most celebrated Christian saints. It is a biography of the saint, a historically astute and evidence-based study, which dispels some of the popular myths about the saint of Assisi and co-patron of Italy.
Another book I greatly enjoyed reading this past year was Paul Kengor and Robert Orlando’s The Divine Plan (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2019), which explores what it really took to end the Cold War and who among world leaders took this mission upon themselves: St. Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan. I highly recommend this book.
In sum, reading is indeed a privilege. As the great Italian scholar and professor Tullio De Mauro insightfully put it: “Reading, being able to read, having the pleasure of reading is a privilege…It is a privilege of our practical, even economic life; who has the taste to read is never alone, with very modest expenses can attend the most lavish shows.”
Ines Angeli Murzaku is professor of ecclesiastical history and director of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University.
Carl E. Olson:
“Of making many books,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes, “there is no end.” How true. There are over 300,000 unique titles published each year in the United States alone. I am happy to say, however, that I got to approximately .000167 percent of them. My wife, however, will insist that I bought close to 10 percent of them. This year, I turned 50 and celebrated 25 years of marriage, and so it was a year of more reflection than usual, which shows up a bit in my reading.
Another Sort of Learning was the first book I read by the late, great Father James V. Schall, SJ, and I re-read it this year, having recommended it to the men’s reading group I’ve been in for the past 15 years (I discuss both at more length at The Imaginative Conservative). Over the years, I had the honor of editing dozens of Father Schall essays, and I benefited in some way from reading each and every one.
I also revisited some of the poetry of T.S. Eliot, notably The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Hollow Men, and Ash-Wednesday, also as part of our reading group (which has the added bonus of making me actually finish the selected readings). In doing so, I dived more deeply into The Poems of T.S. Eliot: The Annotated Text (Volume 1), which is edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue and is a most remarkable and lively resource for anyone wishing to better understand the background to, well, every single line of Eliot’s poetry. Most illuminating, I found, were excerpts from Eliot’s letters, which reveal a man full of wit, insecurities, strong beliefs, and self-deprecating humor.
The third and final revisitation was Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, a collection of essays by the brilliant and often caustic Dorothy Sayers, known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries and her translation of Dante. Sayers is especially memorable in her witty but very serious attacks on sentimentality and her robust defense of dogma and doctrine as being essential to a vibrant, meaningful Christian faith.
I’ve read many wonderful conversion accounts over the years, but Abigail Favale’s Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion is one of the most powerful I’ve read, in no small part because the writing is beautiful, occasionally raw, vulnerable, and—befitting the title—deep. I reviewed the book for National Catholic Register and interviewed Favale for Catholic World Report.
Speaking of elegant, deep writing, I read a number of chapters/essays from two works by Christopher Dawson: Enquiries into Religion and Culture (1933) and Religion and World History (1975). The former has remarkable insights into the nature of totalitarianism, Islam, sex (yes, sex), and anthropology; the latter contains selections from numerous previous works, with the final section, on the nature and destiny of man, being worth the price of admission.
George Weigel’s The Irony of Modern Catholic History is a deeply researched but fast-moving account of how Catholicism has sought to navigate the often turgid, dark waters of modernity. While others try to make sense of the past 150 years by relying on caricatures and appealing to conspiracy theories, Weigel brings key figures, such as Leo XIII and Benedict XV, to life while helping make sense of a wide array of political systems and theological movements. My interview with Weigel about the book can be read here at CWR.
Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics is another thought-provoking study by Mary Eberstadt, cutting against the usual fads and bringing some Big Picture clarity to a topic usually clouded by political posturing and endless amounts of emoting. Samuel Gregg brings the same sort of learned, calm, and accessible qualities to Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, which is, as I write elsewhere, the “the sort of popular but learned tour of the West needed today…”
Deification in the Latin Patristic Tradition, edited by my friend Jared Ortiz, is an important collection of essays, as it lays to rest—once and for all, I hope—the long-standing notion that the early Western fathers and theologians avoided or dismissed the idea of theosis/deification. And, finally, I taught a Bible study of Tobit, which is a book I’d not spent much time with before. It was both educational and edifying, and filled with many wonderful things about marriage, family, and the nature of faith.
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report.
