“Of making many books,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes (as he produced, yes, a book), “there is no end” (Eccl 12:12). He says nothing at all, however, about the moving of many books.
That being the case, allow me to do so.
In early January, after 15 years of living in Eugene, Oregon, we sold our home and began looking for a place in the country. Three months later, after visiting dozens of potential properties (and making offers on a couple of them), we bought a home on five acres, located about 45 minutes from the coast. It was finally time to move so many, many things (aka: “stuff”, “junk”, and “wha…?”), including some 28,000 books. Many of those books—about 350 boxes or so—had been in storage for years.
First, thank goodness for friends. For strong friends. Patient, long-suffering friends. It took many trips and it was tiring. Even painful.
Secondly, I was fortunate that one of those friends, Joe, was not only interested in helping me convert a dank and dungy—but strong and sturdy—850 square foot shop into an office/library, he had all of the skills that I lacked. That is, nearly all of them. There were many mice and, um, even more curious smells. We took it down to the bones, and built it up again. I was driven by the dream of having, for the first time in a long time, a place for all of my books. But, first, there was insulating in August (hot and itchy), drywalling in September (more enjoyable than I expected), texturing and painting in October (no comment). At times, it felt as though there would be no end.
But, here I am, writing this from what my kids now call the “shoffice”. I still need about 15 large bookcases, which will be in place in a few weeks. About 40 boxes still need to be opened. There are piles everywhere. Organization is at about 12.83%.
When people see photos of the radically transformed space (see below), they almost always ask: “Have you read all of those books?” Of course not! No sane person only owns books they’ve read. Unread books are conversations waiting to begin, adventures itching to be commenced, challenges patiently hoping to be picked up and embraced. (In other words, I have much, much to be done.)
There is nothing quite like a book. That is why there are so many made. And read. And discussed. And that is why you are here, to see what over forty other book lovers have read these past twelve months. Enjoy!
Carl E. Olson
Editor, Catholic World Report
I’m a huge fan of Michael O’Brien, especially having met him and his wife Sheila in the Summer of 1990 in Combemere, Ontario. Every story is replete with a great Catholic lens on the world and Sabbatical is no exception.
Trafalgar – an Eyewitness History by the Folio Society and edited by Tom Pocock gives a searing account into one of the most notorious naval battles. The sacrifices men were prepared to make in the past for freedom is a salutary reminder of how much we take for granted. Likewise, Lancaster – Forging a Very British Legend by John Nichol and Roger Moorhouse’s brilliantly researched. First to Fight- The Polish War 1939 [it may have a different title in the US] takes the reader to that same place of humble deference for those who fought for our democratic liberties and what were once deeply revered human rights.
I’ve not yet read Dante’s Divine Comedy [though the book remains by my bedside] so in honor of the great poet’s 800th anniversary I settled for Reading Dante – From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw. I recommend it as a useful primer to help immerse oneself in this colossal philosophical and theological poem.
As a long-time student of Saint John Paul’s adequate anthropology, I have enjoyed re-reading the new translation of Love and Responsibility by Grzegorz Ignatik. Men and Women are From Eden by Mary Healy was another old favorite as a study guide for the newly formed TOB UK Network [a virtual group of TOB enthusiasts accompanying one another through lockdown].
As I am seriously thinking of launching into a three year full-time doctoral research program to test a theological/pastoral insight of Pope Benedict XVI concerning Humanae Vitae, I’ve enjoyed the inspiring work of Andrew Cannon who completed his PhD in his 70s and published it as, Mere Marriage – Sexual Difference and Christian Doctrine. I figured at 57 there’s hope for me yet.
Staying with the increasingly urgent topic of sexual difference and complementarity, I found the brave ‘gender critical’ work of Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage – Teenage Girls and The Transgender Craze hugely important to read, not just because it’s been cancelled and forbidden by many but because it’s a work from a completely secular standpoint that provides substantial evidence for what Pope Francis terms the “ideological colonization” of vulnerable children.
