“No man can be called friendless,” wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “who has God and the companionship of good books.”
This year has been marked by many troubles, strains, and trials. It has been packed with tragedy, calamity, and sorrow.
It has also been, more happily, a year of many good books.
Amid all of the difficulties of 2020, I’ve been reminded again of how many friendships I’ve made because of books. And how the really great books always teach me something about God, truth, and reality.
For sixteen years, as editor of Ignatius Insight and now Catholic World Report, I have invited various authors to contribute to the popular “Best Books I Read…” feature.
Last year’s edition of the list had just over forty lists of books. This year we have over fifty.
Not that it’s about numbers. But: the more, the merrier. And, as we contemplate the coming Nativity of Our Lord and Savior, rich and authentic merriment is needed more than ever. In the words of the Prophet Jeremiah:
Then shall the maidens rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. (Jer 31:13)
Carl E. Olson
Editor, Catholic World Report
The severe polemical divisions brought on by this year’s pandemic and political unrest has awakened in me a thirst for books that can help cross-ideological chasms and bring us back in touch with our humanity.
Books like Terrence C. Wright’s Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought (Ignatius Press) and DL Mayfield’s The Myth of the American Dream offer examples of how Christians can fight social injustice without sacrificing doctrinal orthodoxy and the primacy of personal sanctity. Chris Arnade’s Dignity and Charles Taylor’s Reconstructing Democracy offer a vision of how we can correct social ills from the bottom up rather than from the top-down, thereby giving value to the roles of “place, family, and faith” in furthering the Common Good.
Resisting Throwaway Culture by my former Fordham professor Dr. Charles Camosy lays out a sincere and nuanced program for those committed to furthering the Consistent Life Ethic. His expansive approach to life issues (ranging from abortion and euthanasia to animal rights and just war) is likely to win over those who don’t typically identify with the “pro-life” camp. Similarly, Sue Ellen Browder’s critique of the abortion rights movement from a feminist lens in Sex and the Catholic Feminist will offer some challenging food for thought for pro-choice feminists.
Jason Blakely’s We Built Reality and Augusto Del Noce’s The Age of Secularization can help us read today’s social issues from a more theoretical lens. Though their methodologies differ, both books shed light on the roles that scientism and technocracy have played in obscuring the dignity of the human person in political and cultural discourse.
Needless to say, America’s ugly racial wounds have resurfaced in a painfully dramatic way this year. Though the memoirs of Cornel West and Thomas Chatterton Williams portray two very distinct narratives of growing up black in America, both are helped by their passions for philosophy to confront racism. James H. Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree offers a powerful and challenging theological-historical analysis of the apathy of white Christians toward lynching. And Fr. Cyprian Davis OSB’s The History of Black Catholics in the US brings to light the all too forgotten history of black Americans in the Church.
Two books that can help cross ecclesial divides are Massimo Borghesi’s The Mind of Pope Francis and Fr. Julian Carron’s Where is God?. Borghesi’s rigorous examination of the Pope’s intellectual formation will offer some clarity to those who hold reservations against some of Francis’ more confusing statements (though it may not resolve them completely). And Carron’s reflections on the vocation of the Church in an increasingly secular world can serve as both an impetus for deep spiritual discernment and motivation to evangelize.
For further spiritual reflection, I’ve turned to the diaries of Kiko Arguello and Carmen Hernandez, Gabrielle Bossis, and Dorothy Day, who witness to the need to confront adversity and persecution with a sincere commitment to prayer and silence. And Rebuking the Devil compiles various quotes from Pope Francis about keeping watch for the subtle traps set by the enemy in everyday life.
Fabrice Hadjaj’s La Profondeur Des Sexes brings today’s libertine attitudes toward sex into dialogue with Patristic theology. His pithy, sometimes shocking assertions will challenge both traditionalists and libertines to go to the depths of their carnal desires and recognize the mark of the triune God on their bodies. Ellis Hanson’s Decadence and Catholicism explores the intense fascination of English and French Decadent writers with the carnality of Catholic doctrine and worship. And The Sacred Made Real documents the acute attention to the bodies of Christ and the saints in late Baroque Spanish art.
Fiction lovers can find similar themes in novels like Fr. Ron Hanson’s Mariette in Ecstasy, Elizabeth Spencer’s The Light in the Piazza, Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, Michel Houellebecq’s Serotonin, and classics like Huysmans’ Against Nature, and Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil.
Stephen G. Adubato teaches religion and philosophy at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J.
The best book I read in 2020 was God’s Speed:Being in the Right Lane by Jerry Schroeder. Don’t let the subtitle discourage you: “Chestertonian Guides for Preserving the Pleasure of Driving While Avoiding Dangerous and Discourteous Driving Habits.” It is a much-needed Chesetertonian antidote to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m not kidding.
Next: If You Can Get It, by Brendan Hodge. A wonderful new novel that defends Catholic Social Teaching without the reader knowing it.
Then: A book about books called Haunted by Books, by Mark Valentine, which led me to Bretherton, by W.F. Morris, an engaging mystery set in World War I. Classic war fiction. Speaking of mysteries and classics and forgotten, I picked up another 3-in-1 with The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey, which led me to The Case of the Late Pig by Marjorie Allingham.
You can’t beat the Brits for mysteries, but you can’t beat the Americans for short stories, and I devoured three volumes by the master, O. Henry: Whirligigs and Options and Rolling Stones.
I loved the new Word on Fire Bible (The Four Gospels). And I enjoyed Peter Kreeft’s Symbol or Substance? — where he imagines C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discussing the doctrine of the real presence with … Billy Graham! That’s right.
I re-read a bit of Chesterton, as one always should: The Man Who Was Thursday, where I rediscovered this line: “He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.” And his last book, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, which contains this prophetic line: “Politicians do not understand much, but they understand politics. I mean they understand the immediate effect on mobs and movements.” Which reminds me of this Chesterton line I read while going through his uncollected essays from G.K.’s Weekly: “Politicians will not make a land fit for heroes to live in. It is heroes who make a land fit for all the other poor people to live in; even such poor little people as the politicians.”
Constance Watson, who edits the UK side of Catholic Herald: Chapter House, called 2020 “The Year of the Book” – by which she remarked a significant uptick in book sales reported by publishing houses and booksellers, alike – and noted: “It is a double-edged sword: at once sad that reading – the simplest yet strongest of comforts – requires ‘rediscovering’, and pleasing,” because we’re somehow finding our way “back to the written word.”
We lost John Le Carré (David Cornwell) very recently – he almost made it out of 2020 – and I’m hard-pressed to think of one of his books I wouldn’t recommend to readers, who are fans of the genre, or of history, or of both. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has been made and remade for the big and the small screen, and the Smiley books are genuinely great, taken all together.
William Cash is right: “[Smiley’s, and Le Carré’s] is a fictional universe that is not populated by James Bond-style cardboard heroes and villains but rather a cast of misfits, loners and frauds who struggle to understand who they are as the moral certainties of earlier ages disintegrate and dissolve around them.”
That’s the stuff for our times – which aren’t terribly unlike any other times this side of celestial Jerusalem – and as the old hymn goes: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis. While the world turns, we do well to keep our eyes fixed on the Cross. It doesn’t stop the world’s turning.
I met a few new authors in 2020 – new to me, at any rate – including Corinna Turner, who brought out Three Last Things: Or, the Hounding of Carl Jarrold, Soulless Assassin this year. Take it as the work of a committed abolitionist who understands the moral complexity of her subject, or as a morally complex cautionary tale warning against arrogating final judgment to ourselves while we participate in the world’s fallenness: it’s still a good story.
Also writing at Chapter House, Victoria Seed introduced me to a representative selection of Catholic authors going – or trying to make a go – who could use the wallet-votes. I trust her judgment, and submit her to yours.
With my daughter, I read an old book, Nancy Drew: The Moonstone Castle Mystery. She is bilingual – we live in Italy – but is more comfortable reading in Italian. She really enjoyed this one in English, and has been excited to pick up other titles in the venerable series.
With my son, I’ve been making my way through C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Ball’s edition of the Federalist papers with the Letters of Brutus.
Both of those are always timely, neither beyond teenagers, each in its own way inviting “community reading” and ready to reward it.
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He holds a PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University.
I’ve three recommendations for the best books I’ve read this last year; two relatively new non-fiction books and one older work of fiction which proved something of a surprise.
In the former category is John Bergsma’s, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls; Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity. In crisp prose Bergsma offers a measured, scholarly and nuanced examination of the spirituality and theology of the Essenes community revealed in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the role these may have had (and most likely, did have) in the lives of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early Christian community. Bergsma in his conclusions never goes beyond the evidence he presents, a disciplined intellectual quality which adds to, rather than diminishes, the work. He begins with a general discussion of the Scrolls, examines what I would roughly describe as theological and spiritual archetypes or precedents for the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, Matrimony and Holy Orders which can be found in the Scrolls and then concludes with chapters both on the Church and the subject of Christian unity –all within a very readable 227 pages. Reading the book, one senses the movement of God in history, generally, and within the Essene community, specifically; sort of a rudimentary “development of doctrine” ala’ Newman within that community which in part prepared the world for the entrance of the Son of God into history at precisely the perfect moment, in what Paul in Galatians termed, “the fullness of time.”(4:4).
Right next to Bergsma’s offering comes, Scripture Wars: Justin Martyr’s Battle to Save the Old Testament for Christians. It tells the tale of a man who all know as a martyr, but few recognize as a singular figure in the early Church; a man who held off those in the Church who believed St. Paul had strayed too far from the Jewish roots of the Christian faith while simultaneously standing against the Marcionites who sought to jettison the Old Testament in toto. As with Bergsma’s book, here, again we see God working in history in a surprising and subtle way. We in our modernist age, our age of progress and science, often want to see in history some linear progression with logical and readily identifiable data points leading from stage A to stage B, to stage C. Bergsma and Bennett both remind us, though, that the building of the Kingdom of God is, as Jesus’ teaching found in Mark 4 tells us, like a farmer who plants the seed and then watches it grow, though “he knows not how.” It is only in the looking back that we can see that “of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.”(v. 28) Both books lead the reader to a deeper appreciation for and love of Scripture and, thus, Christ.
Finally, might I suggest a reread of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein? Like many, I’d first read it as an assignment in high school English –a time in my life when I knew far more about the carburetor on my ’70 Camaro than I did the Romantics and the intellectual trends of the early 19th century. Rereading it some forty-odd years later with older and more mature eyes, I was far more capable of recognizing the startling tragedy that the Monster, for Shelley, would turn out to be the Romanticism which she, herself, and the novel is supposed to champion.
Two books whose authors move us to Christ, and one which highlights the unintentional, self-wrought tragedies which we obtain when we move away from him. 2020 in microcosm.
Alan L. Anderson teaches theology at Chesterton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Peoria, Illinois.
Given COVID lockdown and a sabbatical, 2020 has been the best reading year I can remember. I’ve more devoured than consumed books this year. Indeed, for better or worse, my appetite has been simply voracious. I realize we’re really not supposed to think good things about COVID, but endless reading, at least, has been a benefit of the year.
Without question, my favorite book this year has been C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I’d first read it in college (at the point when I returned to the Catholic Faith) and thought very highly of it. Rereading it now, I was simply gobsmacked. The writing, the analysis, and the intensity each moved me, intellectually and spiritually. Wanting to stay on a Lewis sort of high, I quickly followed Mere Christianity with The Great Divorce, which is simply a beautiful and moving science-fiction tale; A Grief Observed, which only depressed me; and The Screwtape Letters, which creeped me out. Lewis, I was reminded yet again, was truly a genius, but his books are hit-and-miss depending on (at least this reader’s) one’s mood.
In Inklings mode, I also read Christopher Tolkien’s edited version of the earliest drafts of his father’s The Lord of the Rings. Released as volumes 6-9 of the History of Middle-earth, Tolkien’s original version of his masterpiece were much more Hobbitic and didactic (or, at least, symbolically revealing) than the 1954-1955 version. Parts of the original story—such as the encounter with Tom Bombadil, the fall of Gandalf, and the scouring of the Shire—were just as powerful as in their final form. I also re-read—five or six times, just to get the argument down pat—Tolkien’s masterful long essay, “On Fairy Stories,” originally delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 1939.
Daniel Ross Goodman’s first novel, A Single Life (Ktav, 2020), is a triumph of the form, a complex psychological examination of loneliness and desire. One could write much the same thing about Edwin O’Connor’s 1961 masterpiece, The Edge of Sadness (Little Brown, 1961), the humorous but melancholic story of a recovering alcoholic priest.
If Goodman and O’Connor have mastered the novel, Sam Weller, the official biographer of Ray Bradbury, has truly mastered the short story as manifested in his collection, Dark Black (Hat and Beard, 2020), at times terrifying and at times deeply personal, but always profound.
For nostalgia as well as excellence in presentation, I loved Mark Voger’s deep dive into the pop culture of Christmas, Holly Jolly (Twomorrows, 2020). Re-reading it will become a vital part of the seasonal tradition.
With his outstanding The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico, 2020), James Matthew Wilson continues to prove (and reveal to those who had yet to see) he is the greatest of living poets.
I re-read several of my favorite books this year, including Christopher Dawson’s 1931 Christianity and the New Age, a penetrating look at Marxism, Nietzcheanism, and Christian Humanism. I also re-read much of Edmund Burke, especially as I tried to get a grasp on the revolutionary events of the late spring and early summer in America.
Thanks to Tolkien, I discovered the joys of anthropologist and Scottish man of letters, Andrew Lang, especially in his Myth, Ritual, and Religion (1901), a consideration of the prevalence of the universal myth of an All-father in almost every culture.
Finally, I had the great privilege to read and review Kevin Starr’s last (and unfinished book), Continental Achievement (Ignatius, 2020), a work that stimulated my mind as well as tickled my funny bone.
COVID be damned, but some good things did come out of 2020.
Brad Birzer is a history professor at Hillsdale College, the author of five books and the co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative.
Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society got lost in the turmoil of 2020. But looking back, his thesis that we have fallen into comfortable, persistent decadence seems to have been vindicated. After plague, riots and elections, Joe Biden has been elected president and he is putting the Obama band back together. On the other side, though Donald Trump opened doors for a Republican rethink, many of his actual achievements were, for good and ill, standard GOP fare. Broadly, the cultural trends are still of decline—most prominently below-replacement fertility.
The Priority of the Person is another brilliant addition to David Walsh’s philosophical project bridging Christian personalism and the modern (and postmodern) philosophical turn. As a collection of essays, this volume provides a valuable entry into his work while expanding upon the insights of The Modern Philosophical Revolution (2008) and Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being (2015).
They Knew They Were Pilgrims by John Turner is an excellent and evenhanded history of the Plymouth Colony. Turner’s thorough account of the Pilgrims’ understanding of liberty provides a valuable reference point for contemporary debates over the nature of the American regime and liberalism.
Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.
It is strange when projects with which you have been involved become the subject of people’s memoirs, and you realize that it’s all now history.
I spent several days in my 20s and 30s standing outside the Soviet Embassy with banners saying things like: “USSR: Free your Christian prisoners”, and taking part in prayer-vigil and similar activities. So reading One Word of Truth (London: Darton, Longman and Todd 2019) by Michael Bourdeaux was in some ways a walk down memory lane. Back in the 1970s, Michael, an Anglican minister, launched the remarkable project of Keston College, the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism, which eventually found a home in a former village school in Kent on the outskirts of London. Michael’s excellent and detailed account of those years takes readers back to the days when obtaining and publishing underground newsletters from courageous Christians in the USSR and its satellite states was the sole means of telling the West what was really happening to religious believers behind the Iron Curtain. He and his team of researchers were extraordinarily hard-working, dedicated and brave. The book fills out many details that could not then be told, and also brings the story completely up to date. It was worth telling the truth all those years and often struggling against the tide to do so.
Another author well known to me published her memoirs this year, but sadly did not live to see us all reading them. Audrey Donnithorne, academic, economist and expert on China, died shortly after a review copy of China in Life’s Foreground (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2020) arrived on my desk. It is an important read for anyone seriously interested in learning about China, and is also an autobiography with snippets about childhood as the daughter of missionaries in the vanished world of the 1930s, about life in wartime Britain, and about the Church in the 1950s and 60s.
On a holiday break this summer I picked up Peter Cornwell’s One Step Enough (London: Collins, 1986) at a used book sale at the back of an Anglican church. Cornwall was the vicar of Oxford’s University Church who, a century and a half after John Henry Newman, took the same step and became a Catholic. The book is straightforward, searingly honest, and extremely readable. It must be out of print now: a pity, as I’d love to give a copy to Anglican friends. Cornwell writes without being sour or angry: he is grateful for so much of the Anglican heritage and insistent that much can and should find a home in the Catholic Church. In this he was prophetic: Benedict XVI offered precisely this in Anglicanorum Coetibus, his establishment of the Ordinariate.
Visiting an old friend I noticed her collection of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels and we got chatting about them. A short while later she mailed me brand-new copies of three of my favourites. Yes, Heyer, who wrote in the 1930s and 40s, is still being republished. The Talisman Ring (latest edition, Arrow Book 2005), The Foundling (2004) and The Reluctant Widow (2004) all reveal Heyer at her enchanting est: well-paced, accurate in all the Regency details in which she so evidently delighted, cleverly worked, fun. She was actually a competent historian: some while ago an officer cadet at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst told me that they were urged to read her account of Waterloo in The Spanish Bride.
Finally, a strange and rather haunting children’s book Nicolas and the Six Bells (London: DA Publishing, 2020) by David Ackerman. Evidently influenced by C.S. Lewis and Narnia, and with memories of accounts of the persecution of Christians in the USSR, this tells the story of a country where bells could not be rung, and where lies were told about history. Hints here of current Woke-ism in Britain, and a nod to the weirdness of life in virus-lockdown too.
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom.
David G. Bonagura, Jr.:
Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Father Jean Pierre de Caussade
For years I had been terrified of this book, worried that it would push me to face my deepest spiritual fears. Instead, I learned the lesson that all spiritual masters teach: that God’s will is precisely what is in front of me at a given moment. To abandon myself to God is to accept the present as it is. It is terrific wisdom for the next traffic jam, and thousands of other quotidian problems.
The Persistence of Order, Vol. 1 & 2, edited by Christopher Dawson
“Western civilization today is passing through one of the most critical moments in its history.” These words were not written in this annus horribilis 2020, but by Christopher Dawson 90 years ago. The essays collected in these volumes are profoundly relevant today because they penetrate surface issues to probe the perennial elements of society, arguing that a metaphysical order grounded in Christianity is essential for the western world to regain its spiritual and social health. I wrote a review of these outstanding volumes here.