Dr. Jared Ortiz:
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, by Sebastian Faulk. This work was commissioned by the Wodehouse estate to make Jeeves and Wooster known to the next generation. It is a brilliant homage, capturing the Wodehousian cadences without slavish imitation. It has all the humor, charm, shenanigans, and sheer delight in life and language as the best Wodehouse, but it also did something to me that no Wodehouse has ever done: it made me tear up.
The Brothers K, by David James Duncan. I am surprised that this remarkable book is not read and discussed more, but it should be on every person’s reading list. Spiritually profound, deeply funny, poignant, this is a novel that will, and should, be read in a hundred years by those who know. Also, it is about baseball, a sport clearly revealed by God, and it treats its subject matter and characters with love.
The Devil’s Advocate, by Morris West. This is moving and enjoyable study of a devoted but perhaps not faithful canon lawyer who has less than a year to live. Easy to read, full of Catholic shoptalk, and surprisingly insightful into the spiritual life, this is an excellent book. I also read his Shoes of the Fisherman, which has almost prophetic moments about the future of the Church, but which is also literarily much weaker.
The Tale of Despereaux and The Mysterious Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. Two lovely books which could profitably be read (or listened to!) by young children and adults alike. The first is a kind of primer in heroism (with occasional lapses). The second is a kind of Pinocchio story (with important differences). Edward Tulane follows the transformation of a selfish porcelain rabbit as he journeys home. The rumor is that an illustration of the rabbit crucified caused this book to lose the Newbery Medal (which would have made four for DiCamillo).
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I didn’t much care for The Hobbit when I first read it (as an adult, I confess). But I am listening to it now with my son in a truly wonderful audio version by Rob Inglis. There is so much beauty and wonder and so many tender moments and subtle tensions. I just love it.
The Diaries of Adam and Eve, by Mark Twain. Delightful, and even beautiful at moments. A sample: “Been examining the great waterfall. It is the finest thing on the estate, I think. The new creature calls it Niagara Falls—why, I am sure I do not know. Says it looks like Niagara Falls. That is not a reason; it is mere waywardness.” And, “She is in much trouble about the buzzard; says grass does not agree with it; is afraid she can’t raise it; thinks it was intended to live on decayed flesh. The buzzard must get along the best it can with what is provided. We cannot overturn the whole scheme to accommodate the buzzard.” If that doesn’t convince you to read it, examine your conscience.
Dr. Jared Ortiz is Associate Professor of Religion at Hope College.
Edward N. Peters:
My personal reading in 2019 looked back in time, so, the Code of Hammurabi (which is not really a “code” but more a set of sentencing guidelines), the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology. Mostly though, some long nagging gaps in Jewish law are being addressed, including, beyond a boatload of excellent encyclopedia entries and The Great Courses “Biblical Hebrew” DVD series:
Charles Kent, Israel’s Laws and Legal Precedents, (Scribner’s, 1907);
Ignatius Hunt, The World of the Patriarchs, (Prentice Hall, 1966);
Ze’ev Falk, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times, (Brighman Young, 1964/2001);
Jacob Neusner, Invitation to the Talmud: A Teaching Book, (Harper & Row, 1973);
David Amram, Leading Cases in the Bible, (Greenstone, 1905);
Paul Démann, Judaism, (Hawthorn, 1961); and
Roland Murphy, Responses to 101 Questions on the Biblical Torah: Reflections on the Pentateuch, (Paulist, 1996).
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD holds the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Catholic Education in the 1960s by Wanda Skowronska, published by Conor Court, Melbourne.
This is a nostalgia trip for those who are old enough to remember when Catholic schools for girls were teeming with holy nuns. It’s also a window into another world for those who missed this experience. Skowronska (an Australian of Polish and Latvian descent) is a psychologist based in Sydney. Although her stories center around a convent-school education in the 1950/60s in Australia, anyone educated in the Anglophone world should be able to relate to them. This is very much a “feel good” book, written in the style of an entertaining read, not an academic treatise.
Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers by Geoffrey M. Vaughan (ed); Catholic University of America Press, 2018.