We live in an era where the mantra ‘follow the science’ has become the cultic anthem for a new wave of scientism. To that end, it’s good to have authors like Tom McLeish and David Hutchings who in Let There Be Science -Why God Loves Science and Science Needs God confront the deliberately constructed “science versus religion” zeitgeist head on and explode a few myths, not least those surrounding the Galileo controversy. It’s an ideal gift for any senior high school student to help them appreciate that science is a deeply human activity and Christianity is deeply reasonable.
Fr. Michael Sharratt, published his 1994 book from CUP, Galileo: Decisive Innovator. Michael was a lecturer in epistemology at Ushaw College seminary where I studied in the 1980s. Like the subject of this book, he was delightfully eccentric. I never really understood his lectures but his passion for one of the world’s greatest innovators is entertaining. On page 73, in commenting on Galileo’s non-marital status as a father of three, Sharratt explains that the term ‘good Catholic’ in early 17th-century Italy did not mean ‘exemplary Catholic’ – a phrase that might have come in handy for the US Bishops meeting in Baltimore I thought. Requiescas in Pace Michael.
Edmund Adamus is Education Consultant for www.fertileheart.org.uk.
During 2021 I found myself drawn to books featuring themes of decadence and the collapse of neoliberalism . . . go figure.
I finally got around to finishing Camille Paglia’s Provocations, a collection of essays on a wide array of topics from a psychoanalysis of the Clinton family to an impassioned panegyric of Teresa of Avila. Paglia’s self-proclaimed pagan, libertarian atheism may be off-putting for some Catholics, but her belief in metaphysics and Nature, opposition to relativism, and appreciation of Catholic art and moral theology will surely come off as a breath of fresh air.
Her examination of art, literature, and the relations between the sexes highlights themes of decadence and the fragility of man. The Enlightenment, she claims, naively attempted to cover over the messier parts of human nature and gave rise to naïve secularist metanarratives that were destined to crumble. Her readings have made a resurgence recently thanks in part to the Red Scare podcast. Hosted by art critic Anna Khachiyan and actress Dasha Nekrasova (who is Catholic), the podcast is mainly a critique of mainstream feminism and neoliberal culture, and takes its inspiration primarily from the writings of Paglia, Slavoj Zizek, Christopher Lasch, and Michel Houellebecq.
Houellebecq’s controversial novel Submission portrays Parisians who are disillusioned with the decay of secularism and vote into power a Muslim prime minister who puts into place a moderate form of Shar’ia law. The novel also extols the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and distributism, as well as the writings of French Catholic convert JK Huysmans.
After reading his most famous novel A Rebours last year, I decided to dive into his Durtal series, which tracks the spiritual journey of a fin-de-siecle Frenchman from vague agnostic, to Satanist, to Benedictine oblate. His disillusionment with the drab positivistic secularism at the turn of the century and eventual fascination with the sacramental ethos of Catholicism will resonate with many young people today.
In a similar vein, I’ve read other novels that focus on the tension between secularism, decadence, and religiosity like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Will Arbery’s play The Heroes of the Fourth Turning, and Huxley’s Brave New World . . . which is an eerie read in light of the ubiquity today of the duplicitous framing of life issues.
I’ve found several works of philosophy and sociology to help me make sense of the vertiginous condition of our culture, including classics like De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here?, and newer contributions like Charles Camosy’s Losing Our Dignity, Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland, and John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. Also relevant to our times are memoirs like Andre Aciman’s Alibis and biographies like Ian Gibson’s of Federico Garcia Lorca.
Finally, in a pursuit of hope and stability, I’ve looked to countercultural witnesses of faith in our secular age, including Dorothy Day’s unabridged diary, The Duty of Delight, and a new book on the life of Blessed Carlo Acutis, Eucaristia: La mia autostrada per il cielo. Other sources of hope have been The Sabbath of History, an ingenious juxtaposition of paintings by William Congdon with writings by Joseph Ratzinger about Holy Saturday; and The Religious Art of Andy Warhol by Jane Daggett Dillenberger; The Relevance of the Stars, a posthumous collection of writings by Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete about faith, science, and culture; and Jews and Blacks, a disarmingly charitable, nuanced, and blunt dialogue between Cornel West and Michael Lerner about the relationship between Blacks and Jews.