K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, by Tyler Kepner
Each summer I read one baseball book, and this ten-chapter exploration of baseball’s ten pitches (starting with the slider and ending with the cutter, with all others, including the spitball, in between) is as engaging a tale as fans will find. Each chapter includes a history of each pitch, along with interviews with the best hurlers who ever threw them.
Confessions by St. Augustine
I have read Book I of the Confessions in both Latin and English on multiple occasions, and always wondered what the fuss was about with this book. This year I resolved to complete it. I discovered that I still think Book I is dull, but the rest of it is gripping, especially Augustine’s decades-long battle with himself as God calls and he drags his feet in response. And the amount of it that is relevant for today—from people accepting misperceptions about the Catholic faith as the real thing to the constant allure of the flesh—made it clear to me why this book is a classic among classics.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism.
No Ignatius Press books or manuscripts included, even though many would qualify.
Children of the Atom, Wilmar H. Shiras. A Golden Age work by a (then) relatively rare woman sci-fi writer. Subject: a group of extraordinarily gifted mutant children, perhaps the basis of the X-Men comics. The convert author’s Catholicism suffuses the book, which isn’t a Catholic story, per se. Mike Aquilina and his wife recommended it.
Slow Dawning, Jane Howes. The spiritual autobiography of the aforementioned Shiras. Under the name Jane Howes, she makes the case for Catholicism with a series of topical essays reflecting her change of mind. Another recommendation of the Aquilinas.
A Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsay. Weird. C.S. Lewis recommended it to me. (Sort of.) Started it in high school, and 700 years later, finished in 2020. A mystical trip to the planet Tormance, in the binary system of Arcturus. (ITRW Arcturus is not a binary system.) The novel, thick with an almost psychedelic ambience, conjures bizarre concepts, strange characters, and fantastical happenings. Lindsay influenced Lewis and Tolkien, who nevertheless decried Lindsay’s style. The protagonist wanders about, encountering odd humanoids in sundry environments, discussing surreal philosophies, witnessing or causing people’s deaths, and occasionally finding himself with new sensory apparatuses.
Civilization: The West and the Rest, Niall Ferguson. The West’s ‘killer apps’ and how they allowed it to outpace the development of the Rest. Till now. What’s next?
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury. Fourth reading. Pertinent as ever. About more than book-burning censorship, literal or figurative. Wall-sized TVs, media manipulation, blue-tooth earbuds, Postmanesque warnings about hyper-amusement, the corrective and the corruptive power of imagination, and more, in this 1953 fixup of an earlier novella. Fahrenheit 451 is a wallop at today’s cancel culture and politically correct purity.
Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. A local book club re-read. An entertaining comedy about two odd friends, a fallen and an unfallen angel, trying to postpone the imminent Apocalypse. Hilarious characters, even when the plot occasionally falters. Not Screwtape but still fun.
Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, Lee Smolin. Big physics (General Relativity) and little physics (Quantum Mechanics). The scientific maverick author searches for a common-sense realist solution to the problems of GR and QM.
Something Deeply Hidden, Sean Carroll. Many Worlds Interpretation. Many Worlds Interpretation. Sean Carroll. Sean Carroll. Crisis in physics. Crisis in physics. Sean solves the problem. Sean solves the problem. Lee Smolin dissents.
Vincent of Lerins and the Development of Christian Doctrine, Thomas G. Guarino. An overview of Vincent’s ideas on the development of doctrine and their application theology today.
One Less God Than You, John DeRosa. A work of popular apologetics, drawing heavily on philosophical theology and rebutting the New Atheism. Good tips on apologetics strategies.
The Lost World of the Flood, Tremper Longman III, John A. Walton. Worldwide flood? Local flood? Literal historical account? Figurative account? Historical in context.
Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, Roger Scruton. Scruton’s second edition of his important critique of the New Left.
Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt, Arthur C. Brooks. A must-read in this age of political polarization.
Purgatory Is For Real, Karlo Broussard. An up-to-date explanation and defense of Purgatory by one of today’s leading popular apologists.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery, Allen C. Guelzo. Great document. Great President. Great account by one of the greatest Lincoln scholars.
The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis. Re-read. Still good. Even better with age. I understood a lot more of the philosophical references. Not Lewis’ greatest work but still a good book. Allegory haters beware. Lewis’ first prose narrative book after his conversion to Christianity.
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.
“When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library,” says Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. If you’re like Miss Bingley (or me), there are never enough great books in your collection. My list for 2020 plays off the old wedding rhyme.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. It’s strange that a nineteenth-century French nobleman offered the most insightful commentary on the United States. Perhaps there’s a lesson there about how we require an outside observer for an honest appraisal of ourselves.
Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation. As a former Presbyterian seminary student, I’m embarrassed it took me this long to read this excellent, influential assessment of the far-reaching, disruptive and destructive effects of the Protestant Reformation.
Alexander Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars. This massive and engrossing story of the Napoleonic era by a top-rate historian is a wonderful introduction to the period, and a persuasive argument on why the Napoleonic wars are best understood as global conflicts.
Joel Kotkin, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism. This book is by a self-described lifelong Democrat who now fears the liberal, technocratic elites’ consolidation of political, social, economic, and technological power at the expense of the middle- and lower classes. His chapter on how California is devolving into a feudalist state is alone worth the price of admission.
Joshua Mitchell, American Awakening. This Georgetown professor sagely identifies three afflictions that define contemporary America: sacrificial scapegoating; a bipolarity of invincibility and impotence; and an addictive desire for the cheap and easy. Mitchell offers three pillars of a renewed America: saving the middle-class; healing the wound of racism not by identity politics but by a theology of the Cross; and a modest foreign policy.
Ryszard Legutko, The Cunning of Freedom. I’m cheating a little with this, since it’s not available in print until January, but I got to read an early review copy. Legutko is up there with Patrick Deneen and Pierre Manent in critiquing the failures and contradictions of our age.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. My mother-in-law lent me this amazingly perceptive philosophical indictment of modernity by this Notre Dame professor. I don’t plan to ever give it back — it is perhaps more relevant in 2020 than it was when written in 1984.
Michael Anton, The Stakes. By “blue,” I mean texts that depress. Anton is another Californian who sees in the Golden State a warning for America. As the title suggests, Anton fears the nation is on the precipice of becoming a totalitarian state dominated by woke Leftists, and that is aggressively anti-Christian. His suggestions for how to blunt this are interesting and creative.
Rod Dreher, Live Not By Lives. This prolific blogger and author is more pessimistic than Anton about America’s future, dominated as it is by a soft totalitarianism that will in time become hard. Consulting Eastern Europeans who have already suffered through authoritarianism is a clever and helpful framing device. If you know Dreher, the recommendations are fairly predictable.
A Sixpence in your Shoe
Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows. Given all the bad news, we’ll need “good luck,” or beauty and grace. Beauty I discovered in reading this old favorite to my seven-year-old daughter. If you aren’t an Anglophile, read this captivating children’s story, and you will be.
Mauro Gagliardi, Truth is a Synthesis. You can find grace in this translation of an Italian dogmatic theology of Catholicism that is accessible, intelligent, and orthodox. What better way to end 2020 than reminding ourselves of our origin and destination in the eternal God?
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master’s in theology from Christendom College.
Anthony E. Clark:
As a college professor I am able to observe reading habits over the decades. 2020 was a year of election spectacle, unrelenting tragedy and conflict in the Church, social acrimony, and a health pandemic that has cast its inky shadow over the lives of every person. With all of these distractions eddying around us, my students have spent more time playing and posting Tic Tok and YouTube videos than sitting in warm circles of light reading the books that make times such as this more endurable and understandable. Ray Bradbury once wrote that, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” My own form of protest (2020 being a year of protests) against the assault of popular media was to ensconce myself into my own lamplit sanctuary and read works that carried me toward more genteel thoughts.
Several readers in last year’s “Best Books” list mentioned Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Their accolades inspired me to read it myself – for the first time – and to be completely transmuted by the work’s brilliant prose and spiritual insights. One line in the novel rang in my mind: “Where can we hide in fair weather, we orphans of the storm?” Rider’s conversion is Waugh’s answer to this question, and the final sentence of his prologue reveals how we can all be “unusually cheerful” in this valley of tears.
At fifty-three, I decided I was long overdue to read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, especially after a recent visit to the Tolkien collection at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the Birmingham Oratory, where Tolkien spent his formative years. I’m glad I waited until now because there are insights embedded within this epic chronicle (less a “fantasy” in my mind than a metaphor for reality) that only someone in her or his later season can apprehend. As Pippin lie dreaming of the nightmarish Black Riders, he was comforted by a phrase that came to him: “Fear nothing! Have peace until the morning! Heed no nightly noises!”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah’s From the Depth of Our Hearts, on priestly celibacy, is a terse defense of what continues to be among the most criticized disciplines of the Roman Catholic Church. I am a Byzantine Rite Catholic, and scholars of great learning have compelling evidence in favor of both the celibacy of the West and the married priests of the East. At the final page I was, I must admit, swayed by much of the book’s apologia pro caelibatus, though historical evidence does lend more merit the Eastern position than the book implies. In the end, Benedict XVI makes a good point, one that undergirds the entire book: “The apostles then decided to devote themselves entirely to prayer and the service of the Word.” The apostolic work of priests is the center and purpose of their lives, and celibacy can be the gift and grace that assists them in their service to God.
Other notable books I read this year are John Ruskin’s The Poetry of Architecture, Barbara Pym’s Civil to Strangers, Andrew Ross’ A Vision Betrayed, J. Wells’ Oxford and Its Colleges, Allesandro Gnocchi and Mario Palmaro’s The Last Mass of Padre Pio, Matteo Nicolini-Zani’s Christian Monks on Chinese Soil, and Stephen Platt’s Autumn in Twilight. I write this year’s entry from a book-filled home in a wooded area of Western Oregon, while my two cats, Hastings and Mycroft, stare menacingly at the squirrels and blue jays safely outside the window. The sun has ascended, and I am mindful of Tolkien, who in the words of Aragorn, said: “Yet dawn is ever the hope of men.”
Anthony E. Clark is professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University.
Fr. Seán Connolly:
In this challenging time for the Church, where the corruption of the hierarchy and demoralization of the priesthood is a felt reality, I decided to re-read for inspiration Fr. Walter Ciszek’s With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. Fr. Ciszek answered the call to become a missionary for the souls suffering under Communist tyranny. He was captured and convicted of being a “Vatican spy” and was forced to spend 23 years in Soviet prisons and the labor camps of Siberia. The former work thoroughly details his life’s story and all he had to endure throughout his imprisonment and the latter is a masterwork on the spiritual life, showing how a total abandonment to God’s Will gave meaning to his suffering and the ability to persevere.
I will be forever grateful to my dear friend who is a subdeacon of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, for recommending that I read Everyday Saints and Other Stories by the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan, Tikhon (Shevkunov). Every page was an absolute joy! This book was published in late 2011 and was voted the most popular book in Russia in 2012. It has been a bestseller in that country ever since and should be more widely known among Christians of the West. The author tells his life’s story, from a nonbeliever raised behind the iron curtain, to a monk at the Pskov Caves Monastery, to a Metropolitan bishop, through chapter-by-chapter anecdotes about the many people God has placed in his path who he calls, “everyday saints.” Every chapter contains a captivating, goodhearted and poignant tale.
Remaining in Russia, I also read Fr. Paul Mailleux’s biography, Blessed Leonid Feodorov: First Exarch of the Russian Catholic Church, Bridgebuilder Between Rome and Moscow. This is a moving portrait of a great martyr of the twentieth century, a man of conscience willing to lose everything to become Catholic and then to foster the reunion of the two most important Christian Churches–Rome and Moscow. This book also sheds light on the theological issues that divide the churches of the east and west and how such obstacles might be overcome.
2020 marked the centenary of Joan of Arc’s canonization which I wrote about here. This anniversary inspired me to study her remarkable life. I enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s major work on Joan’s life titled Joan of Arc which he considered to be his most important and best book. [Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin wrote an excellent review of it here for the CWR .
My consternation at the Hagia Sophia’s change in status led to a collaboration I had with Darío Fernández-Morera, author of the The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. This gave me the occasion to read this book after first hearing about it when it was published in 2016. It is an important corrective to the false historical narrative that Islamic Spain was a light of tolerance and culture in the midst of the darkness of the Middle Ages. Outrage at the Turkish government’s decision to have the Hagia Sophia used as a mosque led me to also research the plight of the Armenian Christian people under Ottoman Rule. This led to my reading Antonia Arslan’s moving novella Silent Angel. This hauntingly beautiful work of historical fiction on the Armenian genocide is well-reviewed here by Kelly Connelly for the CWR.
Continuing along the lines of correcting the historical record, Robert Royal’s Columbus and the Crisis of the West was published this year, which is a revised and expanded edition of his 1992 work, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History. Royal and I collaborated here about his new book for the CWR. Royal provides a measured assessment of the complexities of this topic and cuts through the sweeping and most popular indictments of Columbus and his legacy.
I enjoyed Scott Hahn’s The Fourth Cup: Unveiling the Mystery of the Last Supper and the Cross very much. Hahn presents a compelling thesis that the traditional fourth cup partaken at the Passover cedar was drunk by Our Lord from the Cross at the hour of His death. Hahn’s study provides so much to prayerfully ponder over in considering how the Last Supper and Crucifixion of the Lord fulfills and renews the Passover of Old.
The last book I read was written by my old professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie. In his career, Dr. Richard Gallagher has consulted hundreds of priests and other ministers, witnessing more cases of demonic possession and oppression than any other psychiatrist in the world. In his new book published in October called Demonic Foes: My Twenty-Five Years as a Psychiatrist Investigating Possessions, Diabolic Attacks and the Paranormal he details his journey of transformation from skeptic to believer to expert and presents persistent but unequivocal factual evidence of demonic attacks in a contemporary context. I wrote a review of it for the CWR here.
Fr. Seán Connolly is parochial vicar at the Parish of St. Joseph in Middletown, New York.
David P. Deavel:
My co-editor Jessica Hooten Wilson and I put finishing touches on Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West. As one reviewer said, it will be of benefit to both novices and scholars of Solzhenitsyn. Of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn’s books I read, most enchanting were his memoirs, The Oak and the Calf (up to his exile to the West) and Between Two Millstones, Books 1 and (just-released) 2, covering his exile. I’m reading the latter now. All his work speaks to our current moment.
More explicitly political work included Russell Kirk’s marvelous summary of the American experiment in The American Cause and Robert R. Reilly’s defense of the founding and diagnosis of current ills in America on Trial. Mark T. Mitchell’s Purity and Power lays out Wokedom’s marriage of Puritanism and Nietzsche. Richard Dougherty’s edited collection, Augustine’s Political Thought, transcends the usual tour of City of God, book 19. Scott Randall Paine’s 2nd edition of The Universe and Mr. Chesterton shows us GKC’s philosophical chops in Orthodoxy. The poetry of James Matthew Wilson in his volumes Some Permanent Things, The Hanging God, and River of the Immaculate Conception lay out the glory, the promise, and the disconnects of being modern, traditional, Catholic, and American. The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God, Michael Pakaluk’s collection of the letters and speeches of his late first wife, now a decade old, presents a woman who put those categories together in heroic and fascinating ways.
Thinking about the need to revive and rethink Catholic higher education was greatly aided by rereading my old boss Don Briel’s essays in The University and the Church (edited by Jared Staudt). A great Newman scholar, his essays pushed me back to Newman’s practical writings in the posthumously collected My Campaign in Ireland. With two students I’m working on a critical edition of that book, and we’re greatly aided by Paul Shrimpton’s history of Newman’s Catholic University in The Making of Men.
Newman and Briel thought the most important part of undergraduate formation was literature. Allesandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (in Bruce Penman’s Penguin translation) captivated me with its pandemic setting and political-economic insights. I read Frederick Buechner’s haunting and mythical story about the navigator Brendan for the first time. Alice Thomas Ellis’s beautiful memoir A Welsh Childhood, with Patrick Sutherland’s black-and-white photos, also haunted me. I reread The 27th Kingdom, her Booker-prize nominated story of a thaumaturge in bohemian 1950s London. No year is complete without Austen. I reread Persuasion because it is her most satisfying. Chesterton’s Man Who Was Thursday seemed current-event-y this year with its anarchists, nihilists, and nightmare world, as did Kirk’s gothic thriller The Old House of Fear and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland—the people who believe six impossible things before breakfast now write the news. Rumpole and the Age of Miracles, a late collection of the eponymous lawyer by John Mortimer, made for light reading as did Jake Frost’s heart-warming light poetry in his collections From Dust to Stars and Victory! Evelyn Waugh’s Articles, Essays, and Reviews had both light and serious insights galore.
Children’s tale favorites (with my first grader) were D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths, and (my favorite) D’Aulaire’s Trolls. Mary Pope Osborne’s American Tall Tales helped Minnesota and Texas compete with Olympus and Asgard.
Spiritual literature takes a few reads to digest. I got much more out of Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle the second time. A new book, the late Sr. Mary David Totah’s collected talks and letters, The Joy of God, was powerful even on a first run.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).
This has been an odd year for books as with so much else. I seem to have read several mediocre or outright bad books, the worst of which, readers of CWR will not be displeased to learn, was Hans Küng’s multi-volume memoirs. I am a constant reader of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs, and nothing I have read in decades comes close to the tedium of these volumes whose overall purpose is to recast Anselm’s famous ontological argument to leave us in no doubt that Hans Küng is the one than whom nothing greater can be conceived. It is a work of relentless and insufferable preening.
One of the most haunting books I read this year was In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by the Canadian physician Gabor Maté. I read this alongside the American psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s classic work, Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, which has been helpful for me in clinical work I have started doing.
When the late English psychoanalyst Nina Coltart published her Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1992 it forever changed my life; but only this year did I have a chance to read her The Baby and the Bathwater, and How to Survive as a Psychotherapist. I heartily recommend all three.
Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography by Adam Sisman was an enjoyable read about one of Britain’s most famous, and later infamous, post-war historians.
Just when I think I’ve exhausted my interest in books about the Great War, another comes along: Sean McMeekin’s The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923 is endlessly fascinating.