This book is the result of a conference held at Assumption College in Worcestor, Massachusetts, on the subject of the Catholic reception of the work of Leo Strauss (1899-1973). Strauss was a professor of political science at the University of Chicago from 1949-1969. One of his central preoccupations was the relationship between reason and revelation and the significance of this for political philosophy. Although he approached these subjects from a Jewish perspective his work has been very influential among Catholic scholars, hence the theme of this book is his reception within the Catholic milieu.
An Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar by Matthew Levering; Catholic University of America Press, 2019.
Introductions to the works of Balthasar can often be as dense as Balthasar himself, but this one is user-friendly! Levering zeroed in on Balthasar’s trilogy and then narrowed the scope even further to the first books in each of the three sub-sections of the 15 volume trilogy: the theological aesthetics, the theo-dramatics and the theo-logic. Levering posits the idea that the Theological Aesthetics can be read as a Kantian Critique of Kant, the Theo-Drama as a Hegelian Critique of Hegel, and the Theo-Logic as a Nietzschean Critique of Nietzsche. This is a really helpful introduction for theology students.
The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project, Rémi Brague, trans. Paul Seaton, University of Notre Dame Press, 2018.
This work is the third in Brague’s trilogy on anthropology, following The Wisdom of the World (2003) and The Law of God (2007). Every chapter reads like an intellectual history train trip, not merely through the usual territories of philosophy, theology, politics, and economics, but through almost every imaginable genre of literature from Gothic novels to astronautics.
A Poetic Christ, Olivier-Thomas Venard OP, Bloomsbury, 2019.
This is not an easy read because the territory is biblical hermeneutics. However it is a great book for anyone interested in approaching the scriptures from the perspective of faith. All seminarians should at least read the first couple of chapters. There are also chapters on the literary/poetic works of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Maurice Blondel: Transforming Catholic Tradition by Robert C. Koerpel, University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.
Koerpel notes that Blondel has been described as the “philosopher of the Second Vatican Council.” His “paw prints,” one might say, were all over the Conciliar document Dei Verbum. The extensive bibliography, which includes material in French as well as English, is a rich quarry for those seeking to understand the Catholic idea of tradition.
Alban and Sergius: The Story of a Journal by Aidan Nichols, Gracewing, 2018.
This work is focused on the ecumenical Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius and its journals. While much has been written about the influence of the Russian émigré community in Paris in the first half of the 20th century, Nichols has filled a gap in the literature with this account of similar exchanges of ideas between Russian Orthodox scholars and Anglicans in the United Kingdom. Nichols suggests that the Anglicans felt an affinity with the Russians because in Russian Orthodoxy they found “a traditional Church, with a national-ethnic tradition, a powerful liturgy, and a rich spirituality that drew on ancient sources.” In other words, in many ways, Russian Orthodoxy mirrored elements of the Anglican tradition.
The Indissolubility of Marriage: Amoris Laetitia in Context by Matthew Levering, Ignatius, 2019.
Levering offers a review of the vast stacks of literature that have been produced by the document Amoris Laetitia. I don’t know how he found the time to read all the articles but he should be given an award for having the stamina to plough through it all and sift and classify the various strands of argumentation. This is the most comprehensive book on the subject.
The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery, Gregory Wolfe, The Lutterworth Press, 2016.
This is a collection of short literary essays that would make a great “stocking-filler” for a liberal arts student. Throughout the collection there are references to Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh, and the founder of the movement Communio e liberazione, Luigi Giussani. There are also charming and most uncommon juxtapositions of writers like Trollope and theologians like Romano Guardini.
The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, edited by Tim Perry, Lexham Press, 2019.
For those interested in ecumenism and what Protestants are thinking about the Catholic intellectual tradition, and for those who simply like Ratzinger’s theology, this is one of the best Ratzinger books of 2019.
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a member of the International Theological Commission.
Gerald J. Russello:
A book I read, but am also happy to have helped bring back into print, is Enid Chadwick’s My Book of the Church’s Year, which is simply a gem of theological insight. I have been printing copies from the Internet of the book’s illustrations to put up around my house for years since the book has been impossible to find. This book is perfect for new families, as Chadwick’s illustrations are distillations of Church history, tradition, and doctrine. Highly recommended.