God only knows if the happenings of 2022 will be as nebulous as the past year’s, but with some good literature by my side, I say, “bring it on.”
Stephen G. Adubato teaches religion and philosophy at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J.
It was a year for reading Classics.
I went to hell and back with Dante courtesy of Anthony Esolen’s exquisite translation of The Divine Comedy. It didn’t hurt one bit to have Dr. Esolen himself teaching an online course through the Albertus Magnus Institute. Good way to celebrate Dante’s 700th birthday.
I went Norway and back (same, but with some differences) in Sigrid Undsetter’s Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy. I paved the way with Fr. Stanley Jaki’s Sigrid Undsetter’s Quest for Truth, which offered some this great convert’s apologetics translated into English for the first time.
And then my first complete excursion into Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s unfinished cathedral is as beautiful as ever, and the gargoyles as amusing.
Finally figured out what all the fuss was about with Roland blowing that horn in The Song of Roland. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was fascinating and unusual and quite different than what I expected.
I also went deep into Shakespeare’s The Tempest, his apparent farewell to the stage.
Joseph Pearce’s Solzhenitsyn: A Life in Exile was a marvelous and privileged look inside the life and thought of one of the 20th century’s greatest authors.
I completely enjoyed three very different novels: Lake Roland by C. Roloson Reese, an engrossing story of a missing person case and its long awaited resolution; This Thing of Darkness by K.V. Turley and Fiorella De Maria, a creatively told tale revolving around none other than Bela Lugosi; and the incredibly short and mysterious and mystical The Great Return, by Arthur Machen. The first two were published this year, the third in 1915.
Ronald Knox’s Retreat for Lay People is another divine book I read this year. Once I finish working on the Chesterton revival, I’m going to get to work on the Knox revival.
And speaking of Chesterton, I reread his Ballad of the White Horse, the last great epic poem in the English language. Should be required in any school that claims to teach English literature. And I’ve continued going through his eleven year’s worth of essays in G.K.’s Weekly, which seem to be nothing but prophecies, including this one: “It is now generally agreed, with great cheerfulness and good temper, that one of the chief features of the state of Peace we now enjoy is the killing of a considerable number of harmless human beings.”
Dale Ahlquist is President of the American Chesterton Society, and publisher of its flagship publication, GILBERT.
Christopher R. Altieri:
It’s been a year of recovery in reading for me. I’ve spent some time on planes, and reading with my 6th-grader, but a half-step away from the brutal grind of a 24-hour news cycle and a break from deep-dive reporting have afforded me a little time to read for pleasure.
Ulrich Lehner and Shaun Blanchard had a volume out this year, for example, called The Catholic Enlightenment: A Global Anthology, and the title says what’s in the box. Volume 3 in the Early Modern Catholic Sources series of the CUA Press, the book is a collection of primary source material translated into almost invariably limpid and not infrequently beautiful English, accessible to beginners and useful to advanced students and scholars. The Catholic Enlightenment deserves to become a go-to resource.
Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal has made for some fascinating reading, not only for its insight into the dynamics of spiritual trial and psychological stress that attend any confinement, but also for the unique view of the world it affords.
I’ve begun rereading Asimov’s Foundation series, with a view to watching – maybe – the screen adaptation. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is another trove of chestnuts in which I’ve spent some time, mostly because Havelock Vetinari is a character for ours.
I also got Strauss and Cropsey’s History of Political Philosophy for my son, and have been enjoying reading some of the entries with him. It’s fun to see a bright young mind awaken to the history of ideas. It has reminded me of my first time through the volume, after which I fancied myself an expert – Ha! – and felt myself ready to teach the world a thing or two about politics. Oh, to be 18 again.