The psychologist James Cates just published an elegant book about a group I have long admired and often been tempted to romanticize: the Amish. His Serpent in the Garden: Amish Sexuality in a Changing World is captivating and not a little disturbing. I interviewed him here.
I have a review coming out elsewhere of Heinz Weiss, Trauma, Guilt, and Reparation: the Path from Impasse to Development. It is a rich but relatively short book with a surprising hermeneutical and even more surprising theological turn at the end, arguing that when dealing—either individually or collectively—with trauma, we need, for our healing, eventually to get past guilt and repair to gratitude, and the highest form of gratitude is eucharistia!
Three doctoral dissertations in theology were truly wonderful reads, including Matthew Briel’s A Greek Thomist: Providence in Gennadios Scholarios. It works to overturn some of the bad history that still undergirds Orthodox-Catholic division. Matthew Clemente’s Eros Crucified is, as I wrote in my CWR review, a splendid book and a superlative model of how to think with the Church. And Shaun Blanchard’s book The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and Catholic Reform is enthralling for all sorts of reasons. I interviewed him, Clemente, and Briel on my blog.
Finally let me mention perhaps the most stimulating book of the year drawn once more from the (for me) happy borderland of psychology and theology: Daniel José Gaztambide’s A People’s History of Psychoanalysis: from Freud to Liberation Psychology. He makes really striking connections between the first generation of pre-war psychoanalysts in Europe and several Jesuit scholars and priests in Latin America in the post-war period involved in that oft-misunderstood movement of “liberation theology.” In doing so, he has helped us appreciate anew the socially radical and liberating potential of the gospel and of Freud’s project alike—thwarted though both almost always are by the forces of reaction.
Dr. Adam A.J. Deville is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, Inidana).
William Doino Jr.:
Given everything that America has endured in 2020, I can think of no better books to recommend than two which lifted my spirits this year: Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order and Robert R. Reilly’s America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. The first is Kirk’s now-classic exposition of the beliefs and institutions which built the American republic. The second is Reilly’s much more recent tour de force, defending America’s founders from their relentless critics. Though both books are unique and stand by themselves, they also complement one another, offering powerful, convincing explanations as to why America was not “ill-founded,” and is always capable of renewing itself —if only enough Americans re-affirm and implement their country’s highest principles. These are ultimately spiritual, as Kirk and Reilly demonstrate, and cannot be dislodged from the hearts of all Americans, no matter how hard certain ideologues try to erase them.
In times of social and political concern, there is always a need for fearless Catholic laymen, not just strong prelates, and no one fits that description better than Dietrich von Hildebrand, the great German Catholic thinker, whom Pope Pius XII called a “twentieth-century Doctor of the Church.” His inspiring life is recounted in The Soul of a Lion, by his widow, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand–a distinguished scholar in her own right. His influence lives on in the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, which continues to sponsor conferences devoted to his work and reprint his best works. I re-read several of them this year and discovered a third as well: Morality and Situation Ethics, Graven Images: Substitutes for True Morality and The Art of Living, co-written with his wife. All three convey the robust and timeless Catholicism which von Hildebrand has become so admired for, and which remain as fresh and enlightening as the day they were published.
Finally, as a long-time researcher and commentator on Pope Pius XII, I was elated to receive the first comprehensive work about the newly released Pius XII archives: Le Bureau: Les Juifs de Pie XII [The Office: The Jews of Pius XII] by Dr. Johan Ickx, one of the Church’s leading historians in Europe. He is also one of the Vatican’s top archivists, and, as such, had special access to the remaining documents of the Pius XII private archives, before they were officially released, and the results are impressive: Dr. Ickx has revealed hundreds of never-before-seen documents proving what Pius XII’s supporters have long maintained: that the wartime pontiff led a global wide-rescue effort on behalf of the persecuted Jewish community, and combatted the Nazis, with his capable assistants and nuncios all across war-torn Europe. Those who have patiently waited for these archives to be opened will be rewarded by reading Dr. Ickx’s scholarly and essential book. It has already won wide acclaim in Europe, and is sure to receive much more after it is translated into English and appears in the United States.
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:
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is both horrifying and beautiful. More than science fiction, the story poignantly explores the human condition—the dog that can’t help going back to its own vomit. I suspect the story would be better regarded today if it didn’t take faith, and the civilizing effect of a right-ordered faith, so seriously.
New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, by Robert J. Spitzer was my most mentally demanding read in memory, chiefly because of the deep-dive astrophysics. I love space science, and the message I took away is that never in history have we had so much scientific evidence for a universe-transcending Creator.
Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the (British) Natural History Museum, by Richard Fortey, who worked at the museum for decades, told the fascinating story of the museum’s history, big personalities, science, art of all kinds, and mysteries. If a bit of moralizing crept in now and then, it didn’t spoil the wonder.
I re-read Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz in preparation for his 2020 sequel. What struck me most is something Bishop Robert Barron often speaks about. One of the main characters has achieved wealth and many honors. He partakes of many pleasures, and his fame has given him power over many. He has all four of the things the world tells us ought to make us happy. But he isn’t happy, and he doesn’t have a single friend in the true sense of the word. Was this a theme Horowitz intended, or was he simply contrasting public and private personas?
Thomas M. Doran is an engineer, professor, and novelist.
I never want to go through another global pandemic. But the one good thing about being locked down at home was much more time for reading. That makes it harder to pick out my favorites from 2020:
I’ll start with my most recent read and perhaps my favorite—which is saying a lot given some of the others I’ll list. Stephen Schmalhofer’s Delightful People is simply wonderful. Schmalhofer seeks to introduce readers, through eleven essays, to the sort of people “whose presence is effervescence at any party.” Schmalhofer does so with beautiful prose, focusing on a group of people whose lives intersected in the late-19th and early 20th century in America. Here, we learn about Fr. Cyril Sigourney Fay, a friend and inspiration to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Willa Cather. We hear about Henry Adams and his travels with the Catholic artist John La Farge. There are also wonderful descriptions of the novelists Cather and Henry James and the new-to-me Francis Marion Crawford. This is a book to savor. I’ve bought six copies to give to friends for Christmas.
2020 was the year I finally tackled John Steinbeck’s East of Eden which now ranks as one of my top-five favorite books. Steinbeck’s tale of two families in the Salinas Valley is ultimately a vivid story of sin, grace, and forgiveness. It is haunting.
I’ll mention one other novel, Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon. In it, Quatro wrestles with questions of desire, faith, and doubt. I am very much looking forward to tackling Quatro’s short stories and hoping another novel is in the works.
A number of non-fiction, non-theology books held my interest this year as well. I listened to the gripping true tale of what happened at Chernobyl, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham. Deeply reported and beautifully written, it was especially helpful for someone who was in his single digits when the tragedy occurred. Father Wilson (Bill) Miscamble’s biography of Father Ted Hesburgh, American Priest: Ted Hesburgh and Post-Christian Nation was a fair portrait of a great and influential but flawed man. Near the end of the year I read Robert Draper’s To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq. Draper got many of the principal players to talk and did his homework. What we learn is not that people lied and thus Iraqis died but something more tragic: men and women reasoned back from conclusions—e.g., Iraq is bad, Saddam is evil—and approached data with ideological blinders that created a perfect storm. This is a cautionary tale of how confirmation bias and shutting out contrary views can lead to catastrophic results.
In the realm of theology and cultural commentary, Fr. Aidan Nichols makes the list with two entries. His Conciliar Octet: A Concise Commentary on the Eight Key Texts of the Second Vatican Council is a wonderful book to push back on the hermeneutic of rupture employed too often by progressives and Traditionalists. His Balthasar for Thomists is a dense but rewarding study of the harmonies and differences between the great 20th-century theologian and the Angelic Doctor.
Finally, Henri de Lubac’s The Splendor of the Church was deeply fulfilling. I was especially touched by his words about suffering for the Church as I realized he wrote them during his dark years when he was under suspicion and forbidden from teaching. This man lived the things he writes about. Suffering was a concrete reality for him and he writes as a man in love with Christ and his Church.
Conor B. Dugan is a husband, father of four, and attorney who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Many years ago I noticed that one of my friends had the habit of asking visitors to sign a Guest Book so he could look back later on the company he had entertained in his home over the years. I picture Carl’s “Best Book List” like this: he asks some of us for a copy of our guestbook so that you, the readers, can make a potential guest list for your own future invitations.
Naturally, you want to invite people to dinner who will be exhilarating, provocative, and pertinent. Unfortunately, my guests are not very befitting for this purpose since I invited them all to working dinners as I researched Western post-Reformation spirituality. Though their subject matter is confined compared to the capacious lists being otherwise shared here, I will mention a few names lest they be forgotten.
Francois Fenelon’s spiritual letters are so candid and unsettling that I would hesitate to open an envelope that arrived with his return address on it. The Complete Fenelon, edited by Robert Edmonson gives a taste; The Seeking Heart from SeedSowers is an evangelical’s selection of brief portions from letters with a direct and penetrating translation; The Maxims of the Saints will give theologians a workout, as these were opposed by Bossuet and resulted in the Pope’s censure of select maxims. Fenelon received the news just as he was about to ascend the pulpit of his cathedral to preach. He recollected himself for a few minutes, then changed the plan of his sermon, and preached on the duty of obedience to the Church.
Henri-Marie Boudon came to the table with two works forming the bookends of Christmas and Calvary. The Hidden Life of Jesus presents the kenosis of our Lord as a lifelong action that we can imitate, and The Holy Ways of the Cross presents the science of the Cross to us. Mary figures in both, summarized in The Holy Slavery of the Admirable Mother of God.
Some Spaniards entered the conversation. Louis de Granada in the two volumes A Sinner’s Guide, Alphonsus Rodriguez in The Practice of Christian and Religious Perfection, and Juan de Castiniza in The Spiritual Conflict and Conquest.
Elizabeth Ann Seton translated A Treatise on Interior Peace, by Ambroise de Lombez, and if a saint takes the time to translate something, it seems worth reading.
Jean Nicolas Grou seems forgotten now – as we all will be – but a dozen of his books are still available, among which I recommend The School of Jesus Christ, a two-volume work near Morality Extracted from the Confessions of Saint Austin, and a selection from across his writings published as The Hidden Life of a Soul.
Finally, Libermann emerged as a favorite conversation partner. He was the son of the chief rabbi in the Jewish ghetto of Saverne, Alsace, but converted to Catholicism and entered seminary. The religious order he founded to serve the newly emancipated slaves was eventually merged with the Spiritan Order, of which he is known as “the second founder.” His Rule has been hailed as a blueprint for modern missionary activity. His literary output is essentially nil in terms of books, and we know him instead through 1700 spiritual letters, a selection of which have been translated in five volumes by Duquesne Press: Letters to Women Religious, Letters to People in the World, and three volumes of Letters to Clergy & Religious. I
David W. Fagerberg is an associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Fr. Charles Fox:
Anna Karenin, Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina has been called the world’s greatest novel. I am not convinced, but it is certainly a work of profound beauty, depth, and insight into human nature. It also has the sheer heft and pathos one would expect from a Russian novel. Tolstoy’s treatment of grace, especially at the end of the novel, is not entirely unlike that of Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited. One critical incident involving the eponymous lead character forms an interesting parallel with the scene at Lord Marchmain’s death bed in Brideshead.
Much Obliged, 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. Much Obliged, Jeeves 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.
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of two retired Texas Rangers who make the first cattle drive from South Texas to Montana. Lonesome Dove is an epic story of adventure in the latter days of the Old West. It is also a remarkable character study, especially of its two main protagonists, Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae, both former captains of the Texas Rangers, best friends (despite having radically different personalities), and partners in one of the archetypal endeavors of the West, the great cattle drive.
The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis. This defense of objective truth, particularly in the form of Natural Law and universal human values, showcases Lewis’ gift for condensing a tremendous amount of learning and philosophical insight into succinct and accessible prose. Much of this brief volume defends the notion of reality as received rather than something man shapes by means of science, technology, or social convention.
The Crisis of Bad Preaching, Joshua J. Whitfield. Catholic preaching is often the target of barbs, but Fr. Joshua J. Whitfield sounds an alarm by addressing what he calls the “ crisis of bad preaching” (emphasis added). This book is a welcome contribution to the answer to this crisis. Drawing heavily upon Catholic, Protestant, and classical sources, Whitfield offers an appreciation of the vital importance of the homily to Catholic life and gives a number of helpful insights about the preparation, composition, delivery, and even the reception of homilies.
Christ in His Mysteries, Blessed Columba Marmion. This is the central work in a trilogy of books that also includes Christ, the Life of the Soul and Christ, the Ideal of the Monk. Marmion offers a luminous meditation upon the mysteries of Christ’s life, how those mysteries are made present in the Sacred Liturgy, and how the Sacred Liturgy becomes a lens through which the Church as Bride can see and understand her Divine Bridegroom. The message of Marmion’s work is summed-up in the simple, repeated declaration, “The mysteries of Christ are our mysteries.”
Father Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Marc D. Guerra:
Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life is an unmistakably timely book with an undeniably untimely message. Hitz’s artful reflection—her book in no way can be described as a polemical defense—meditates on the enduring worth (and inherent charms) of learning for learning’s sake. Gracefully moved along with the help of interlocutors ranging from Augustine to Einstein to Dorothy Day, her argument is built on a basic (which means seldom recognized) truth: An authentically human education is an education that ultimately wants to know the truth about who we are and the world in which we live. Hitz implicitly shows the shallowness of the faux versions of liberal education that so many secular and Catholic institutions of higher learning peddle today—resting as they typically do on “branded” messages that bombard students with the fiction that critical and professional skills are the one educational thing needful. Picking up Lost in Thought, shortly after modern life ground to a halt during the ongoing pandemic, unexpectedly reminded me of why we ultimately pick up a book in the first place.
Robert Reilly’s America on Trial offers a full-throated defense of the American Founding, a vindication, in Reilly’s telling, both of the Founding’s inherited theoretical principles and the concrete political regime these principles helped bring into existence. Packed with punch and interspersed with memorable quotations from Founding era writings, America on Trial makes the case for the legitimate goodness, nobility, and promise of the American regime, as founded and as it has come down to us today. As Americans struggle to understand the meaning and long-term effects of our nation’s long, hot summer, Reilly reminds us of the need to think long and hard about the true nature of liberty, equality, moral law, political action, and the human good. Never losing sight of either the intractable problem that is human society or the Founder’s noble attempt to do justice to that problem, Reilly points out that being grateful for what is genuinely good and desirable in the American regime is essential to both its preservation and reform.
Reinhard Hutter’s John Henry Newman On Truth & Its Counterfeits presents the 19th-century cardinal as a guide to our confused and confusing times. Hutter draws attention to Newman’s charitable (yet spirited) efforts to combat three formidable problems in his day that are undeniably still with us: the liberalization of Christianity, the usurpation and transformation of faith by rationalism, and the dogmatic application of subjective judgment to every claim of religious truth. The great strength of Hutter’s analysis rests in its clear ability to say “this” is not “that”. Each chapter juxtaposes Christianity’s traditional understanding of a reality—conscience, faith, the development of doctrine, and the university—with its corresponding modern counterfeit. At every turn, Hutter presents Newman as an able critic of modernity’s desire to make man a sovereign subject, to allow man to reverse positions and place, as C.S. Lewis put it, “God in the dock”. Whether Hutter is right to contend that Newman can adequately serve as our Virgil is an open question. Then again, as a guide, even Virgil was not permitted to have the last word.
While I am at, let me make one more recommendation: 2020 marked the 50th year anniversary of the publication of God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. That is a good enough reason as any to pick up Lewis’ book again (or for the first time) and leaf through it.
Marc D. Guerra, Ph.D. , is a professor of Theology and director of the Core Texts & Enduring Questions Program at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
I know many folks for whom 2020 was the year they finally tackled that book or books they’ve always meant to read—for whom the pandemic, shutdowns, and more time at home meant the opportunity to read more than they ever had before. For me, 2020 was … not that. With all of this year’s additional stress and massive disruptions to school, work, and social life, I did not read as many books as I usually do. But I did read some, and from among those these are the ones that stand out:
Eifelheim by Michael F. Flynn. Probably my favorite book I read this year. Aliens meet medieval priests (who are written with affection and nuance, not as anachronistic caricatures) and, hundreds of years later, scholars attempt to piece together the mysterious outcome of that encounter. The backdrop of the Black Plague turned out to be pretty timely, as did the novel’s serious treatment of the sacraments and their centrality to the Christian life.
Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans. A close contender for my favorite book of the year. Like Eifelheim, this novel also treats its historical setting and characters with respect—Youmans’ 17th-century men and women are recognizable to us in their humanity, with faults, foibles, and virtues we can see in ourselves and those around us, but they are also, clearly, the inhabitants of a time very different from our own, from which we can learn much. Youmans’ “World of Wonders” is a grace-filled, sacramentally-charged landscape that reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s world, different as it is in time and place.
Staying on the theme of respecting the past and allowing ourselves to learn from it, I thoroughly enjoyed Alan Jacobs’ new book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind. As someone who loves old books as a matter of taste, I was already sympathetic to Jacobs’ argument—that reading old books is a valuable practice and neglecting the great works of the past makes us less capable of understanding our present situation. But I appreciated even more Jacobs’ explanation of why engaging with authors from the past—even, maybe even especially, those whose worldviews and opinions are very different from our own—promotes a tranquility (but not a complacency) that is completely foreign to the anxiety-driven “cancel culture” all around us.
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers. I did read a fair amount of children’s fiction this year, both on my own and with my four kids, and this classic was a new favorite for me. Fans of the movie (I’m one!) will have varying reactions to the many differences between the Disney version and its source material, but I found the book to be completely charming, and am looking forward to sharing it—and hopefully a couple of its many sequels—with my children this Christmas.
Catherine Harmon was managing editor of Catholic World Report for many years, and is currently social media manager for Ignatius Press.
Thomas P. Harmon:
Pierre Manent, Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason. An extraordinary effort to re-activate practical reason, which has been suppressed in the paradigm of modern politics in the name of a theoretical perspective. The suppression of practical reason, and with it the perspective of the citizen acting in a human world, which leads to the modern human rights regime, which in turn dissolves into what Ralph Hancock, the book’s translator, calls “sheer human assertion.” The human rights regime “promises to liberate the person from his physical, sexual nature and to justify him on the basis of his natural or irresistible desires or ‘orientation,’” which is a root-and-branch rejection of the natural—and with it, the eternal—law. Manent surveys the whole of the modern project in terms of natural law and human rights. Along the way, he critiques modernity’s theoretized politics, suggests a way forward (no spoilers!), and chastises Christians (and especially Catholics), who have much-needed but much-neglected resources in their own tradition to provide a remedy to the practical crises of our times.