The great Georgetown professor James V. Schall, S.J. died this year, and any one of his numerous books are worth returning to, in his honor and memory. In his final public lecture at Georgetown, “The Final Gladness,” Father Schall said, “Truth exists in conversation,” and his books are a perfect embodiment and introduction to that conversation, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine, Newman, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and yes, even the philosophy of Peanuts. His most famous book, Another Sort of Learning, is perhaps the best place to start, but the polished diamonds that are the essays in The Mind That is Catholic and Catholicism and Intelligence are perfect for students.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.
Three titles come to mind.
American Priest by Father Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., is a detailed (occasionally, too detailed) account of the career of Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame for an extraordinary 35 years in which he was largely responsible for transforming it from a football school to an elite university while winning acceptance for himself in the ranks of the nation’s power elite. Miscamble doesn’t slight Hesburgh’s achievements, but he makes it clear that these came at the cost of significant elements of Catholic identity.
Daily Life in the Time of Jesus by Henri Daniel-Rops is an old book—first published in French in 1961—but an excellent one, brimming with information about the religious, political, and social background of the story told in the gospels, and very well written. The book will deepen and enrich anyone’s reading of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and help bring the pages of the New Testament to life.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a genuinely frightening ghost story, not least due to James’ masterful skill in suggesting the overwrought inner life of the governess who tells the terrifying tale. But, you ask, are the ghosts real? Certainly they are. Just as real as the balmy mental state of the woman recounting these spooky events.
Russell Shaw is the author of more than 20 books.
As a child I loved reading about the heroes of Greek mythology, but it was only this year that I finally read Homer’s The Odyssey in its entirety. Even better, I read it in an old 1930 edition with some interesting notes and commentary.
A more modern literary classic which, amazingly, I had never read before this year is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. This novel vividly captures the life of one of the old Catholic recusant families living in an estate house in the west of England, trying desperately to hang on to a vanishing way of life. But what I really love about Waugh is his humour.
Of the various non-fiction works I read in the course of the year, one of my favourites was The Conservative Bookshelf: Essential Works that Impact Today’s Conservative Thinkers by Chilton Williamson. This is a guide to 50 books that every traditional-minded person should read. Beginning with religious works like the Bible and Augustine’s City of God, the book goes on to recommend works of politics, economics, fiction, and social commentary. From classical works like Cicero’s The Republic, to C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, to fictional works by T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, and William Faulkner, to latter-day polemical works like Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West, this book is a definitive guide to conservative thought.
It’s always good to read about your own country’s history, and G.M. Trevelyan’s History of England used to be a standard work for history students across the English-speaking world. Though it more or less affirms the Whig view of history, it is nonetheless well worth reading.
Piers Shepherd is a freelance writer based in London.
Laid up with an immobilizing flu in the spring, I finally got around to reading Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), which convinced me anew that Trollope is his own best character. Here, as in so many of his other books, he is the quintessential Christian gentleman, as fair as he is forbearing, but also the best social historian that the Victorians ever produced. If most critics are content to see the novel as a jeremiad against speculative capitalism, Catholic readers should see its deeper significance as a summons to Christian caritas in a financial world, like the world itself, that is ineradicably fallen.
During the same bout of flu, I also read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why (1953), an account of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava (1854)—a military debacle of truly sublime proportions. Woodham-Smith is an inspired narrative historian, as well as a marvelous wit, and her study of institutional irresponsibility should be required reading for Catholics perplexed by the institutional irresponsibility that made the progress of Cardinal McCarrick possible.
Lastly, I read the letters of Abigail Adams (Library of America), which teem with good sense. What is it that she says of Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution? “Poor France! What a state of confusion and anarchy is it rushing into? I have read Burke’s letter, and though I think he paints high, yet strip it of all its ornament and colouring, it will remain an awful picture of liberty abused, authority despised, property plundered, government annihilated, [and] religion banished…” Now when our own Jacobins bay for more confiscatory mayhem, the letters of Abigail Adams are of a salutary timeliness.
The author who led me to these wonderful letters is James Grant, the financial commentator and gentleman scholar, whose John Adams: A Party of One (2006) is a fascinating study of what integrity looks like when it refuses to trim its sails to the prevailing political winds. Grant is particularly good on Adams’ Puritanism, without which we should never have had either his hero’s cussedness or his nobility. I also enjoyed Grant’s witty study of the Victorian literary banker, Walter Bagehot, which received well-deserved general acclaim. The account of the Panic of 1825 featured in the book’s prologue brilliantly foreshadows what would become the fraught relationship between the Victorians and their bankers. There are so few reliable accounts of 19th-century English banking: Grant’s book is a welcome exception. Like Woodham-Smith, he is an enviably good narrative historian—a storyteller’s storyteller.