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, and contributing editor to Catholic World Report.
This past year of reading proved a strange one for me, personally, in that much of what I read I’d categorize as “good” or “best,”—yet also profoundly distressing. Like many faithful American Catholics, I’ve been trying to truly understand how and why not just our culture at large, but also family and friends I’d once thought to be reasonable, managed in just a few years to descend into seeming lunacy.
Fundamental to achieving such an understanding is Carl Trueman’s, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Trueman takes us through the whole, sorrowful devolution. From his disquisition in Part II on the foundational thinkers at the heart of this devolution—beginning with Rousseau and ending with Marx and Darwin—to the pivotal role of Freud who “sexualizes” the Revolution discussed in Part III; Trueman provides a very readable and wide-ranging take on the historical/philosophical inputs which have produced the ugly cultural regression of our day.
Yet, as thorough and sweeping as Trueman’s work is at general level, I gained a further, deeper insight on a tip from a truly brilliant essay by Dr. Edward Feser here at CWR who suggested we look back to the incisive 1960’s political scientist, Eric Voegelin—specifically his works, The New Science of Politics and Science, Politics and Gnosticism—to understand that this emergent ‘wokeism,’ is, as the latter title suggests, simply a new iteration of a very old heresy, Gnosticism.
I’d actually read Voegelin as a young, poli-sci major back in the late ‘70’s when then, too, there was a sense of cultural miasma and decline as we faced what seemed to be a dominant Soviet Union, here to stay. At the time I found his works to be a fascinating, if a bit esoteric, take down of the whole Marxist system. Read today, he reads as a master philosopher offering a trenchant analysis of that which ails us, now. Voegelin delineates the battle starkly as one between true philosophy and Gnosis when he succinctly notes,
“Philosophy springs from the love of being; it is man’s loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it. Gnosis desires dominion over being; in order to seize control over being (think transgenderism) the gnostic constructs his systems. The building of systems (think Critical Race Theory and “systemic racism”) is a gnostic form of reasoning, not a philosophical one”(p. 32, Science, Politics and Gnosticism; parentheticals mine).
Particularly of interest for those seeking to understand the ‘woke’ among us is Voegelin’s discussion of just how the Gnostics ‘stack the deck’ against true philosophy through the prohibitions on certain questions, etc. and his must-read last chapter in Science, Politics and Gnosticism, on political Gnosticism as an “Ersatz Religion.”
While all Gnosticisms are doomed to eventually fail as Reality intrudes, to get a sense of the devastation they leave in their wake, might I suggest J.D. Vance’s, Hillbilly Elegy. A poignant autobiographical tale, the memoir takes us from Vance’s roots among the working class of the declining industrial Northeast who possessed a simple, yet true philosophy grounded—at least in the natural virtues—to his entrance into the gnostic elites whose “systems”—the welfare system, the child protective system, the mental health system, etc.—had already overwhelmed the simple philosophies of his kinsmen. It’s an on-the-ground report, really, illustrating the destruction about which Trueman and Voegelin write.
Finally, as a curative to the temptations to despair and/or unrighteous wrath reading the above works might engender, allow me to offer three books. First, Peter Kreeft’s I Burned for Your Peace, which beautifully illuminates for the average layman St. Augustine’s Confessions. Here, we have a soul which broke through his Manicheanism to the Truth found fully in the Catholic Church. In microcosm it’s the biography of our own, much larger struggle as, with fervent hope, we battle for the soul of our culture as we try to pray, as St. Monica so efficaciously and steadfastly did, for its conversion. Second, also from Kreeft, his Wisdom from the Psalms. The Psalms, central to the Church’s Divine Liturgy, are the well-spring of wisdom and solace from which we must continually draw and Kreeft’s treatment allows us to dip our buckets a little deeper into that well. Lastly, I offer Father Jacque Phillipe’s, The Eight Doors of the Kingdom—a spiritually moving discussion of the Eight Beatitudes. I suspect more than a few faithful Catholics are already experiencing on some level some form of the eighth beatitude, so we might as well revisit the first seven and try to conform our lives more closely to them. I found Father Phillipe’s masterful effort to be of considerable aid in my own efforts to do so.