Christopher Caldwell, Age of Entitlement. Caldwell provocatively argues that the Civil Rights Act inaugurates a shadow constitution at odds with the original, United States Constitution. While supportive of the goals of the civil rights movement to secure justice and equality for African Americans, Caldwell shows the unintended (and sometimes intended) consequences of the Civil Rights Act in the erosion of constitutional freedoms, the elision of the public/private distinction that is at the basis of republican order, and the inexorable movement into political correctness and identity politics. Caldwell’s thesis has the power to explain a lot of the political disruptions in the last half century, including why such extreme minority concerns like the trans rights movement have gained such majority traction, utilizing the nexus of federal bureaucracies, courts, and human resource offices that are most sensitive to regulations and lawsuits. The book can be a bit breezy and can lose the complexity of the phenomena it attempts to describe due to its compression and its middlebrow audience, but it is an indispensable book to grapple with in order to understand the currents shaping politics today.
Ernest L. Fortin, The Birth of Philosophic Christianity. The first book in Fr. Fortin’s set of Collected Essays is a tour de force in the academic essay, a genre Fr. Fortin thoroughly mastered. Fortin’s meditations on the theologico-political problem, inspired by his deep study of the thought of Leo Strauss put together with his comprehensive grasp of the Christian theological tradition, is a feast for the reader. For the serious student of St. Augustine, especially, there is no better place to start to try to understand Augustine’s thought as a whole than Fortin’s essays.
Michael Bland Simmons, Universal Salvation in Late Antiquity: Porphyry of Tyre and the Pagan-Christian Debate. A work of specialist history of ideas, Simmons book sheds light on the strategy of the great Platonist philosopher, Porphyry of Tyre, in his opposition to Christianity. Porphyry, who possessed a first-rate intellect and firsthand knowledge of Christian thought, put his finger precisely on Christianity’s trump card: it could claim to provide one, single way of salvation for all human beings, grounded in a theologically rich and philosophically defensible account of the mediation of Christ and the Church (note well: Simmons does not address universalism, the doctrine that all are saved, but rather universal salvation, the feature of Christianity that identifies a universal way of salvation for all, but does not assume all will take that way). By paying attention to Christianity’s sharpest critic, Simmons unveils the heart of classical Christianity and why it swept the ancient world. Those wellsprings are still available today, although a different tack is necessary now than the one taken by Augustine, in light of competing universalisms. Simmons can be read very profitably together with Manent.
St. Gregory’s Prayer Book: A Primer of Catholic Devotions from the English Patrimony. A beautifully laid-out devotional filled with gorgeous prayers for every occasion. This prayer book taps into deep spiritual resonances in English language and poetics.
St. Augustine, Against the Academics. Prof. Michael P. Foley has given us a gift of a remarkable translation with helpful notes and an insightful commentary. Augustine’s dialogues are (deliberately) more difficult to read than some of his more famous works, so Foley’s expert assistance is welcome. Against the Academics is Augustine’s argument against skepticism, focusing more on the moral and educational problems with skepticism than on sophisticated theoretical refutations of it.
Christopher Stasheff, The Warlock series. Stasheff is a currently neglected author who got his start in the 1960s as one of the founders of the science fantasy sub-genre of science fiction. It is about a far-future Earth agent whose task is to guide Earth’s lost colonies to develop in the direction of democratic government against opposing forces who would guide them toward either totalitarianism or anarchy. The twist is that our agent, Rod Gallowglass, who prides himself on his hard-headed rationalism, finds himself on a world on which magic seems to work! That world, called Gramarye, becomes the focal point for political control of the galactic future because of its native witches and warlocks. Warlock, which runs to over a dozen books plus spinoff series, features a mix of mid-century, Captain Kirk-style liberalism, the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, and Stasheff’s own mid-century Catholicism. His books are a bit racy to recommend to younger audiences, but are also filled with unexpected theological insight—a fairly profound explanation of the psychology of sin in one book, n explanation of Christ’s expiatory sacrifice in another. Stasheff’s amateur theological stylings are oftentimes excellent, but they can also go off the rails. For a deeply Catholic culture, Stasheff’s world seems largely uninterested in sacramental grace, for instance, and his musings about ways to salvation through other religions would, no doubt, fall afoul of Dominus Iesus. But being forewarned about some of his weaknesses, one is then free to enjoy all sorts of neat, Catholic offerings, delivered alongside Stasheff’s whip-smart sense of humor and a generous helping of puns (yes, the two are compatible!).
Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins. It is astonishing how current Percy’s novels seem. His satirical apocalypse predict with astonishing precision so many of our problems today. Insightful, hilarious, and great fun to read.
P.G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves. Everybody needs a little Wodehouse in 2020. Wodehouse’s writing feels like escapism because of his effortless, glistening prose, but actually is about some very profound matters concerning education, love, friendship, and the good life.
James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes. The first book on The Expanse series of sci-fi novels, also a (currently) 6-season TV series available on Amazon Prime. Corey’s books move fast, pulling you along, always gripped. The prose is unambitious, although competent. The characters and plotting are where the fun is. There is a little more than fun: The Expanse is essentially about a hugely important question of our time: what if we came into possession of a biotechnological tool that gives us mastery of our own biological nature. Should we use it? Could we use it well? How we would react? There are certain features of Corey’s future that are implausible. For instance, the social and political structures are vastly changed from our own time, with an almost complete absence of any kind of religion—yet, he still gives us characters who operate from a basically 21st-century, bourgeois liberal moral framework. In that sense, the book is deeply sentimentalist. The greatest suspension of disbelief Corey asks of the reader is not in the realm of the book’s futuristic technology, but on its lack of curiosity about what shapes human beings’ characters. Still, if you can suspend disbelief, it’s a good story with more going on than most popular fiction.
Thomas P. Harmon is Associate Professor and Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX.
It was a summer of Wendell Berry. Jayber Crow follows a Kentucky farming town during the 1930s to 1960s, through the eyes of the titular town barber. Berry, as both philosopher and poet, creates a meditative, sweet-sad story that has much to say about every issue of modern life: war, agriculture, religion, government overreach, work, friendship, marital fidelity, the need for male spaces (such as the barbershop), and that certain way of saying, “Well” that means (politely), “It’s time for me to get on with my work, so please go away.” (Any Southerner will recognize this.) I reveled in this novel as I would in any good story, but came away with a crusading passion for a more neighborly and agrarian way of life.
Berry’s Hannah Coulter strums many of the same strings, but through the eyes of a woman who watches her first husband disappear in the war and her children grow up, leave the town, and become unmoored from their moral and cultural roots. Don’t fear that these books are depressing, though: Berry’s endings offer a sober but believable hope.
I re-read Gaudy Night, considered to be Dorothy L. Sayers’s masterpiece. It’s the tenth of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but can be read alone, although I recommend starting with Strong Poison and reading all the books through Busman’s Honeymoon to get the full story arc of which Gaudy Night is the climax. This arc follows Wimsey–English aristocrat and amateur detective–from his first meeting with Harriet Vane (on trial for murder in Strong Poison) through the progression of their relationship, carried out on the side while they solve mysteries. Gaudy Night brings their relationship to the foreground and to a head. But there’s still a mystery to be solved, one which threatens the rather precarious position of the only women’s college at Oxford, and engenders questions about the relative positions of intellectual pursuits, marriage, and family in a woman’s life. Despite the title of the series, this story comes through Harriet’s eyes, and she grapples concretely with the question of whether to marry this baffling man who persistently offers to marry her, but also encourages her intellectual pursuits for her own sake. Although I had read the resolution of the mystery and the relationship before, I was not less thrilled with a second reading of this novel for its masterfully drawn characters, the richness of its atmosphere, and the touches of supremely intelligent humor that flow from Sayers’s brilliant mind, such as this delightful scene: Wimsey proposes to Miss Vane via telegram “in a single Latin sentence, starting off dispiritedly, ‘Num…?’–a particle which notoriously ‘expects the answer No.’”
Recently, I found myself in desperate need of a Jane Austen novel, but a new Austen novel, not one I had read before–which is, unfortunately, all of them. Luckily, I stumbled upon Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. Seventeen-year-old Molly Gibson is shocked when her father remarries and brings a manipulative stepmother and a gorgeous but affection-starved stepsister into their comfortable home. Secret engagements, distressing illnesses, and town gossip ensue–everything an Austen fan could possibly want, including subtle characterization and thoughtful morality. I finished it, mourned the fact that it was finished, then bought three copies as Christmas gifts.
Antigone was the perfect re-read in a year that asks us which is more important: bodily health or religious and familial piety. Don Quixote was a humorous escape from all that. And I can’t remember which or how many P. G. Wodehouse books I re-read, but those are always worth their inherent risk of injury from side-splitting laughter.
Rachel Hoover lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee.
Ronald L. Jelinek:
January 2020 brought great promise. I started a semester-long research sabbatical and a queue of books awaited.
A Pope and a President by Paul Kengor was first. After having read a similar title years earlier, I was unsure Kengor’s work would offer something new. It did – admirers of our 40th President and our great Pope will enjoy discovering little known details about their relationship.
Next, I was onto Cardinal Sarah’s brilliant book, The Day is Now Far Spent. In his call to rescue the Church, the courageous cardinal offers this: temporal forces pull us toward becoming just another NGO; only in orienting ourselves toward the eternal can we renew our pursuit of truth.
Having thought I had figured out the world’s problems, I looked out the window to find my two oldest daughters marching back home from school. The pandemic had arrived. Not sure what effect this development would have on my reading productivity, I spent the next couple of weeks juggling the demands of scholarly research with the start-up of distance learning. My wife, also an academic, absorbed fourth grade math while I shared my broadband and home office with our sixth grader, allowing her to navigate through a unit on maritime air masses, past the Hessians and into the cardinal virtues. Zipping through Zoom – with our four-year-old in tow – we were slowly getting back on track.
Around that time, Bishop Barron provided this sheltering-in-place suggestion: “Read the great books!” One of his favorites? Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. An inspiring conversion tale, I devoured it before recommending it to a former student beginning a year with Christ in the City.
Maciej Zieba’s Papal Economics offered outstanding insight into Catholic Social Teaching on democratic capitalism and Robert P. George’s Conscience and its Enemies reminded me of why the family and the free market hang together. Those who love the former cherish the latter; those who target the first seek to destroy the second.
Moving into summer, our nation’s chaos motivated a trip through 1960’s mayhem. Amity Shlaes captures it in Great Society: A New History. Fans of Shlaes’s earlier work will marvel again at her ability to weave in overlooked historical connections. The late, great William F. Buckley’s The Unmaking of a Mayor provided a nice follow-up, with excellent commentary on the state of pre-pre-pre-Giuliani Gotham. What’s past is present.
As COVID temporarily relaxed its grip on the northeast, I turned to my former colleague Tony Esolen. Beyond offering an indictment of the present state of American culture, Out of the Ashes provides a roadmap and path forward for Christian pilgrims.
August days splashing with my girls were a joyful reminder of my greatest vocation. A few years back, a Men of St. Joseph dad recommended Meg Meeker. Not generally a fan of “help” books, I was skeptical. Dr. Meeker is an exception. Her latest, Raising a Strong Daughter in a Toxic Culture, is a brave, powerful endorsement of parenthood – and a rallying cry for fathers.
September happily brought a return to in-person school for my two oldest. After the remote experience brought my wife and me so close to their daily assignments, we decided to start up a family book club. Tolkien’s The Hobbit introduced us to the format and provided great opportunities for both girls to share literary insights. David McCullough’s 1776 was a repeat for me, but I didn’t mind: he’s a national treasure whose tale dovetailed nicely with my now-seventh grader’s voyage into American history. As the year lumbers to a close, its message resounds: the darkest hour precedes the promise of dawn.
Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D. is a Professor of Marketing at Providence College.
The Case for Trump by Victor Davis Hanson. To read a Hanson book, or to listen to one of his many public lectures, is almost akin to an education in itself. I would bet that if one were to only read Hanson over the span of a few years, such an individual would more than likely have a better grasp of what is than …well, anybody.
The Case for Trump is another great achievement. For Hanson, Trump’s presidency has done two things. First, Trump has completely reoriented conservatism, with a greater emphasis upon American confidence, a moderate nationalism, and an end to military expeditions abroad that may hope to bring the dream of liberal democracy to the planet. Additionally, Hanson has shown that Trump’s presidency has solidified identity politics as the locus of the Democratic party.
One of Hanson’s most insightful points comes toward the end of the book, wherein he portrays Trump as a tragic figure in the Greek sense of the term. Be assured that no publisher will be looking to have Trump’s memoirs, nor will any university be seeking his presence as a Visiting Professor of Politics. Trump will be (already has been) painted as a leper, one who deserves only vitriol and expulsion from society. This was a book that needed to be written, and only Hanson could have done it.
American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time by Joshua Mitchell. Along with Hanson, it is difficult to think of anyone more capable of serving as social and cultural diagnostician than Mitchell. For Mitchell, identity politics has not simply become the mantra of the Democratic party. More diabolically, it has become the sacramental and religious lens by which its adherents view the world. Drawing from the resources of a broken and exhausted Protestant ethos, Mitchell shows that identity politics despises the white, heterosexual male as the new anti-christ.
What will save the world then is going to be increased government presence in our lives (higher taxes and Green new deal), and the singing of the religious hymns of climate change and racial justice. In a twisted sort of way, there is no salvation outside of identity politics. Mitchell is right: only a biblical vision of man and the world can truly heal us of such maladies. This is a book that elicits both sadness and hope.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport. I have been on somewhat of an unhealthy Cal Newport fix since 2017. Few are as insightful as Newport on the intersection of work, productivity, technology, and culture (and that dreaded disease known as email).
The central thesis of this book comes from Newport’s many years advising college students at elite universities. According to Newport, the American collegiate ethos is one firmly rooted in the belief that to discover what to do in life, “one should simply follow their passion.” In other words, good work comes down to solving an equation: match your passion with some pre-existing temperament or character trait, and boom … you will find the work you love! Do you love blogging, or selling essential oils to family and friends? Then you just discovered the work that will make you satisfied. Math is just that simple.
Thankfully, Newport not only dismantles this as a disturbing dream. More than this, he demonstrates that doing good work, and building the skills that are its necessary condition, entails the actualization of virtue.
Skills trump social media activity and disconnected dreams of “building an online presence.” Newport’s conclusion is simple and much-needed in our time: the standard or paradigm of good, humane work is not your passions or feelings. Rather, it belongs to an external order of which we did not make, but for which we must align ourselves. Such an insight is the basis of realism, and the beginnings of what the philosophers called eudaimonia.
Brian Jones is the Coordinator of Liturgy at St. Anthony of Padua in the Woodlands, Texas. He is also a philosophy PhD student in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
Timothy D. Lusch:
The reading year kicked off in normal fashion. I created a detailed list of books to read and trashed it within weeks for my usual scattershot approach. Except this year, with the arrival The Virus, I frantically bounced around in anticipation of … The End. I was like a man who had been chained to a chair, forced to watch reruns of The View for a decade before being loosed upon a bookshop. You’ve seen the type: unwashed, unkempt, crazed eyes.
My nuttiness was relieved by reading Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds. I had suspected people were losing their minds, but to read the evidence for it all in one place, well, made me feel quite sane. If you want to know how we became slaves of the totalitarian State of Woke this is your book.
Needing to read about real people with real problems who manned up and solved them, I turned to Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. I loved the miniseries but the book offers so much more. I used to scoff at calling any generation The Greatest. I don’t anymore. These men—and the mothers who raised them—earned it.
Not so much with The Elusive Purple Gang, Gregory Fournier’s book about the only Jewish gang to ever dominate a major American city. Along with Paul Kavieff’s The Purple Gang: Organized Crime in Detroit 1910-1945, the story of how a handful of adolescents rose to power in organized crime is fascinating. And bloody. Al Capone hired them rather than fight them. That is all you need to know.
Adding to the body count was Catherine Hanley’s superb Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior. It is the biography of a woman who, denied what was rightfully hers, raised an army and fought for it—in the twelfth-century. Most men of the age didn’t look kindly on that sort of thing. It is exceptionally well-done and briskly paced.
Some comic relief was in order so I turned to The Master: P.G. Wodehouse. Joy in the Morning finds Bertie Wooster ensnared in one social net after another. Only the sharp and incisive mind of Wooster’s valet Jeeves can save him. Barely. But in a big way.
Big is the perfect word for Ron Chernow’s Grant. Clocking in at 1104 pages and nearly three pounds, it is a bit daunting at first. You think, “for Ulysses S. Grant, that many pages, really?” Yes. Chernow, as fans of his books know, is a fine writer and in whose books a hundred pages pass effortlessly. Grant as a man, soldier, and president is worth every page.
Slim, however, were the volumes of poetry I read. Louis L’ Amour’s Smoke From This Altar is not on anyone’s list of 1000 Books of Poetry to Read Before You Die but it should be. Deceptively simple and descriptively average, it has emotive power. Like the utter strangeness of the familiar when you dip below the surface of things. William Blake is no stranger to strangeness. His Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience have something of both Eden and the Serpent. And, more relevant to us, of life after the Fall:
‘Such, such were the joys.
When we all girls & boys,
In our youth-time were seen,
On the Ecchoing Green.’
Lastly, the story of the fall of Acre—the last Crusader city in the Levant—is brilliantly told by Roger Crowley. A representative slice of the whole mess of humanity teeters on the edge of disaster in The Accursed Tower. And—I will save you the suspense—it all comes crashing down.
Timothy D. Lusch is an attorney and writer.
Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed. Its plot and main characters have inspired a couple of Italian operas. But it’s also said to be the greatest Italian novel, and incidentally the Pope’s favorite (his grandmother used to read it to him). So there are the elements that make an opera—devoted lovers, evil oppressors, saintly friars, separation and jeopardy, miraculous conversions—but also much more: a variety of social types, fascinating psychological and character studies, and striking portrayals of famine, plague, and early modern war.
Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World. Guardini’s said to be another of the Pope’s favorites, and the man to whom he devoted his incomplete doctoral studies. He is also said to have been a major influence on the Second Vatican Council.