Two excellent editions of literary letters also came out this year: The Letters of T.S. Eliot Volume 8: 1936-1938 (Faber), edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, and The Collected Letters of William Butler Yeats Volume V 1908-1910 (Oxford), edited by John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard. In addition to the inherent interest of the letters themselves, the annotations of both volumes are treasure houses of literary and cultural history. In the case of Eliot, since we still do not have a proper biography of the poet, this edition of his letters will nicely do as a kind of interim life until someone better than Robert Crawford answers the call.
Catholic titles I should tout include the re-issue of Newman at Littlemore (Gracewing) by Father Bernard Bassett, SJ, a charming overview of the most pivotal period in Newman’s life by the entertaining historian of the English Jesuits; Saint Mary Magdalene: Prophetess of Eucharistic Love (Ignatius) by Father Sean Davidson, a model piece of hagiography about the “apostle of the apostles”; and Unearthly Beauty: The Aesthetic of St John Henry Newman (Gracewing) by Father Guy Nicholls, a first-rate study of an often overlooked aspect of Newman by an Oratorian father who truly understands how Newman’s love of beauty suffuses his love of God.
Edward Short is the author of Newman and History, Newman and his Family, and Newman and his Contemporaries.
Gregory J. Sullivan:
My standard for inclusion on the list of the best books I read in 2019 is pretty simple: each book selected is so good that I either handed my copy on to a friend or strongly recommended the book to others.
The Noise of Time, the 2016 novel by the English author Julian Barnes, is a fictional portrait of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and his complex relationship with totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. Barnes is among the most talented novelists working today, and this concise masterpiece is among his very best work. A brilliant, riveting reflection on art and the corrupting hand of evil political power, Barnes captures the exquisite tensions at work in Shostakovich along with the compromises he learned to live with as he moved in and out of arbitrary favor with the Soviet tyrants. The Noise of Time is a sympathetic and compelling work, and it belongs on the shelf next to the very best anti-totalitarian literature.
Mary Healy, a Scripture professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, is one of the editors (with Peter Williamson) of the impressive series Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. One of her contributions to the series is The Gospel of Mark (2008). Healy consistently combines scholarly erudition and practical insight in her reading of Mark. Perfect for daily reading, Healy’s commentary enables us to deepen our knowledge of and strengthen our love for Jesus Christ. I am currently going through it a second time with even greater admiration than on the first reading.
Published this year, Antonin Scalia’s On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer (edited by Christopher J. Scalia and Edward Whelan, with a forward by Justice Clarence Thomas) must not be missed. This wonderful collection, which I reviewed for CWR in April, includes memorable speeches, essays, excerpts from opinions, and reflections from friends and colleagues on the subject of Scalia’s Catholic faith, which was so central to his life. His clarity, boldness, wit, and high intelligence are evident everywhere here as he engages the secular culture with his uncompromising faith. Scalia was an intrepid witness, and this book reminds us how much we lost with his passing in 2016; not only a towering jurist but also a formidable and inspiring public presence.
The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (2017) by Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is, to state the matter plainly, the best single-volume presentation of the faith in our time. If one wants to see how the Catholic mind operates at the highest level, with a nimble mastery of both Scripture and Tradition, The Light of Christ is where one should turn. I am confident that, in the years to come, more than a few converts will point right to this book as the decisive intellectual influence in their journey home. As soon as I finished reading The Light of Christ, I was planning to revisit it many times.
Merry Christmas and happy reading.
Gregory J. Sullivan is a lawyer in New Jersey and a part-time lecturer in the Department of Politics at Princeton University.
Father Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM., Cap.:
Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, by Peter Leithart.