Alan L. Anderson teaches theology at Chesterton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Peoria, IL.
So [Hwaet!], my year-long sabbatical lasted until late August of this year, and I most definitely took advantage of the time to catch up on—what seems like—years and years of reading. Fiction, non-fiction, old, new, and everything in between. It was a glorious year, and I cherish it all. And, it was glorious even more so because of the quality of the books that came out. Indeed, 2021 was a wonderful year not just for books, but for truly great books. And, this goes doubly so for fans of the Inklings.
My favorite book of the year was Carl Hostetter’s meticulously and lovingly edited The Nature of Middle-earth by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s writing—if not his publishing output—was astounding during his lifetime, and his publishing has been equally so, posthumously. The various essays of very Thomistic The Nature of Middle-earth cover everything from Elvish demography to the deepest theological questions of the Catholic Church.
A close competitor for book of the year was the depressing but rather stunning look at officially-sponsored and paid-for U.S. propaganda Manufacturing Militarism by Abby Hall and Chris Coyne. To state that I devoured this book would not be an exaggeration. Basically, from the first moment I received the book, I did nothing else but read it. Indeed, I had it read in just two sittings. Yes, it’s that good, and, given its analysis of outright propaganda, it’s that disturbing. For me, it was certainly the best conservative book of 2021.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Dennis C. Rasmussen’s Fears of a Setting Sun, a deep (and, again, depressing) look at the loss of republican faith among the American founding fathers as America moved—historically and meta-historically—away from its origins and into the nineteenth century.
Along political and cultural lines, another excellent book this year was Blake Scott Ball’s profound analysis of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, Charlie Brown’s America. Given the author’s young age, we happily have decades worth of brilliant material to anticipate, especially if he continues to explore the fascinating intersection of politics and culture.
As mentioned above, 2021 was a banner year for books by and about the Inklings. Who doesn’t love Father Michael Ward? His After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man might very well be the finest book yet written on Lewis. Ward, of course, already made a permanent mark in publishing with his Planet Narnia over a decade ago. But, this new one, After Humanity, is even better, making one of Lewis’s most important books even more important.
Equally compelling is Holly Ordway’s Tolkien’s Modern Reading, a relentless examination of the reading habits of the greatest of 20th century Oxford dons. Ordway convincingly banishes several myths about Tolkien’s supposed anti-modernism and reveals a critically important and new side to the man. After Ordway, Tolkien scholarship can never be quite the same.
Last but by no means least of the Inkling books this year is Michael Jahosky’s captivating The Good News of the Return of the King, a full examination of the meaning of parable in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s rumored that Jahosky will next be tackling C.S. Lewis, and we can only rejoice at this.
Not surprisingly, there was some great fiction this year as well—especially that by Kevin J. Anderson, J. Michael Straczynski, Marc Cameron, Matt Mehan, and Michael O’Brien. I even had the blessed opportunity to re-read three of Willa Cather novels.
Next up, Kevin Belmonte’s latest biography, Beacon-Light: The Life of William Borden.
Bradley J. Birzer is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies and Professor of History, Hillsdale College
Top of the list: Jesuit at Large, subtitled Essays and Reviews by Paul Mankowski SJ(Ignatius Press, 2021). I ordered it from the US and it was well worth the cost. I never met Fr Mankowski, but benefited from his insights and learning. It was through reading an essay by him long ago—on the recommendation of the excellent Helen Hitchcock of Women for Faith and Family—that I came to understand the appalling significance of attempts to change the notion of God as Father to “God the mother”. Reading this good collection of his essays was a delight. I relished “Of Rome and Runnymede”, and also the splendid accounts of beyond-the-absurd self-regarding religious groups that he encountered at a conference that gathered together some of the loopiest claiming to be feminist/Sandinista/ecologist/ and were gloriously muddled and self-contradictory.