All of which shows the complexity of the currents within Catholic thought, especially with a high-end thinker like Guardini. In this book, he presents an unremittingly bleak view of the present age as a time in which believers have been deprived of all comfort from tradition, culture, and a settled position in society. He takes a correspondingly austere and even heroic view of the demands the Catholic faith now places on us. Some call it bracing. Others may say he’s probably right but how can we ever do what he says the times demand?
Augusto del Noce, The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization. This is a collection of essays from the 60s through the 80s by the Italian philosophical historian/historical philosopher. He thought all the varied currents in Western thought and social life had converged on a nihilistic, totalitarian, and sexually liberated technocratic consumer society in which nothing can ever change. Looking around us, he seems to have had a point. His proposed solution to the dead end in which we’ve landed involved reconnecting to a corrected form of classical metaphysics.
Roberto de Mattei, The Second Vatican Council – An Unwritten Story. What happened during that complex and puzzling episode? What led to it? How did it relate to what came after? Why did it turn out as it did? Professor de Mattei presents a detailed and persuasive account based on comprehensive research, although others with a more positive view of the Council and its effects will naturally differ in emphasis and interpretation.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King. It’s set long ago and far away, written in beautiful verse, and packed with knights, ladies, and the search for the Grail, but there are problems in Camelot. The conflicts, betrayals, misunderstandings, human failures, and frequent cruddiness are as real as the heroism, and the whole enterprise is fundamentally doomed. So it’s not exactly escape literature.
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For most people who love to read, 2020 was a great year to do just that. For me, not so much. When your job is to create content on the internet, lockdowns and cancellations that put everything on the internet, leading people to expect more online content, are going to give you less time, not more.
But during this year when we’ve mostly been stuck in our houses, I did get the chance to read Hallowed Be This House by Thomas Howard, ironically shortly before he died. This was my introduction to Howard, and I was delighted to discover how much he writes like St. Francis de Sales or Thomas Kempis. He seamlessly integrates an incarnational worldview into the setting of a modern house. Ever since I read this book, I have seen each room of my house as having a distinct divine purpose, as if God had determined that there ought to be living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and so on since before time in order for his plan to be best carried out. What other place is so ordered as to directly serve God’s design for families to cultivate life? A church … and that’s it, I’d say. Hence, the two institutions instituted by God have very tangible, intentionally designed homes, because everything in a church has a distinct and divine purpose as well.
I also had the chance to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumously published Children of Húrin. I didn’t know it was a tragedy at the onset, so if you know the book you could imagine how often my heart dropped to my gut. The story is one that will stay with you. Túrin, Húrin’s son, is a stubborn but otherwise virtuous man who is subject to a curse bestowed by Melkor. Aside from the story, though, one thing stayed with me more than anything else, especially because of things going on this year. It’s been said that Tolkien uses lembas, or Elven bread, in his stories to symbolize the Eucharist. Maybe, maybe not. While Tolkien did not like allegory and symbolism, he did like “applicability”, and allowed the reader the freedom to apply that applicability to one’s own life and circumstances. Allegory inhibits that effect since it assigns a singular and contrived meaning, the one–and only the one– given by the author.
So at least in my real-life application, I did discover the Eucharist in lembas as Turin’s good friend Beleg offered it to him, and it was a very welcomed discovery during a year when receiving Christ’s body was dramatically limited. Beleg said lembas was, ‘The greatest gift that one who loves you still has to give,’ and in those words I could easily hear Christ, especially considering that in the Eucharist he is giving himself. All in all, Children of Hurin was a tragedy for a tragic year, and it put things in perspective for me. It was the right book for a year that was just all wrong.
It may be a bit pretentious to share this, but the last piece of literature I need to mention is this very collection of best books you’re reading right now. It will be a reference for me for many months, if not years, to come. At the very least, during a tough year, it has helped me fall in love with literature in new ways by introducing me to new authors and books I’d always thought someone should write something about, but didn’t know someone did. So, to all who contributed, thank you for a wonderful Christmas gift.
David Kilby is the managing editor of Catholic World Report.
Rev. Fr. Matthew C. MacDonald:
Contemplative Enigmasby Fr. Donald Haggerty (Ignatius Press, 2020): Written by a priest to whom I owe much for his guidance, prayers, and support since I had him as a seminary professor. This book goes into the desire that many people in the Church have for an intense life of prayer and serious spiritual life and the difficulties and interior trials that the life of contemplation can bring. It shows how the contemplative life is at the heart of the life of faith of all the baptized despite its difficulties and interior trials. It offers real wisdom and experience that speaks to everyone no matter where you may be in the life of prayer. It also helps the reader understand how the difficulties and darkness in prayer can be a period of fruitfulness wherein God draws us to himself in ways we least expect. This fruitfulness involves going beyond our own expectations and desires to surrender to a God who lovingly and patiently waits for us to let him into our hearts through surrendering to his grace. An important read in a world plagued by activism, noise, and the loneliness and stress of the COVID quarantine world we currently find ourselves in.
The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception by Brandon McGinley (Sophia Institute Press, 2020): This book goes into the crisis and iconoclasm that has distorted the life of faith and the moral authority in recent years and how to respond to it on the level of the parish, the family, and the individual believer. McGinley proposes that the answer to the crisis of faith plaguing the Church is not returning to an unrealistically romanticized Catholic past but rather going back to the perennial teaching of the faith handed down to us through Scripture, tradition, her liturgy, sacraments and the lives of the saints throughout her history. Going back to basics, along with prayer and grace can be an aid to reinvigorate our parishes, and families through living lives of authentic holiness whose fruit can change the world in a way that new cutting-edge programs of pop theology cannot do. Well-balanced, realistic, and challenging, this book is an important read for priests, evangelizers, teachers, and also parents who long to help people live the faith, who love Jesus and his Church, and want to be the unique saints he calls each of us to be.
Rev. Fr. Matthew C. MacDonald is parochial vicar at St. Mary’s Church in Washingtonville, New York.
Daniel J. Mahoney:
The integrity of Western civilization has been under assault for a very long time now. “A culture of repudiation,” as the late great Roger Scruton called it, one marked by unrelenting self-loathing and systematically mendacious accounts of the past, increasingly dominates journalism, the academy, popular culture, and even, or especially, elementary and high school education. And ‘progressive’ Christians are too often uncritical participants in this repudiation of our classical, Christian, and American inheritances. For a learned, truthful, balanced, and elegant account of the past, one cannot do better than to read Robert Royal’s Columbus and The Crisis of The West (Sophia Institute Press, 2020), a book that admirably avoids both the hagiography of the past and the ideological distortions of the present.
On a related front, the indispensable Cluny Media has just rereleased the Philadelphia journalist Agnes Repplier’s graceful 1933 book, Junípero Serra: Pioneer, Missionary, Saint, with an informative and measured “Introduction” by Jeremy Beer. Where Woke historians see cultural genocide (and genocide unadorned), Repplier and Beer see in the California missions a mix of imperfection and paternalism with kindness, generosity, and a wholly legitimate concern with the well-being of souls. In Serra, one finds a man of impeccable character: intrepid, pioneering, and informed by a holy and humane desire to bring souls to Christ.
Too many Christians–and churchmen–see in identity politics a laudatory effort to promote racial and social justice. They could not be more mistaken. As Joshua Mitchell demonstrates in his remarkable new book American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (Encounter Books, 2020), identity politics is informed by a dangerous Manicheanism that reduces some groups (white males, in particular) to the camp of transgression and ontological guilt, and others (blacks and the so-called LGBTQ++ “community”) to a realm of pure innocence, of victimhood bereft of moral agency and personal responsibility. Mitchell’s is one of the most important books published in a long time because, eschewing facile polemics, it gets to the heart of things while warning against an ideological appropriation—and subversion—of an authentically Christian account of sin, repentance, and mutual accountability.
And for enduring wisdom from the Slavic East, I recommend A Solovyov Anthology, edited by S.L. Frank, originally published in 1950 and just reissued this fall by Angelico Press; and the splendid volume Is God Happy: Selected Essays by Leszek Kołakowski, edited by his daughter Agnieszka Kołakowska and published by Basic Books in 2013. Soloviev was at once a prophet, philosopher, and seeker after God, a translator of Plato and Nietzsche, a defender of the middle path between unbridled nationalism and untethered cosmopolitanism, the visionary (and sometimes problematic) writer about Sophia or Lady Wisdom, and, at the end of his short life, the critic of those who identified Christian truth with humanitarianism, pacifism, and non-resistance to evil. Solovyov remains a thinker and visionary who continues to instruct and provoke. Kołakowki, for his part, wrote clearly, and humanely, about the evils of totalitarianism (and the Marxist roots of Leninist-Stalinism), God and the problem of evil, and the search for truth under conditions of modernity. Every essay in this volume is a gem that richly rewards rereading and further reflection.
Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Lauren Enk Mann:
The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander—Insightful and profoundly moving reflections on Mary as a model for all Christians. With a vision clearly born of humble contemplation, Houselander outlines in prose and poetry the interior character of Our Lady, from her fiat through her station at the foot of the Cross, and explains why all souls must emulate her in receiving Christ and following him.
Strong Towns by Charles Marohn—Just what exactly is broken about the American pattern of suburban development and what a more sustainable (and traditional) town structure can do for us.
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr—An examination of the psychological and neurological changes wrought in the human brain by our use of the internet. Now a decade old, and thus predating the smartphone revolution, the research is more startling and pressing than ever in its call for human beings to be alert to the strange changes our technological tools work in us.
Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams—Existentialism applied to race, through the eyes of a mixed-race memoirist; an interesting modern perspective to consider in the ongoing discussions of racism.
From Slave to Priest: the Inspirational Story of Father Augustine Tolton by Caroline Hemesath—The story of grace at work in the soul of a black man living in the shadow of the Civil War; Fr. Tolton was one of the first black Catholic priests in America, in spite of outrageous racism both within the Church and in society at large.
The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh—A brilliant and biting satire on American attitudes toward death.
Lauren Enk Mann is a freelance editor residing in Northern Virginia.
Matt Taibbi’s Hate Inc.: How Today’s Media Makes Us Despire One Another conducted an autopsy of classically liberal journalism, one that nailed what the fuss over “fake news” and blue check marks is all about. Who would believe that a former political correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine would deliver one of the best, most honest books on media studies of the new century? But here it is. Virtuecasters may want to pair that recommend with Rolf Dobelli’s Stop Reading the News, which also resonated as radical but right.
Stumbling onto a used copy of Frenchman Louis Bouyer’s 3-volume History of Christian Spirituality at online’s AbeBooks, I became so immersed in it that I also ended up making my way to Paris. Sort of. David MacCullough’s The Greater Journey tells the story of American expatriates in France in brisk style. Both book(s) were very good. Dorothy Day, Dissenting Voice of the American Century, despite (and possibly also a little because of) the liberal tilt of its authors, succeeded in reminding me of what attracted me years ago to this famous convert’s story in the first place
Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future was an encouraging look at some Church fathers that also seemed like an unsolicited gift from a member of the evangelical mafia. Other doctrinal refreshers. A Christian Manifesto (no, not that one —Edwin Lewis had the title first), in which a 1930s Methodist embraces truth-in-labeling, and Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity, where Alisa Childers shares an easy-to-follow guide to what’s good and not-so-good for you on modern church menus.
Less reverential was Henry Bear’s X-Treme Latin: All the Latin You Need to Know for Survival in the 21st Century. Wilfrid Sheed’s Essays in Disguise also offered fun diversion and a literary flair that made me miss his father.
Thomas Chatterton Williams’ Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd, released ten years ago, struck me as helpful context to our very vocal contemporary unrest. Same for Heather Hendershot’s Open to Debate on Wm. F. Buckley, and Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which I finally cracked.
The Art of Michael O’Brien was a picture book defying superlatives. Mitali Perkins’s YA novel Forward Me Back delivered on the promise of its terrific title. And an updated rewrite of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace’s great-great-granddaughter was a late surprise find. I normally dislike modernizations, but as a reviewer quipped, this one succeeded with “thees and thous redacted, thrills intact.”
Beyond the page, I got to enjoy three video profiles of musicians I’ve admired while prepping an exhibition on vinyl cover art: Herb Alpert Is…, The Gospel According to Al Green, and Ken Burn’s semi-hagiographic Country Music.
Closing on one more musical note, props to veteran rocker Dion for an impossibly cheery “Hello Christmas,” and for enlisting Amy Grant to sing along for a matchup of two of my musical heroes. Even in 2020, “All will be well.”
Joseph Martin is Associate Professor of Communication and Graphic Design at Montreat College
The best book I read in 2020 was Randall Sullivan’s The Miracle Detective: An Investigative Reporter Sets Out to Examine How the Catholic Church Investigates Holy Visions and Discovers His Own Faith, one of the great conversion narratives of our time. In the first forty or so years of his life, all long-time atheist Sullivan knew about Catholicism came from “liaisons with women who were fallen from the faith [and] each demonstrated – and in remarkably similar ways – that it was a lot easier to stop attending church than it was to quit being a Catholic.” In the early 1990s, however, Sullivan covered the story of a young Mexican American woman in Oregon who claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her and hundreds of other witnesses in her mobile home.
This story unexpectedly took Sullivan to a village called Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina where six young Croats claimed that the Virgin had been appearing to them since 1981. Initially dismissing the apparitions as “strange spooky sh-t,” Sullivan eventually traveled to the village, where he had a mystical experience (perhaps involving St. Bernadette Soubirous) that changed his life. At a Roman airport, meanwhile, Sullivan may have met … Lucifer himself.
This is not a naïve, happily ever after narrative, though. Sullivan is painfully honest about his doubts and the fact that acknowledging the supernatural required him to make uncomfortable changes in his life.
I recommend The Miracle Detective to all Medjugorje skeptics. Sullivan chronicles countless stories that are difficult to dismiss as hallucinations or hoaxes. My favorite was that of an atheist Italian physician who studied the alleged seers in order to debunk the apparitions, but instead was so convinced by what he had seen that he became a practicing Catholic.
A war correspondent in Bosnia for Rolling Stone, Sullivan does a fine job presenting the Medjugorje apparitions within the context of the history of the Balkans – more synonymous with ethnic and religious bloodletting than perhaps any other region – starting with antiquity. While I did find a few minor factual errors (for example, Paul VI, not John Paul II, was the first pope to visit Fatima, while Bishop Pavel Hnilica was a Slovak, not a Czech), he has a fine grasp of Catholicism as well.
Anthony Burgess described C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity as the book for those who want to believe but whose intellect gets in the way. The Miracle Detective is a gripping, frank, and beautiful account of exactly this conflict between our post-Enlightenment, rational Western minds and the undeniable presence of the mystical.
I found Ewa Czaczkowska’s excellent biography of Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, Poland’s “Millennial Primate,” whose June beatification was postponed due to the pandemic, to be especially illuminating history. The book is in Polish, but I believe that Wyszyński’s upcoming beatification would be a fine opportunity for publishing an English translation; her book on St. Faustina has already been published in English and many other languages. Having scavenged all the archives, Czaczkowska, one of Poland’s leading Catholic authors, presents a detailed, compelling portrait of one of the spiritual godfathers of solidarity, a pioneer of the new evangelization, and one of the twentieth century’s great churchmen who never compromised with communism and always defended the faith. While the Cold War is over, Wyszyński’s unwavering witness remains instructive.
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian.
Justin McClain, OP:
Christ in the Storm: An Extraordinary Blessing for a Suffering World by Pope Francis, with a foreword by John Allen, Jr., an introduction by Dr. Timothy O’Malley, and editing by Jaymie Wolfe (Ave Maria Press, 2020). Amidst tumult, let’s refocus on Christ.
Christmas Around the Fire by Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping (TAN Books, 2019). Dr. Topping’s collection of classic inspirational Christmas stories recapture our celebration of the Nativity of the Lord.
Consecration to Saint Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father by Fr. Donald H. Calloway, M.I.C. (Marian Press, 2020). With Pope Francis having named the new year “The Year of Saint Joseph,” Fr. Calloway draws us closer to this “Silent Saint.”
Counterfeit Christs: Finding the Real Jesus Among the Impostors by Trent Horn (Catholic Answers Press, 2019). This era is outdoing itself in skewering the actual Jesus, but Horn shows how he is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
A Feast for Hungry Souls: Spiritual Lessons from the Church’s Greatest Masters and Mystics by Dr. Susan Muto (Ave Maria Press, 2020). Dr. Muto’s masterpiece provides guidance from two millennia of Gospel-driven spiritual masters.
From Islam to Christ: One Woman’s Path Through the Riddles of God by Dr. Derya Little (Ignatius Press, 2017). Follow Dr. Little’s daring journey from Islam to discipleship as a Catholic.
From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah (Ignatius Press, 2020). A historic collaboration between two beloved Church leaders.
The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, edited by Jeff Cavins (Ascension Press, 2018). See why Cavins’s endeavor is the #1 bestselling Catholic Bible in the United States.
History’s Queen: Exploring Mary’s Pivotal Role from Age to Age by Mike Aquilina (Ave Maria Press, 2020). Aquilina indicates how Mary’s example and intercession have historically uplifted the Church.
Home in the Church: Living an Embodied Catholic Faith by Dr. Jessica Ptomey (Morgan James Publishing, 2020). Dr. Ptomey, a skilled communicator and convert to Catholicism, provides practical advice on living our faith daily.
Human Embryos, Human Beginnings: A Scientific and Philosophical Approach by Samuel B. Condic and Maureen Condic (The Catholic University of America Press, 2018). This book will solidify your pro-life convictions.
I’m Catholic. Now What? by Shaun McAfee (Our Sunday Visitor, 2019). Learn from McAfee how to live faithfully long after entering Catholicism.
Let’s Talk About Truth: A Guide for Preachers, Teachers, and Other Catholic Leaders in a World of Doubt and Discord by Dr. Ann Garrido (Ave Maria Press, 2020). The Catholic Church professes the truth boldly, and we should do so with clarity and charity.
Living Memento Mori: My Journey through the Stations of the Cross by Emily DeArdo (Ave Maria Press, 2019). 2020 has featured immense difficulties, but let’s learn from DeArdo, who has endured a life of suffering courageously.
Love Your Cross – How Suffering Becomes Sacrifice by Therese M. Williams (TAN Books, 2019). Therese Williams has been a quadriplegic for over forty years, but teaches us to take up our cross daily (see Luke 9:23) with unrivaled joy.
Motherhood Redeemed: How Radical Feminism Betrayed Maternal Love by Kimberly Cook (TAN Books, 2020). Both women and men should read why Cook rejected radical feminism for something far greater.