Constantine is often accused of being the source of all the evils that have plagued the Church since he became the first “Christian” emperor. I never quite bought that narrative. Leithart, while noting Constantine’s faults and failings, nonetheless defends both his faith and the manner in which he related to the Church and her hierarchy. One of the fascinating aspects of this study is the new situation in which he and the Church found themselves. Previously the Roman Emperor reigned supreme over all aspects of the empire’s religious social life. With Constantine this is no longer the case. The bishops now governed what was to be taught and defended with regard to the Gospel. While Constantine attended, for example, the Council of Nicaea, he not only did not determine what was to be held concerning the divine status of the Son of God, he did not even have a vote. This was entirely new both for the emperor and for the Church. Navigating the new Church/state relationship was a learning experience for both. This is a fascinating book to read.
How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art by Elizabeth Lev.
This too is a fascinating book. Lev argues that the artists and the art that they produced helped promote and defend the Faith during the Catholic Reformation. By theologically analyzing the works of such artists as Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Reni, Carrocci, Barocci, Bernini, and Gentileshi, Lev demonstrates how their paintings confirm Catholic doctrine—the sacrifice of the Mass, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, devotion to the saints and Mary, etc. She may at time overstate her thesis, yet Lev does show how Catholic Reformation art helped confirm the faith of those who contemplated their beautiful works.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.
I read Waugh’s work when I was a college student many years ago, but, coming back to it, I gained a new appreciation of it. What struck me is the importance of Catholic culture in the midst of sinful and weak Catholics. All of the flawed main characters are in many ways struggling with their faith or, for all intents and purposes, have abandoned it. Yet, in the end, the Catholic culture that made up their lives supported their weak faith and so carried them back to the Faith. It is a lesson of where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.
The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.
This is a classic theological work that I read for the first time this year. I should have read it sooner. What can one say but that it is filled with theological wisdom, liturgical and sacramental insight, and a love for Jesus and the salvation that he embodies. Every Catholic, especially bishops, priests, and seminarians, should read this book—it would transform them and so doing help transform our present liturgical practice, much for the better!
Michelangelo: His Epic Life by Martin Gayford.
This is an epic book—563 pages! Nonetheless, Gayford presents Michelangelo in all of his vigor, covering both his gruff, but charming, personality and his artistic genius. Gayford walks through Michelangelo’s life, examining his different artistic stages, and engaging all the personalities involved, not the least Pope Julius II. Michelangelo comes alive, as do his great paintings, sculptures, and the building of St. Peter’s. One cannot help but feel for the man who gave himself so entirely to his work, and who left so much unfinished and undone. Moreover, in reading this book one not only comes to a greater appreciation of the man but one also gains a greater insight into his talent and the work that he did accomplish. Contemplating the Pieta, David, Moses, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s dome will never be the same, for one now knows the sweat and the blood, the sheer agony, that went into their making.
Father Weinandy’s latest book is Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels.
Graham Greene’s The Comedians is not a novel about show business. A “comedian” here is a person—and this is most of us—who lives life performing as if the world were a stage, rather than deeply engaging with that world.
These particular characters come together in a land—early 1960s Haiti—rife with suffering, the people exploited, impoverished, and brutalized. But even those who enter the stage with a missionary instinct are little more than play-acting. They each have their own agenda which is absolutely unrelated to a single real need of the Haitian people.
It might tempt one to despair—and indeed, that’s what we often dwell on when we consider Greeneland, but the truth is, in every one of Greene’s works, there’s at least one other voice telling a different story. That voice is honest and admits that the world is the way it is, but it’s the voice of someone who has made a different choice about the world—to live in it, not as a stage for a personal performance, but as one calling for deep engagement.
[The priest] said, “‘….The Church condemns violence, but it condemns indifference more harshly. Violence can be the expression of love, indifference never. One is an imperfection of charity, the other the perfection of egoism. In the days of fear, doubt and confusion, the simplicity and loyalty of one apostle advocated a political solution. He was wrong, but I would rather be wrong with St Thomas than right with the cold and the craven. Let us go up to Jerusalem and die with him.’”
To continue in this cheerful mode, let’s consider Peter DeVries—widely read by my parents’ generation, generally forgotten today. He’s known for humorous novels, but the book I read, The Blood of the Lamb, is painful, heartfelt even as it is obliquely, ultimately hopeful.