During the year I also enjoyed a book I wish I had acquired years ago. John Paul for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, 2006) part of a (still continuing?) series which offers a good, practical, well-researched study of an important topic under the guise of making it simple for stupid people. Embarrassing to carry around and read in public, as these books are large A4 with large this-is-for-dummies lettering on the cover. But this one is a good read, and I found it an extremely helpful analysis of St JPII’s work and influence. If it’s not still in print—I borrowed a copy from a friend—it ought to be.
On the same theme, a rather obscure book titled The Prayer of Gethsemane Goes On (Catholic University of Lublin, 2005) caught my eye. It is centered on the Lenten retreat given by the then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla to Pope Paul VI and his household, in which he suggested that, while the Apostles, including Peter, had abandoned the Lord and given in to slumber when He was suffering in the Garden, it is still possible for us to visit Gethsemane in spirit and console Him. A powerful thought, especially to Peter’s successor. I believe that Paul VI—now a canonized saint—did indeed follow the thought and visited Gethsemane in prayer: he had to endure appalling insults and vicious denunciations in the last years of his pontificate, notably concerning Humanae Vitae. May God reward him.
For Christmas 2020 a friend gave us a book about one of London’s least-known rivers: the Wandle. This was and is my local river: it wanders —through the parks and gardens of my childhood and meets the Thames at Wandsworth. The River Wandle Companion by Bob Steel and Derek Coleman (Culverhouse Books, 2021) is an excellent guide and got us walking, encountering local corners I had not known even after a lifetime of living Wandle-side. One of the best memories of the dreary lockdown is of encountering a Dominican friend who also knows and loves this river and sharing a glorious walk along it.
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom.
David G. Bonagura, Jr.:
God With Us, by Edward Sri. Looking for a book for an introductory level biblical Christology course, I took a chance on Sri’s brief analysis of Matthew’s Gospel; I, and my students, were well rewarded. The book is simple without being simplistic. It divides its chapters based on component sections of the Gospel. Sri focuses on Jewish practices and Old Testament allusions – both the obvious quotations and the easily missed references – to illuminate our spiritual understanding of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Son of David. The book is an superb example of how historical scholarship can supplement our faith.
The Complete Gentleman (third edition), by Brad Miner. “Gentleman” and “chivalry” are oft-used but seldom understood. Miner’s witty jaunt through history explores the origins of these realities and how they have morphed through time. Miner emphasizes an essential, but now overlooked, gentlemanly quality: possessing the will and readiness to fight. “A true gentleman,” Miner writes, “is a bit more savage than most people imagine.” This updated edition provides a gentleman’s perspective on the 2020 civic upheavals, including a unique take on how we should view the once archetypal, now (to some) villainous southern gentleman, General Robert E. Lee.
The Intellectual Life, by A.G. Sertillanges. This classic book, written nearly a century ago by the Dominican Father Sertillanges, was given to me as a graduation gift from my favorite philosophy professor. It took nearly two decades for me to crack it, but it was worth the wait. Sertillanges is both illuminating and demanding, plumbing the depths of the vocation to seek the truth while relentlessly enumerating specific steps that the intellectual must take to guard and to develop this vocation. “Every study is a study of eternity,” writes Father Sertillanges. “Each truth is a fragment which does not stand alone but reveals connections on every side. Truth itself is one, and the Truth is God.”
The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II, by Thomas Guarino. This is a very important book that deserves wider attention in the Francis pontificate. As much as we would like to think doctrinal “development” and “rupture” have a thin black line between them, there is no such thing; we have to come to grips with doctrinal “change.” Using Vincent of Lérins as a guide, Guarino explores how doctrinal “change” happened at Vatican II without changing infallibly defined dogmas. In light of Amoris Laetitia and Traditionis Custodes, Guarino’s analysis of the key doctrinal controversies that still ripple after Vatican II has much to teach us.