Sex and the Spiritual Life: Reclaiming Integrity, Wholeness, and Intimacy, edited by Patricia Cooney Hathaway (Ave Maria Press, 2020). In an age of confusion, leaders within various vocations promote a chaste understanding of human sexuality.
Teachings for an Unbelieving World: Newly Discovered Reflections on Paul’s Sermon at the Areopagus by Pope St. John Paul II, edited by Jaymie Wolfe (Ave Maria Press, 2020). In English for the first time are John Paul II’s insights into St. Paul’s balance of faith and reason.
What to Say and How to Say It: Discuss Your Catholic Faith with Clarity and Confidence by Brandon Vogt (Ave Maria Press, 2020). With Vogt, embrace and discuss Catholicism’s most challenging teachings.
A Year with the Mystics: Visionary Wisdom for Daily Living by Kathryn Jean Lopez (Saint Benedict Press/TAN Books, 2019). Lopez shows us saintly mystics whose holiness has always enlivened the Church.
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:
The books I enjoyed most this year are:
Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Garden. Agamben is a leading Italian philosopher whose work has focused mainly on the role of the state and human dignity. This work explores all the way the concept of “garden,” from Genesis to Easter Sunday (“thinking he was the gardener…”) to the bucolic scenes in Dante and non-Christian literature, are employed to show how the human and the natural co-exist (or don’t).
Eamon Duffy, John Henry Newman: A Very Brief History. We all know Professor Duffy from his work on the Catholic Church in England, and here he pays tribute to one of the great English minds, a cardinal and now a saint. This is an excellent introduction to why Newman is really the thinker of today’s Church.
Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera. This updated version of their 2012 work incorporates some recent trends in operatic productions. With Covid hampering one of my favorite pastimes, going “behind the scenes” with this history and analysis of the growth of opera has been a real comfort.
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ is Professor of Patristic Theology and the Director of the Catholic Studies Centre at Saint Louis University.
John Paul Meenan:
It seems a truism that we are living in an age of scientism, and we should strive to see the proper limits of that endeavour we now know as ‘science’, and those truths we hold by faith, along with the metaphysical principles we derive from philosophy. One of the true greats in this endeavour, before whose erudition and prodigious output I am always humbled, is the late Father Stanley Jaki. Amongst his highly recommended many works, I re-read his Brain, Mind and Computers, published in 1989 at the dawn of the era of our modern dependence on the now-ubiquitous ‘computer’ in all its forms. Father Jaki puts paid to the illusion that there will ever truly be ‘artificial intelligence’, that the brain is most definitely not an algorithm, using, amongst many arguments, Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Well worth a read, and I would recommend it to Ray Kurzweil, that his mythological artificial intelligence and doomsday ‘singularity’ will never see the light of day.
For a sober and very insightful history of the dawn of science, peruse Marie Boas Hall’s The Scientific Renaissance, 1450-1630, filled with intriguing and wonderful anecdotes. A balanced and fair treatment, including its ending with Galileo.
And for a more modern theme, The Universe and Dr. Einstein by Lincoln Kinnear Barnett was once one of the most popular summaries of the great physicist’s oft-misunderstood theories, and helps put things into a proper frame of reference.
Speaking of such, for one of the clearest and thorough arguments for our current intellectual problems, I re-read Jacques Maritain’s Three Reformers – which might be subtitled the Three Deformers – namely, Luther, who formed our modern notion of the will, that faith is not an act of the reason, but a sheer, blind, entrusting of oneself to God, isolated and bereft of any hierarchical and rational structure. As history, and Luther’s own life, have shown, this inexorably devolves into one’s own sense of ‘righteousness’; Descartes, who gave us our modern mathematical mind, accepting nothing except ‘clear and distinct ideas’, a narrow, shallow and mathematical view of God’s infinitely rich universe; and Rousseau, from whom we have inherited our au courant, romantic view of the passions, that giving unbridled, free reign to them is the most ‘natural’ thing to do. His thought gave birth not only to his numerous abandoned children, but soon enough to the free reign of terror of the French Revolution. Besides all this, Maritain’s book is worth it for the invaluable tidbits found in the footnotes alone.
And, finally, I would highly recommend Josef Pieper’s brief and terse Hope and History which, as the title promised, provides a window into that misunderstood virtue, the neglected middle child between faith and charity. (Perhaps this should be read alongside his other treatise on the three theological virtues). Pieper’s point is one that bears repeating, from St. Paul, to Pope Benedict, that our hope is not in this world, the form of which is passing away. History, even that of the Church, is not ordered to an ever-greater ascendancy, some Teilhardian omega point of evolution and perfection, a veritable humanist paradise. This is the spirit of the antichrist, preaching a pseudo and secular messianism, a salvation in this world alone, which only leads to a hellish despair, most vividly instantiated in communist and socialist utopias. How much more hopeful – and real – is the good news of Christ, that the material of this world, and our own bodies and souls, if we remain faithful to him, will, with the Saviour’s return, be transfigured into the Kingdom that will have no end.
John Paul Meenan, M.Sc., M.A., teaches theology and science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Ontario, Canada.
The Mission of the Messiah: on the Gospel of Luke, Tim Gray. Good, solid study guide linking the core Old Testament narrative with the Gospel.
Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden. Setting St. Paul in his historical context shows how his views on women, homosexuals, and slaves were received as messages of liberation.
The Plague of the Spanish Lady: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919, John Collier. What could be more topical than this appalling mosaic assembled from hundreds of first-person accounts?
The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World, John Dickie. Friendly toward the Brotherhood but covers some little-known corners of its history.
The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic, Mike Duncan. A detailed account that will suggest ominous contemporary parallels.
The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of the Empire, Kyle Harper. Centered on Nature rather than human choices, this study complements the previous title.
Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr, Last Wife of Henry VIII. Sympathetic portrait of a gracious and intelligent woman.
Young, Damned, and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of Henry VIII, Gareth Russell. Catherine’s heedless life is used as a portal to the minute details of a Tudor royal household.
The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-Earth, John Garth. Not just a list of sites but a beautifully illustrated guide to images and themes that make Tolkien’s world real.
The Life of Animals in Japanese Art. Ed. Robert Singer and Masatomo Kawai. Splendid catalogue of an exhibition at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, with outstanding examples from all eras and media. (My favorite book on this list.)
The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice: A Tiny Homeric Epic, A.E. Stallings. An ancient parody of Homer in a sprightly new translation with whimsical illustrations.
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher. An important guide on what to learn from the witness of those who survived Communist persecution.
The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, Roger Kimbell. A sharp-tongued reminder that the seeds of present disorders were planted five decades ago.
The Madness of Crowds: Race, Gender, and Identity, Douglas Murray. Dissects the insanities of tribal politics with a secular scalpel. Christians are hardly the only ones threatened by current trends.
Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, Abigail Shrier. A truly horrifying analysis of this contagious delusion and its enablers. Anyone with young girls in the family needs to read this.
Sandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer.
Ines Angeli Murzaku:
In May, in preparation for a summer in quarantine, USA Today published a list of 25 escapist books to read in quarantine. It seems that the assumption is that escapist-distracting reading is most appropriate during a time of remote work and down-sizings. During these ten months of quarantine, escapist books were expected to bring relief and soothe grief of lost social connections. The 25 books which made it to the USA Today list provide readers with ways to find inner self, inner peace and inner quarantine, or to foster relationships with people in their life and beyond the grave. Preparing people for eternity features prominently in these books, since life indeed does not end here on earth and in quarantine; meaning can be found in ongoing and unexpected relationships and in practicing self-love through daily rituals.
What were the books that I read during what has so far been almost a year of quarantine and remote teaching? In a way, academic life is secluded and monk-like. Academics resemble secular monks who research in quarantined towers, shrinking in size (hiring in the humanities has really shrunk in recent years, and tenure-track jobs are becoming a rarity). In seclusion, academics publish papers and books, deliver presentations and mentor students. For us, today’s secular monks, a life of research in highly specialized fields keeps us quarantined—even in normal times. Hubert van Zeller, in his classic Approach to Monasticism, explains that there is no major difference between the man in the world, guided by grace who has to devise a technique of his own for searching after truth and the monk in a monastery, who is guided by the same grace as the man in the world and can make use of the particular way that his rule marks out for him. Maybe van Zeller had the academics and their quarantined lifestyles in mind when he wrote Approach to Monasticism. My argument here is that ten months in quarantine did not produce a major change in lifestyle with respect to the academic life of researchers.
Were the books I read and researched this past quarantine year escapist? Let me list them:
Rome and the Eastern Churches, the revised edition, by Aidan Nichols, OP, published by the always reliable Ignatius Press. It is the edition that honors the memory of Adrian Fortescue, a “luminary of the English Catholic Church.” The book is a must-read for all interested in the Eastern Churches. Pawel Galuszka’s Karol Wojtyla e “Humanae Vitae”. Il contributo dell’arcivescovo di Cracovia e del gruppo di teologi polacchi all’enciclica di Paolo VI, is a work which I found well-researched, original – based on rich archival research, written by a priest from the Archdiocese of Krakow. Paul Kengor’s The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism’s Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration, provides a sophisticated and well-documented analysis of communism by going to the source: Karl Marx. My interview with the writer was published in Catholic World Report.
In a different genre, I read Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), a favorite of Pope Francis. The “admirable friar” (Fr. Felice), as Manzoni calls him, was in the forefront of the battleground, elevating the morale of the people in the margins who were fighting pestilence and were abandoned by their family and friends for fear of infection. Another book I read with the theme of those left in the margins, is Charles C. Camosy’s Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People.
I do not think that any of these titles are escapist or conducive to wishful thinking. They are realist, accurate and inspiring in their own way and have provided pristine quarantine relief.
Ines Angeli Murzaku is professor of ecclesiastical history and director of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University.
One thing lockdown has done is to get me reading again. I’ve read so many wonderful books this year, but here is a small selection I very much enjoyed:
The Hornblower Series – CS Forester. Never could I have believed that I could get so obsessed with a story about a young seafarer’s adventures on the high seas, but I have got completely hooked on this series, which tells the tale of a young midshipman who joins the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars and rises through the ranks, facing adventure, love, companionship and peril at every turn. Compulsive reading and perfect escapism during this most trying of years.
Pachinko – Min Jin Lee. This epic, multi-generational novel introduced me to the experiences of Koreans living in Japan, a land where they can prosper but never truly belong.
Blott on the Landscape – Tom Sharpe. This extremely naughty (be warned) novel about an English aristocrat with embarrassing urges who is out to destroy his wife, Lady Maud, is one of the funniest novels I have ever read. The wicked, understated British humor had me literally crying with laughter!
The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Christy Lefteri. This heartbreaking account of a Syrian couple fleeing war-torn Aleppo is not for the fainthearted, but it offers a powerful insight into the reasons why thousands of people risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in flimsy boats and the horrors they have left behind.
The Gulag Archipelago – Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Another book that is not for the faint-hearted (or the depressed), this book, now available in a new and more accessible edition, should be required reading in every school in the world. This is an extraordinary achievement from one of the finest – and bravest – writers of the twentieth century.
A People’s Tragedy – Orlando Figes. On the subject of Russia, this meticulously researched book tells the story of Russia’s disastrous Revolution, the intrigue at the Romanov court in the last desperate years before the tsar was deposed and murdered, the complex factors that led to both the 1905 and 1917 uprisings and the massive human cost of a regime that left millions dead.
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity – Nabeel Qureshi. This highly personal account of a young Muslim’s spiritual journey was a real eye-opener. I felt that I learned a lot about Islam and Muslim attitudes toward Christianity, as well as learning about the extraordinary, if sadly short, life of a young man courageously seeking the truth.
War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells. I normally loathe sci-fi, but my son was reading War of the Worlds and my curiosity was piqued. I loved it! Edge-of-your-seat action, fascinating insights into late Victorian thinking about colonialism and scientific developments, terrifyingly prophetic passages showing refugees fleeing a burning London … and the whole story takes place a few miles from where I live.
Fiorella Nash is a researcher and writer for the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
Thomas J. Nash:
The Autobiography of Malcolm X might not seem like an obvious choice for a “Best Books” entrant from one who contributes to an orthodox Catholic magazine, but work with me here.
Yes, Malcolm X said and wrote some incendiary and even radical things, including about white people and Christianity, and his experiences as a lifelong American contributed to his views. In that light, I wonder what America would’ve been like had Catholics been the main force in establishing our country and government. I think the U.S. would’ve still been known for its patriotism but less nationalistic and thus less prone to racism. Despite the imperfections of her members, the Catholic Church lives up to her “universal”/“make disciples of all nations” name (Matt. 28:18-20), and that’s why, for example, Venerable Augustus Tolton was welcomed as a seminarian in Rome, the heart of the Church, whereas forming him as a priest in America was deemed too risky.
In addition, Malcom X, born Malcolm Little, was born and raised a Protestant and so was more likely to experience a religiously segregated congregation and Christian experience in general. While serving time in prison, he gravitated toward the Black Muslim movement of the Nation of Islam and eventually, after prison, to traditional Islam, where he observed fellowship among Muslims of various ethnicities on his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, and thus tempered his own racial outlook.
Given the rise of the organization Black Lives Matter (BLM), as distinguished from the morally legitimate movement of the same name, Malcolm X has become an even more important figure in America, and one that we should not allow BLM or other radicals to misrepresent, similar to how we oppose dissident Catholics who attempt to hijack Pope St. John XXIII as a “neo-liberal” and the Second Vatican Council as fundamentally discontinuous with previous ecumenical councils.
Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK), said she believes that her husband, had he lived, would’ve embraced the LGBT movement, yet MLK’s actual record suggests otherwise, including what he counseled a young man grappling with same-sex attraction. Recall too that even as recently as 2008, blacks in California played a key role in defeating a measure that would’ve have legalized same-sex “marriage” in the state.
In addition, as an orthodox Muslim, Malcolm X would’ve been even more resistant to the zeitgeist being pushed by the organization BLM, including its advocacy of the LGBT agenda, commitment to “disrupt” the nuclear family as the foundation of society, and allegiance to Marxist principles, including state-run public schools.
In short, as a faithful husband and good father, Malcolm X believed in the natural moral law (Rom. 2:14-16; see 1:18-35), and he was committed to defending it, even to the point of giving his life when he had the audacity to call out Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, for failing to practice what he preached. As Malcolm told Alex Haley, who wrote his autobiography, “the real reason” for his alienation from the married Muhammad was because “I had objected to the immorality of the man who professed to be more moral than anybody”.
Malcolm X was a both/and culture warrior, seeking to root out racism wherever it existed, yet also emphasizing that a person must take personal responsibility if he is to advance his own well-being—and that of others—in society.
I wrote a provocative essay for CWR on how Malcolm, based on his real-life actions, would engage the organization BLM. I was temporarily banned from the Facebook page of my beloved Catholic grade school in Detroit, but reinstated when others noted my essay wasn’t racist, even if a bit more controversial than the average post on the alumni page.
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Detroit Black Catholic Ministry Facebook Page welcomed my essay, and the repartee included a spirited discussion on why taxpayer rights should be honored by instituting school choice across America. As in my CWR essay, I argued that that Malcolm X would’ve supported such an initiative to safeguard parental rights re: the education of their children.
In summary, I think Malcolm X is an important American figure and one about whom Catholic leaders need to know in evangelizing African-Americans and also for engaging in cultural battles in America in general.
Given his assassination more than 50 years ago, I like to think Malcolm X sees more clearly about Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church, and I pray for the repose of his soul.
Another key book I read this year was a novel I was encouraged to peruse when I was in my mid-20s, but which I quickly put aside because it didn’t impress me as the great Catholic book I had been told it was: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.
Set in England from the 1920s to the early 1940s, Brideshead covers the life experiences of the non-Catholic Captain Charles Ryder and his relationship with the Flytes, a wealthy Catholic family who reside on a great estate.
The Flytes have endured the fallout of a broken home. Lady Marchmain, the matriarch, stays faithful to her wedding vows, even though her husband has long ago left and is residing in Italy with his mistress. Daughter Julia has drifted from the Faith and eventually engages in an adulterous affair with Ryder. Brother Sebastian is a vivacious figure, but beneath his lively exterior struggles with same-sex attraction and alcohol, and is contemptuous of his mother’s religious orthodoxy. There is also Brideshead, the oldest son, who commendably calls his sister Julia to repentance, but would that he manifest more merciful love in speaking the truth.
Years ago, I didn’t get very far in the novel, as I didn’t get why this was “a great Catholic book.” However, this year a good friend persuaded me to take a second look, and continued to encourage me when I periodically complained after 50, 100, 200 pages, etc., about how this novel had not yet earned its exalted reputation in the Catholic world. My friend said, “Just keep reading,” and “You’ll have to read until the end.”
And then it happened.
I won’t spoil it for you, if you haven’t read the book. But I will say that Waugh pulls it off in grand fashion, illustrating how everything the world has to offer cannot satisfy like the one in whose image and likeness we are all made (see Gen. 1:26-27). Only Jesus Christ can provide the peace which is beyond all merely temporal provision, the peace which the world cannot give, the fulfillment that ultimately can only come in Christ and the Catholic Church he founded (Jn. 14:27).
And so we see how God works in the lives of the Flytes who have strayed and also in the life of their non-Catholic friend.
This is a book that should be used in literature classes in Catholic high schools and colleges, in secular colleges by shrewd Catholic professors, and in parish adult-ed classes. Take the word of a former skeptic: Read this book until the end!
Thomas J. Nash is a Contributing Apologist and Speaker for Catholic Answers and a Contributing Blogger for the National Catholic Register.
Carl E. Olson:
It seems fitting that in a year marked by constant turmoil and copious amounts of insanity that several of my favorites books were works that analyzed and responded to the roots and origins of several deep and abiding ills. Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution is erudite, bracing, perceptive, and yet remarkably calm. Its chapter on transgenderism—the how, what, why, etc.—is worth it alone. (See my recent CWR interview with Trueman and read Deborah Savage’s CWR review of the book.)
Whereas Trueman focuses on historical (and philosophical) roots, Joshua Mitchell’s exceptional American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Times is deeply theological and cultural, with a strong measure of political philosophy. Mitchell’s analysis is both original and traditional, and is highly recommended.
While Trueman (a Protestant historian) and Mitchell (a Catholic political philosopher) bring robust Christian perspectives to the fore, the authors of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody are Enlightenment-loving classical liberals. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have written an accessible, often cutting, and always engaging critique of identity politics that is, in some ways, even more devastating because of their progressive leanings. I don’t agree with all of their positions, but I deeply appreciate what a remarkable work of top-notch polemics they have co-authored.