Don Wanderhope is from Dutch Calvinist stock, living in Chicago, when we first meet him, in the late 1920s. He gets into a bit of trouble with one girl (a hilarious scene—I mean, who can blame them for not anticipating the model home being shown on a Sunday evening?) but is spared from marrying her by a TB diagnosis. He goes to Colorado sanatorium (I always enjoy fictional sanatorium scenes because my mother had TB and spent time in one in New Hampshire in her youth—and remembered the time, in a way, as the best time of her life) where he meets another girl, falls in love, but that ends and he heads back to Chicago, mostly healed, discovers his father in the beginning stages of dementia, goes to college, marries, moves to New York, works in advertising, has a daughter who eventually dies of leukemia.
I won’t say “spoiler alert” because everyone familiar with the book knows that the illness, suffering, and death of the character’s daughter is at its center—because it’s autobiographical. The novel was published a year after de Vries’ own 10-year old daughter died of leukemia, and oh, it is raw and painful and sorrowful.
De Vries’ background was solid Dutch Calvinist, and the theological discussions at the beginning take on faith in that context—predestination, and so on. But as the novel moves to New York, the religious context and imagery become very, very Catholic. The practical reason is that there’s a Catholic church on the way to the hospital and Wanderhope is always passing it and even stopping in, with the crucifix outside the church becoming the focus of a final, enraged gesture.
Before I read it, I was under the impression that the book was the cry of an atheist soul, but it’s really not. It’s the cry of a suffering, loving soul who just doesn’t understand. It’s a dramatization of the question: You, a human parent, would do everything you could to alleviate your child’s suffering—why doesn’t God do the same for his own suffering children? This. Makes. No. Sense.
Finally, there’s Wilfrid Sheed’s The Hack—the early 1960s tale of Bertram Flax, supporting his family churning out pious twaddle for Catholic publications. The language of the Mass has changed, the magazines and pamphlets have been replaced by Instagram posts and Twitter feeds, but the challenges are so much the same, it’s startling: what happens to faith when you package and market it? What happens to you?
Amy Welborn is a writer living in Birmingham, Alabama. She blogs about faith, the arts, and travel at Charlotte Was Both.
My reading tends to be eclectic, if not downright eccentric. So it should come as no surprise that at the top of my list would be a book about the medieval theologian and philosopher Eckhart von Hochheim, commonly known as Meister Eckhart, who has become pretty popular in modern times (think Eckhart—born Ulrich—Tolle). Pope John Paul II was a fan, but so were the atheists Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. But, as is often the case, popularity can obscure the object of fame. Which is why Joel F. Harrington’s Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within is practically mandatory reading for anyone wanting to understand who the 13th-century Dominican was and what he thought. So the focus of the book is on what Harrington regards as Eckhart’s most important concept: gelâzenheit, which he translates as letting-go-ness, the getting rid of everything that gets in the way of God.
A nice follow-up to Harrington’s is one that I read for the third time this year, W. Russell Brain’s Mind, Perception, and Science. It was first published in 1951 and is no longer in print, though used copies are available online. Brain was among the leading neurologists of his day and the principal author of one of the standard works of neurology, Brain’s Diseases of the Nervous System. Mind, Perception, and Science is a mere 90 pages long and is remarkably clearly written. The proposition it addresses is this: “if the stuff of the universe that we know directly is mind, and matter is the same thing known only by means of conceptual symbols created by mind, it would seem as reasonable to call at least part of reality mind as to call it matter.”
The next book I would recommend was also written quite some time ago, in 1950. And yet, reading it, one has the feeling it could have been published yesterday: “The doubts and criticisms of culture today come from within culture itself, for we no longer trust it. We cannot accept culture…as a meaningful realm of life or as a dependable rule for action.” Talk about prophetic. The book is Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World.
My final recommendation is the book I am just finishing, which came out just three years ago, Carl E. Olson’s Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead? What makes it so effective is its question-and-answer format, which continually reminded me of so many conversations I have had with so many doubters. Even those people, were they to read this book, would almost surely be left with at least the creeping suspicion that certain persons some 2,000 years ago experienced something most unusual—a person whose body had been not merely resuscitated, but resurrected, which is to say, “raised into a transformed kind of bodily existence.” Persons of faith who read this book will be left with a much clearer—and deeper—sense what that faith entails.
Frank Wilson is the retired book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He blogs at Books, Inq. — The Epilogue.
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