Our men’s reading group read and discussed the very practical and insightful book How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-To-Follow Guide For Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics by Donald J. Johnson—and we got to grill the author, as he lives down the street from me and is part of our group. Don wrote the book while in the process of making his way to and into the Catholic Church, and it is a rich volume filled with evangelistic and apologetic tools. We also read Msgr. Ronald Knox’s The Belief of Catholics, which I first discovered some 25 years ago, and I came away this year even more impressed by Knox’s precise, pithy, and witty way of explaining and defending the Catholic Faith. It was written in 1927, just two years after False Prophets, by Fr. James M. Gillis, S.P, which I discovered at a local thrift store. Gillis was the editor of Catholic World and a fine apologist and thinker; his observations on “the revival of paganism” echo ideas by Knox and Chesterton, but also contain original insights.
Some of the content of Christopher R. Altieri’s Into the Storm: Chronicle of a Year in Crisis, which focuses on 2018 and its many disturbing revelations about clerical sex abuse, originally appeared on the CWR site. And the author is a good friend. But even if that wasn’t the case, I would still insist that this is a work of journalism and analysis to be reckoned with: unflinching, brave, deeply perceptive, fully orthodox, and completely unafraid to call a spade a space without ever flirting (never mind falling into) sensationalism or hysteria.
Anyone who loves the work of the great Walker Percy will benefit from two books by Jessica Hooten Wilson: Reading Walker Percy’s Novels and Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence. Both are filled with deep affection and equally deep observations about Percy’s work: why it is unique, how Percy worked and thought, how his writing remains so timely. Both are praiseworthy for not coming acorss as if they were not written by an academic and for having the sort of substance that only comes through serious study and thought.
Finally, I read two books by David W. Fagerberg, one published fairly recently and one to be published next spring. The first is Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology, which is a good entry point into Fagerberg’s liturgical theology, which is broad and deep, edifying and challenging, Western and Eastern. The second is Liturgical Dogmatics: How Catholic Beliefs Flow from Liturgical Prayer, to be published in 2021 by Ignatius Press, which is (as the title hints at) a difficult book to describe. It is systematic but organic; learned but free of footnotes; intimate yet full of Big Picture “stuff”. It’s sure to appear in the “Best Books I Read in 2021” list a year from now!
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.
Dr. Jared Ortiz:
The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, by Dorothy Sayers. I read Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness, Unnatural Death, Strong Poison, Five Red Herrings, Have His Carcase, Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. For complex plots, delightful prose, and charming leads, Sayers is hard to beat.
A Damsel in Distress, Adventures of Sally, Something Fresh, Leave it to Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse. I wanted to expand my Wodehouse repertoire beyond Jeeves and Wooster and I am glad I did. A Damsel in Distress is psychologically astute (and, of course, hilarious) and turned out to be prophetic for a dear friend of mine courting a young lady. Sally is quite lovely. And Psmith (the P is silent) is a character everyone should meet.
Out of a Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis. I started these novels in order to think about what an unfallen race might look like, especially what unfallen sex might look like. Out of a Silent Planet is rather profound, and Augustinian, on this question. The stories are alternatively riveting and theologically satisfying.
Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian. I enjoyed this and think that my enjoyment will increase as I progress in the series. It is not meant to be a self-contained novel, but I am glad to have seen the genesis of the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin which, I think, is the heart of the series.
A Bloody Habit, by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson. So enjoyable and helpful corrective to the original Dracula story (and many other bad vampire stories!).
On Marriage and Virginity and Homilies on the First Epistle of John, by St. Augustine. I shall confess my minority opinion: Augustine is really insightful on the meaning of sex and is a needed complement (dare I say “corrective”?) to contemporary Catholic theology of-the-body-inspired visions of human sexuality. The Homilies on the First Epistle of John are a stirring series of sermons on the meaning of love. It should be required spiritual reading.
Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, by Zena Hitz. This is one of the more important books to come into my life in a long time. I had reached a point of burnout in my academic life and this book was a healing balm. I have been rolling around its ideas in my mind for months now and the book has inspired so many good conversations with friends and, indeed, with the author herself.
The Way of St. Benedict, by Rowan Williams. Whatever one might think of his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams is a superb scholar and a master of the Christian spiritual tradition. He shows in a rather winsome way how the Benedictine principles of stability, transparency, and holy accountability can help us to live together in the modern world teaching us to “recognize the otherness of the other.”
Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, by Fr. Jacque Philippe. This is the only antidote to 2020.
Dr. Jared Ortiz is Associate Professor of Religion at Hope College.
Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky:
Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell should be required reading in our schools. Sowell demonstrates why he has little patience for contemporary race hustlers who use skin color to cash in on liberal guilt. Instead of focusing on skin color, he studies cultural patterns because cultural traditions and economic necessities (tarnished by Original sin!) drive behavior patterns.
Sowell argues the dysfunctional culture of 18th-century white redneck emigres from the hill countries of England (North Britons, the border English, highland Scots, Welsh, and Ulstermen) is the tap-root of inner-city black pathologies. The dysfunction associated with the inner city correlates more closely with white redneck patterns than with the effects of slavery and racial discrimination. Sowell convincingly redirects attention from race to culture.
Similarly, J.D. Vance depicts the white counterpart of inner-city Black rednecks in his book, Hillbilly Elegy. In his insightful and respectful treatment of the complex Hillbilly culture, to my eye, Vance affirms many of Sowell’s main points. Both cultures share the same English hill country roots. Both are violent and insulated from outside influence. Like the Black rednecks, the Hillbillies migrated from the South to the northern states for similar economic reasons, and they suffer terribly because of dysfunctional cultural traditions.
Black or white, rednecks need a cultural transformation. Of course, liberal elites scorn white Hillbilly racial prejudice but ignore, justify, and even inflame the racial hatreds of many Black Americans. But the primary tool for critiquing every cultural tradition is Christian teaching: “Thou shalt not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, etc.” And “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
These writers provoked me to wonder: Why don’t diocesan “multi-cultural ministry” programs include a “Caucasian ministry” segment? It seems the multi-cultural professionals do not think it’s necessary to target white people (except, perhaps, for fundraising purposes). With mostly white people in charge of multi-cultural ministries, the programs suggest a “systemic racism” of implicit white condescension.
Nevertheless, there are nuggets of goodness and virtue in every culture. The awakening of the Hillbillies in the nation’s Rust Belt likely got Trump (the most pro-life president in history) elected, followed by his originalist Supreme Court picks and conservative Federal judge appointments. The Hillbillies had more influence on this country in 2016 (and in 2020 sans-election fraud) than the Catholic hierarchy. So maybe every year there should be a “Take a Hillbilly to lunch!” day to celebrate.
Cultural and tribal factors shape our moral character more than skin color. So we do not need the false multi-cultural ministries that usually pander to the illusory (and expensive) solutions of race hustlers. We need an earnest and honest Catholic critique of every culture, including mine, the comfortable cosmopolitan culture of Northern Virginia.
Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington.
Sex and the Unreal City by Anthony Esolen (Ignatius Press, 2020). Western culture may be going to the dogs, but reading Esolen’s essays on the unreal, or indeed, surreal elements in our contemporary life, gives the reader hope that the spiritual reserves of Christian civilization have not yet been depleted.
Church of the Ever Greater God: The Ecclesiology of Erich Przywara by Aaron Pidel SJ (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020). One can read Pidel on Przywara’s ecclesiology without feeling dizzy from all the polarities and distinctions.
Balthasar for Thomists by Aidan Nichols OP (Ignatius Press, 2020). Vintage Fr Aidan who is a scholar with a deep appreciation of both traditions.
Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason by Pierre Manent (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020). A beautifully translated reflection on the various attempts of the champions of natural rights to wage war against the Christian conscience.
Love and Truth: The Christian Path of Charity by Jean Borella (New York: Angelico Press, 2020). An excellent critique of the “all we need is love” nonsense.
Unearthly Beauty: The Aesthetic of St John Henry Newman by Fr Guy Nicholls, (London: Gracewing, 2019). Contains lots of interesting material on Newman including the fact that he thought that the Jesuits were the Spartans and that the Oratorians were the Athenians of the Religious Orders.
Far Too Easily Pleased: A Theology of Play, Contemplation and Festivity by James V Schall SJ (Catholic University of America Press, 2020). This is a reprint of a 1976 work of Fr Schall for a new generation. I missed it the first time around.
The Experiment of Faith: Pope Benedict XVI on Living the Theological Virtues in a Secular Age by Matthew J. Ramage. (Catholic University of America Press, 2020). An excellent survival guide for those who still believe in truth.
Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Gospel of John: Prologue and the Book of Signs Thomas G Weinandy (Catholic University of America Press, forthcoming). I have seen a preview of this sequel to Fr Weinandy’s Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels. For all those for whom the Gospel of St. John is their favorite, this will be balm for the soul.
Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland: The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates by Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, 2004). I’m ashamed to say that I have only just discovered the travel books of Fermor. Reading Fermor is a good way to spend time when grounded and suffering Europe withdrawal symptoms.
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:
This year I enjoyed three books in particular.
First was the new edition of Sylvia Townsend’s Warner’s 1948 novel, The Corner That Held Them, a panoramic view stretching of a small, not especially noteworthy convent in the English countryside over decades of the Middle Ages. It is captivating from the very beginning, or so at least I thought, and Warner combines devout and even saintly conduct with the day-to-day drudgery and difficulty in such a time and place; it is historical fiction at its best.
Second is Stephen Schmalhofer’s Delightful People, from Cluny Media, one of the most interesting publishing houses today and which is publishing or republishing important works. Schmalhofer collects eleven essays on figures such as Henry James and Willa Cather, as well as those less known such as Marion Crawford, Father Cyril Fay and artist John La Farge. Fans of Schmalhofer anxiously await the next essay to appear, as they are invariable thoughtful, entertaining, enlightening, and in the best tradition of letters.
Finally is Thomas Behr’s Social Justice and Subsidiarity, which focuses on the work of Luigi Taparelli (1793-1862), S.J. a co-founder of the Vatican newspaper Civiltá Cattolica. Through his work, Taparelli provided a grounding in Catholic Social Thought different from current “social justice” debates in the English-speaking world and that helps to explain the principles set out in the nineteenth and twentieth-century encyclicals. Catholics have a distinct and coherent approach to justice, rights, and equality that needs to be further excavated.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman.
It has been my privilege to read and occasionally review many excellent books this past year. As I can’t resist making extended commentary, however, I will narrow my selection down to just two especially striking works. One is of literature, and the other is of political theory.
Quo Vadis? by Henry Sienkiewicz
A few years back I turned off the Hollywood version of this story after about ten minutes; the book had the very opposite effect when I casually picked it up a couple months ago. To sum up the complex plot, unintended consequences ensue when a hotblooded young Roman officer named Marcus Vinicius woos a provincial princess. The princess Ligia is secretly a Christian, so Vinicius finds himself stuck between the political intrigues of Nero’s court on one hand, and his beloved’s underground Church on the other. Overhearing a sermon, Vinicius is startled to learn “that this Judean avatar was also the eternal good and the eternal truth. It flashed into his mind that Jupiter, Saturn, Apollo, Juno, Vesta and Venus Aphrodite didn’t compare too well with such a demiurge. Beside such a godhead they seemed like a shrill clique of bickering adolescents who plotted and played malicious tricks on everybody else, alone and together.”
One mark of Sienkiewicz’s genius is his ability to depict noble pagans, even as he makes clear what is missing. Vinicius’ irreverent uncle Petronius is one of the most interesting and attractive figures of the book, set in contrast to a Nero who in all his delusions of godhood and aesthetic pretensions seems a caricature of Nietzsche’s ubermensch. Elegant and aloof, Petronius quietly despises Nero’s brutal crimes for the same reason he loathes the emperor’s mediocre efforts at musical composition: They are ugly, stupid, and tasteless.
By far the most moving scene in this novel, which is filled with moving scenes, revolves around the appearance in the arena of Ursus – the giant, doggedly-faithful barbarian who serves as Ligia’s bodyguard.
A Primer On The Right: The Challenge of the Modern Right and How It Relates to the Contemporary Left by Robert E. Salyer
This book aims at defining and clarifying what the Left and Right essentially are. One way it does so is by contrasting rival notions of progress. For the Left, “Progress means the increasing willingness and ability of individual persons to live without inherited, discovered, or revealed purpose. People must make their own purposes, be their own authors, or at least find such things within themselves, they must find their desires within themselves, without recourse to supposed objective reality and meaning outside themselves. Those who require received purpose from outside themselves are examples of the deformed ‘authoritarian personality.’”
For the Right, on the other hand, progress is “beneficial change,” an expression which only means something relative to some objective standard of truth and value. So although the rightist would concur with the leftist that it is a mark of progress for fewer women to die in childbirth, or poverty to be alleviated, the rightist has a very different reason for saying so, as well as a different account of how and why such progress happens. The Right understands progress as additive: “Progress has occurred through accumulation, e.g., through the brilliance of a Copernicus added to his predecessors, through Da Vinci’s techniques with the Mona Lisa built upon those of his cave-drawing ancestors, through solar energy technology built upon the technology of coal-fired steam engines … from two people to seven billion.” A Primer On The Right is just under 100 pages, and is reflective rather than polemical.
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.
Consecration to St. Joseph, Donald H. Calloway, MIC. I pre-ordered this book last year, on hearing of the difficulties besetting its publication. It seemed the devil did not want it published. As the year progressed, I began to understand why. St. Joseph, Terror of Demons, pray for us!
Mr. Blue. I re-read Myles Connolly’s classic in search of a single riveting image and found it: the last priest on earth, raising the Host and bringing God to a world celebrating the death of Christianity.
Valiant Ambition, Nathaniel Philbrick. Traces the relationship between Benedict Arnold and George Washington, and looks at the deep divisions and political machinations that threatened to derail the American Revolution. The exploits of the brilliant Benedict Arnold read like something out of Horatio Hornblower (see next entry). While the book lags towards the end, Philbrick’s thesis that Arnold’s treason ultimately saved the American Revolution feels a bit forced—it is, in addition to being a compelling read, a reminder that in politics and government, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and Ship of the Line: A sampling from C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series of classic seafaring novels, these were essential escapist reading this year.
The President Will See You Now, Peggy Grande. This memoir of Ronald Reagan’s last years is an inspiring and affectionate look at a great man and how he touched one family’s life. A surprise favorite.
Prodigal Daughters, edited by Donna Steichen. First-hand accounts by women who left, and then rediscovered, the treasures of the Catholic faith, this was a re-read. Then, realizing I had never read Steichen’s follow-up, Chosen: How Christ Sent 23 Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard, (2009) I purchased a copy and couldn’t put it down. I plan to gift both books this Christmas.
Unrestricted Warfare, Col. Qiao Liang and Col. Wang Xiangsui: My husband looked a little startled (concerned?) when he saw me reading this. I discovered Unrestricted Warfare while looking for another book detailing China’s plans for world domination. That book has disappeared, but this one is just as frightening in a quietly menacing, elegantly worded way. Written in 1999 by two colonels in the People’s Liberation Army, it is even more pertinent today. Best quote: “Judging by this kind of standard, who can say that George Soros is not a financial terrorist?”
I wrapped up the year by dipping back into one of my favorites, and one of my favorite books to give. Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, by Giles Milton is the true story of the brilliant eccentrics also known as the “Baker Street Irregulars.” Fact that reads like fiction.
Monica Seeley writes, and raises children and chickens, in Ventura, California.
Here are my three best books. The Golden Bowl by Henry James. This is late James and therefore not an easy read. But the book, which may well be its author’s crowning achievement, is remarkable for its psychological insight and sensitivity. As a bit of a bonus, moreover, the story’s four central characters are all Catholics–at least, Catholics of a sort. James had a somewhat ambivalent interest in Catholics and Catholicism, and it shows here.
A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. I have been reading around in this book for several years, and I read another few hundred pages this year (yes, it’s that kind of book). Taylor is a significant philosopher–or, perhaps more accurately, historian of ideas–but he is no stylist. Be that as it may, the book is an important introduction to how Western culture got to be the way it is.
Prison Journal, volume one, by Cardinal George Pell. Unjustly accused of sex abuse, Cardinal Pell spent thirteen months in prison before he was finally acquitted last April by the High Court of Australia. His journal is a lively and consistently interesting picture of a man struggling (successfully) to practice Christian charity in the face of outrageous injustice and hostility toward himself and his Church.
Russell Shaw is the author of more than 20 books.
Dr. Patrick Toner:
It is a pleasure to consider that there remain a few works by Charles Dickens that I can read for the first time. Barnaby Rudge recently left that group. This book is not likely to be on anyone’s top five list of great Dickens novels. Its not being one of Dickens’s greatest novels doesn’t mean it’s not a great novel. But as it happens, I think it is not a great novel.
There are some lovable characters—most notably Gabriel and Dolly Varden among the main cast, and John Grueby from the bit players—but many of the central characters are underdrawn. One never really gets to know Mrs. Rudge or Mr. Haredale, and Barnaby himself is too inscrutable to carry the weight of ‘title character’. The central mystery of the plotline is unsurprising and its culmination is frankly uninteresting. I think Dickens paid too much attention to the historical setting and lost track of what he’s really great at.
Still, there are points in its favor. The villains are good, and though none compares to true masterworks like Fagin, Murdstone or Uriah Heep, both Sir John Chester and Simon Tappertit are great second-tier Dickensian bad guys. More importantly, the conversion of Hugh, one of the novel’s central villains, is one of the more realistic and affecting of Dickens’s many conversions, partial though it is. “…if I had ten lives to lose, and the loss of each would give me ten times the agony of the hardest death, I’d lay them all down—ay, I would, though you gentlemen may not believe it—to save this one. This one … that will be lost through me.” Not for nothing, the curse that he next calls down upon his own father is fully realized; and the man who had so unfeelingly raised Hugh as a virtual slave is only reconciled with his own son after having lost his inn and his wits. Dickens shows God’s love finally softening Hugh’s heart. Only some, but enough that one might pray it is enough.
In this year of riots, the thing that stands out in Barnaby Rudge is the very thing that I think undercuts the novel’s greatness—namely, its status as a historical novel. Its second half occurs within London’s anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780, and it has some penetrating presentations of the minds of the rioters and their instigators.
Ordinarily, I assign Albert Camus’s The Stranger in my introductory philosophy class, but this semester I substituted The Plague. I have read this book before, several times, but reading it in a “plague” year does add something. Obviously, our pandemic and Camus’s plague are radically dissimilar in scope and in virulence, so there’s no straight parallel to be drawn. Still.
Camus’s world is hopeless. But despite the utter hopelessness, health is still held up by the protagonist as his central goal. Dr. Rieux tells Father Paneloux: “Salvation’s much too big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health; and for me his health comes first.” Dr. Rieux’s labors are Sisyphean—altogether pointless. The novel begins with Dr. Rieux’s wife leaving town ahead of the plague, so she’s saved from the disease. And then she dies of consumption.
Unlike Rieux, we know that salvation is not too big a word, and that health is not the highest good. At least, we’re supposed to know it. Let’s pray that our bishops and priests don’t act upon any regulations that put our physical safety first, to the detriment of what really matters. See you at Mass. No matter what the governors say.
Dr. Patrick Toner is associate professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University.
Fr. Sean Salai, S.J:
As a lifelong reader and writer, I love to read multiple books simultaneously, gradually progressing through them a few pages each day. In this way, I get through dozens of fiction and non-fiction books each year, sometimes abandoning titles when I feel I’ve read enough and have no desire to finish. Here are my favorite reads from 2020.
I just finished reading The Christian and Anxiety (Ignatius Press, 2000) by the great Swiss theologian and erstwhile Jesuit Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar. I recommend his treatment of anxiety within a Catholic theology of the cross, and his critique of Kierkegaard’s take, for anyone struggling with isolation and fear during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Along the same lines, I learned from Amir Levine and Amy Heller in the book Attached about the three possible attachment styles (stable, anxious, or avoidant) which each person inherits from parental relationships and carries into romantic relationships as well as friendships. If you’ve ever wondered why your marriage struggles, or you’re a clergyman counseling a couple that keeps butting heads, this psychology of attachment theory might be a helpful pastoral resource.
After reading the great Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems, I read his essay collection The Catholic Writer Today, a brilliant resume of Catholic contributions to the arts and a call for a restoration of this great tradition that we’ve lost in the increasingly secularized United States. Gioia, a former poet laureate of California (2015-2018) and member of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003-2009), just retired from teaching at the University of Southern California and introduced me to many forgotten Catholic artists like the late British poet Elizabeth Jennings.
Speaking of the Brits, I absolutely loved Shakespeare the Papist by the late English Jesuit Fr. Peter Milward, who shows the Catholicism buried in each of the Bard’s 39 plays as he analyzes them individually. Father Milward makes a forceful argument that one cannot understand the plays without grasping how religion, the biggest political issue of that time, seeps into sundry dialogues and plot points in a way that paints Shakespeare in a rather Romish light.
Finally, on the fiction front, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, a thrilling example of historical fiction with a libertine sexual morality that captures the French Catholicism of its time. In the scene where a parish priest and Jesuit debate with Aramis, the musketeer who wants to be a priest but struggles with lust, I thoroughly enjoyed the Jesuit’s amusing attempts to persuade Aramis to present an ordination thesis on how many hands to use in a blessing, rather than on the musketeer’s preferred topic of the regret he will feel in becoming celibate.
As I continue on my Shakespeare bug, I’ve already read the brilliant Shakespeare by the late Columbia professor Mark Van Doren, as well as the delightful The Soul of Wit: G.K. Chesterton on Shakespeare compilation of Dale Ahlquist. I’ve also read all of the Bard’s works, of course. Next up, I hope to read the controversial Sir Thomas More manuscript edited by John Jowett, on which Shakespeare was thought to have worked. Finally, I want to read Joseph Pearce’s The Quest for Shakespeare as well as Shakespeare’s Spiritual Sonnets by the late Judge John T. Noonan.
Fr. Sean Salai, S.J. is a special contributor at America Media.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Though first written in 1932, this satirical dystopian novel is even more relevant to our time than it was when first written. Huxley’s depiction of a future of mandatory promiscuity, ‘Malthusian belts’ and a population sedated by a drug called soma, is only a somewhat exaggerated version of our own time with its obsession with sex, contraception and reliance on drugs and medication as a solution to human problems.
Autobiography by G.K. Chesterton.
Few autobiographies rival this one in terms of humor. Specifically interesting aspects are Chesterton’s description of the English ruling class at the turn of the 20th century which appears to have already lost faith and I enjoyed reading his descriptions of the west London of his childhood, an area not too far away from where I now reside.
The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise by Robert Cardinal Sarah
This is a wonderful meditative spiritual work by Robert Cardinal Sarah. My overwhelming feeling after reading this was how great it would be to have Cardinal Sarah as a spiritual director.
Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph over the Darkness of the Age by Bishop Athanasius Schneider in conversation with Diane Montagna
This extended interview with Bishop Athanasius Schneider covers all the issues that matter in the Church and society today from secularism and de-Christianization to reverence in the liturgy, the role of the papacy and Vatican II to the battle for marriage and the family. This book firmly establishes Bishop Schneider as one of the great men in the Church today.
Piers Shepherd is a freelance writer based in London.
If the virus from red China brought us closed churches, ruined cities, recycled Marxism in the form of Black Lives Matter, and the Joe Biden China doll, it also brought us more leisure than most of us have had since childhood, and this is ideal for civilized reading.
Since I devoted a certain amount of that unexpected leisure to preparing a full-dress critical edition of Newman’s Anglican Difficulties (1850) – which Gracewing will be publishing in early winter 2021 – I read or reread a number of works of history which I might not otherwise have dipped into, including Sir Spencer Walpole’s History of England from 1815 (1878-86), G.P. Gooch’s History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913), Macaulay’s History of England (1848-55); G.M. Trevelyan’s England under the Stuarts (rev. ed. 1946), Julian Hoppit’s A Land of Liberty: England 1689-1727? (2000), and Roy Porter’s England in the Eighteenth Century (1994). Another wonderful piece of history which I plundered for the Newman edition is Dom David Knowles’s 3-volume Religious Orders in England (1948-59), which remains one of the glories of ecclesiastical history.
To prepare myself for James Grant’s upcoming book on Edmund Burke – which promises to be a treat – I reread the great statesman’s speech on Warren Hastings in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Volume VI: India: The Launching of the Hastings Impeachment 1786-1788 ed. by PJ Marshall (1991). Grant wrote a superb bio of John Adams and his book on Burke will no doubt be just as good. I also took up The Major Works of Shelley in OUP’s World’s Classics series ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (2003), which can be enjoyed even by those who dislike the poet’s perfervid republicanism. After all, what he says of poor Castlereagh can be readily applied to our own political scoundrels: “Hearest thou the festival din/Of Death and Destruction and Sin / And Wealth crying ‘Havoc!’ within? / ’Tis the Bacchanal Triumph which makes truth dumb / Thine Epithalamium…” Unlike our own utopian atheists, Shelley was not unaware of the reality of evil.
Speaking of politics, surely the best political books of the year were Conrad Black’s updated Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other and Candace Owens’ Blackout, both of which put the beleaguered achievements of President Trump in useful perspective. Another notable new book was Peter Brooks’ Balzac’s Lives, which tells the story of the great French novelist’s life in terms of some of his most fascinating characters. While it may be true that literary criticism has been wrecked by the progressives and their poodles in the academy, there are still good books being written by those untainted by the establishment’s Pravda-like propaganda, and Brooks’ study is one of them. Fans of Balzac will welcome Brooks’ quotes from the novelist. “All newspapers,” Balzac tells his readers in Lost Illusions (1837) “will in due course be cowardly, hypocritical, shameless, [and] mendacious.” Certainly, those who followed me this year in cancelling their subscriptions to the contemptible Wall Street Journal will see the prophetic force of the novelist’s observation there.
I read Adriano Prosperi’s Crime and Forgiveness: Christianizing Execution in Medieval Europe (2020), which should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding the Holy Father’s peculiar notions of capital punishment. A Foucault parrot, Prosperi sees everything in terms of power — nothing in terms of love, certainly nothing in terms of Christian love — which makes for dreary reading.
Lastly, since I now take a train to my office in the morning, I often read to beguile the journey and for that the Bodley Head Ford Madox Ford has proven a boon. There, Ford describes himself as both a “Roman Catholic and a sentimental Tory,” which equips him to write insightfully about his friend Henry James, about whom he says: “His practical benevolences were innumerable, astonishing – and indefatigable. To do a kindness when a sick cat or dog of the human race had ‘got through’ to his mind as needing assistance he would exhibit all of the extraordinary ingenuities that are displayed in his most involved sentences” – surely some lively vindication for those of us who have always regarded the best of our English novelists as an honorary RC.
Edward Short is an author who lives with his wife and two young children in Astoria, New York.
About five months into the pandemic I treated myself to an Evelyn Waugh binge. The Sword of Honor trilogy, which I enjoyed for at least the fourth time, reveals new depths of insight (and humor) on each reading. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, a hilarious (and more-than-a-little autobiographical) tale of an author suffering from hallucinations due to excess ingestion, sleeping draughts and booze, turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to what has often seemed a hallucinatory year. Scott-King’s Modern Europe pillories the authoritarian temptation of modern states and the pretensions of intellectuals with consistent brio. Anyone looking for a literary antidote to the political correctness choking our public life can’t do better than Black Mischief. And if you think today’s media is cockeyed, try Scoop.
On an entirely different plane, I was much impressed by Father Mauro Gagliardi’s Truth Is a Synthesis: Catholic Dogmatic Theology, a bracing intellectual workout and a welcome demonstration that dynamic orthodoxy is alive and well in 21st-century Catholicism.
And after a year that revealed a lot of the dark underside of American life, it was good to be reminded of the Homeric heroism of which Americans were once capable by Craig Symonds, The Battle of Midway, and Hampton Sides, On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of the Chosin Reservoir — The Greatest Battle of the Korean War.
And then there is Douglas Farrow’s newest book, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, the most recent addition to the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Like the other authors in that admirable series, Farrow eschews the dissecting-room approach to biblical exegesis while making full use of appropriate critical scholarship. In doing so, he brings Paul’s earliest extant letters alive for a Church and a world badly in need of Pauline insights into our times — and every time.
George Weigel is the author of over twenty books. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.
Fr. Thomas Weinandy:
In the field of history, the most enjoyable and informative book I read this past year was Ron Chernow’s biography, Grant. Although it is an immense book (1074 pages), it is well worth the effort for those interested in Ulysses S. Grant both as a general and as a president. Chernow’s biography brought to life Grant’s personal character as well as his genius as a military strategist. I came to appreciate his moral rectitude and religious convictions, even though he is most often depicted as a cigar smoking (20 a day as a general and 10 a day as president) drunkard, the latter often exaggerated by his military and political despisers. Moreover, while, again, Grant is often judged to be a mediocre president at best and a crook at worst, his promotion and defense of the civil rights of former black slaves in the South is both courageous and admirable. As a former slave declared: “Lincoln gave us freedom. Grant made us citizens.” Similarly, he also endeavored to ensure the well being of the native American Indian. The sad and troubling thing is that in both instances it was impossible for him to succeed. Grant admitted that, although the North had won the war, the heart and the soul of the South did not change, and so racial prejudice, hatred and violence continued, the effects of which are still present. With regard to the American Indian, the mass western migration of thousands European immigrants could not be controlled, and in the end, despite Grant’s dedicated work for justice and peace, the American Indian became the casualty. So, my conclusion, after reading Chernow’s biography, is that Grant, though he was not perfect, was not only a great General, but that he is also one of America’s greatest presidents – a man of integrity and faith, who pursued justice and the wellbeing of all.
From a more academic standpoint, the most rewarding book I read was Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers. This tome, edited by M. Dauphinais, A. Hofer, and R, Nutt, is a collected book of essays first given as lectures at a conference of the same name held in 2018 at Ave Maria University. These essays, on the whole, are superb. Topics include Aquinas’ use of Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Maximos the Confessor, John of Damascus, and others. The theological topics covered are wide-ranging – the divine essence, Trinity, Christology, Soteriology, Mysticism, and the Eucharist. Many of the contributors are well known Thomistic scholars, such as Dominic Legge, Khaled Anatolios, Markus Plested, and Joseph Wawrykow. What becomes obvious is that Aquinas knew well many of the Eastern Fathers, as well as the early Church councils, including the Council of Chalcedon. The Latin theological tradition has continued this academic tradition – to know the theology of the universal church is to know both the western and eastern Fathers. Would that the Greek theological tradition would better follow Aquinas’ example.
While I had read them previously, I had the occasion this past year of revisiting two of Robert L. Wilken’s books, Remembering the Christian Past (1995) and The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (2003). Wilken possesses the marvelous talent of bringing together diverse topics from the Church’s ancient past and making them relevant for today. Wilkin’s love for the early Church is ever present, and he fosters that same love within the reader. For those who would like to learn about the early Church’s theology, prayer, liturgy, and manner of life, these two books are good introductions.
Another book that I also had occasion to reexamine, and which also treats the early Church, but this time from a sociological perspective, is Rodney Stark’s, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. In various chapters, Stark provides compelling sociological data as to why Christianity steadily grew within the Roman world so as to “take over” the Empire in 300 years. He maintains that one of the reasons for Christianity’s success is that it appealed not only to the lower classes of people, but also to the educated and privileged class, thus giving it “legitimacy.” Of course, the educated were more often men, and so Christianity was not perceived as a religious cult solely for women. Moreover, Christianity provided women with meaningful roles within the Christian community, thus raising their social status. Similarly, Christianity cared for the poor, the sick and the elderly – Christians outlived their pagan neighbors. Christianity equally brought to the fore the sanctity of life. This is witnessed in its condemnation of abortion and infanticide. What I found most interesting is that, within the context of the sanctity of life, Christian married couples conceived and raised more children than their pagan counterparts, and these Christian children, in turn, conceived more children. Within 300 years, Christians, by the mere fact that they were more fruitful, increased their presence within the Empire immeasurably. Christians need to learn from their forebears – by living the Gospel to its fullest, a culture that is Christian comes to be and flourishes.
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap. is a noted American theologian and the author of several books.
My reading in 2020 bounced between academic journal articles and books on obscure aspects of Catholic history and mostly mid-century novels I could find for cheap or free online – especially during those long months when our local libraries were closed. But once they did open, I found a keeper! So a quick look at good books from all three categories:
Domestic Devotions in Early Modern Italy (available online here) examines just what the title indicates. Of particular interest to me when I read it was the chapter on “Singing on the Street and in the Home in Times of Pestilence: Lessons from the 1576–78 Plague of Milan,” exploring how. St. Charles Borromeo led the clergy and laity of Milan to remain in communion with Christ and his Church despite the inability to gather in churches. Fascinating, and still timely.
To shift gears quite a bit: Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliot Chaze is a crackerjack, propulsive noir originally published in 1953. Sharp, perceptive writing and memorable images: “They worked so hard at being individuals. Eddie wore a green canvas rain hat everywhere he went, even with formal clothes, and he looked like an exhausted cat peering out from under a collard leaf….” If you enjoy that world of fellas making bad choices with crafty dames along for the ride, you might enjoy this one.
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson was a surprise. I tend to shy away from contemporary books receiving great acclaim – just with canonization, I believe there’s an appropriate amount of time let hype settle before making a commitment – but this one jumped out at me from the library bookshelf, so I took a chance. It was very much worth it, and a wonderful, thought-provoking novel with an absurd premise: a young woman is brought in as a nanny to two children who have a problem: They spontaneously combust into flames. Ridiculous, but in Wilson’s hands, a wry, moving metaphor for the trauma and oddness we carry with us: These things can be harmful to us and others. They are frightening. They make us weird. They set us apart. But they also can, depending on how we view them, use them, address them, rein them – be forces that render us powerful, produce good, and even create beauty
I haven’t kept a list of my reading this year and so will just mention what I’ve been reading recently, roughly in the past month or two. Since I had a novel out this year, you might expect that I am reading a lot of novels. I’m not, though I’ve reread bits of novels as the whim took me. I tend to veer back and forth between genres (published a poetry collection last year), and this month I’ve been reading poetry, as well as some related nonfiction that I began earlier in the year and never quite finished. I’ve also started back on something else that involves reading: a memorization project (a thing I often promise myself that I will do and then fail from over-busyness or laziness) and have some poems by Hopkins, Yeats, and Shakespeare firmed up. Herbert and Christina Rossetti next! Perhaps this time I will keep on….
Writers, I suspect, often read in peculiar ways and for unusual reasons. I’ve been reading a number of brand new poetry collections simultaneously, all of them by people I have encountered in the past eighteen months, either online or in person. I met Amit Majmudar on Twitter, and have been reading and rereading What He Did in Solitary (we had some correspondence earlier in the year, and I had the fun of reading a wild, clever, as-yet-unpublished science fiction manuscript titled Zealots.) Amit is adept with form, and that makes his free verse stronger and more compelling than most; it has the muscularity and depth and play with sound that so much “plausible free verse” lacks. I’m reading Sally Thomas—met her in 2019 when she came to a reading I did at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, N.C. I’ve enjoyed getting to know her, talking about poetry with her, and reading her first full-length book, Motherland, a collection all beautifully woven with ordinaries and mysteries. Through Sally, Twitter, a group reading, and CWR, I encountered Jane Greer, and am reading Love Like a Conflagration, a book with formal craft and sound play, some flat-out truth-telling, and “squints into the blue.” I recommend all three, and will soon be rambling my way through books by some other recently-encountered poets who write formal poems (that mode we used to call, simply, poems.)
What else? Oh, I’ve forgotten to say that I’m reading the long title poem (noted as “after Rilke”) from Mischa Willett’s The Elegy Beta again, now that the collection has surfaced once more. (Are all readers plagued by book-stealing house elves?) Here’s a taste: “Or are all the poems nonsense / which close, after so many starts, in silence?” I’ve been moving quickly through Kay Ryan’s The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (notable for a straddle-legged stance between free verse and form), rereading in Pound’s Poems and Translations and Lyn Coffin’s translations from Anna Akhmatova: Poems, and also making my way into the late Derek Mahon’s Selected Poems. I should have read him long ago! I mentioned finishing up some nonfiction, and some of those books relate to or deal directly with poetry: Roger Scruton’s On Beauty; Tolkien’s On Fairy-stories (an enjoyable re-read); James Matthew Wilson’s forceful The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking; and Timothy Steele’s enlightening Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter.
Novelist, poet, and storyteller Marly Youmans is the author of fifteen books.
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