The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk. Kirk’s tour de force through modern intellectual history is as relevant now amidst the Woke Revolution as it was when this book launched the contemporary conservative movement in 1953. Conservatism, writes Kirk, includes veneration and protection of “the permanent things” that the Modern World, beginning with the French Revolution, has sought to destroy. Kirk’s mellifluent prose provides a conservative perspective on today’s debates, with human rights, equality, the role of government leading the way.
The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, by George Nash. I loved Kirk’s The Conservative Mind so much that I wanted to follow the conservative movement he had ignited, and Nash’s thorough research provides that narration. The conservative past—multi-faceted, pugnacious, fractured—possesses an uncanny resemblance to the conservative present. Nash presents all the major figures, leading ideas, and common enemies that shaped the conservative movement in America from its birth after World War II into the first decade of the 21st century.
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, Augustine Institute-Ignatius Press books, and no manuscripts are included, though many would qualify as among the “best books” I read in 2021. “Best” doesn’t necessarily mean the superlative form of “good” in either the literary or ethical sense. It means “most helpful to my intellectual and imaginative pursuits and interests”. Make of that what you will.
Benedict XVI: A Life, Volume 1, Peter Seewald. The first of a two-volume biography, this work by journalist and long-time Ratzinger-Benedict conversationist Peter Seewald provides an excellent overview of the early life and thought of Joseph Ratzinger, including his role at the Second Vatican Council. The chapters on Vatican II alone make this a must-read work.
C.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath. A first-rate biography of C.S. Lewis by one of Evangelical Anglicanism’s great theologians, a notable apologist, and superb writer in his own right.
The Culture of the Incarnation, Tracey Rowland. Essays by one of today’s best Catholic theologians. Chapter 3, “Augustinian and Thomist Engagements”, and Chapter 6, “Natural Law: From Neo-Thomism to Nuptial Mysticism”, are worth the price of the book.
Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay. A highly critical analysis of critical theory and its postmodern origins. Some will see it unfair and inadequate. I found it informative, even if aggressive and polemical.
The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis. Re-read. Fourth reading. An education regarding medieval and Renaissance literature. Plus, a boon to understanding conceptual models, including how our contemporary models will one day be superseded. Lewis affirms the point without falling into historicism.
Escaping the Rabbit Hole, Mick West. Avoiding the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and how to help others get out.
The First Thousand Years, Robert Louis Wilken. An excellent, entry-level overview of the first thousand years of Christianity by the famous historian and Catholic convert.
Foundations of Systematic Theology, Thomas Guarino. A first-rate treatment of the conditions for systematic theology, as well as an outline of its key aspects, Unlike many contemporary Catholic enthusiasts for and critics of Postmodernism, Guarino knows what he is talking about, developing a credible basis for systematic theology in light of Postmodernist concerns and claims (among other perspectives).
The High Crusade, Poul Anderson. A book club pick. Reread for me. Aliens visit medieval England and wind up all-but decimated as Sir Roger and his men, along with families of an English village, capture the alien ship. Eventually, they form an interstellar empire. This is their chaplain’s account of the adventure.
Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of History, Darrell L. Bock and J. Ed Komoszewski. Readable moderately critical Evangelical scholarly essays on Christian origins.
Life 3.0, Max Tegmark. The MIT physicist explores the technological, social, political, and economic possibilities, good and bad, of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Philosophically weak and often ethically confused, the book shows how some influential experts think of AI/AGI and humanity’s future in light of it.
The One Creator God, Michael Dodds, O.P. Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology (Berkeley) professor’s concise, updated Thomistic engagement of contemporary theology. Far better than the mere Thomistic rehashes being reprinted these days.
The Rights of Women, Erika Bachiochi. The author is a fellow of the Abigail Adams Institute, at which she runs the Wollstonecraft Project. This is a delightfully Wollstonecraftian disruption of established feminist and anti-feminist narratives. A sine qua non for contemporary conversations on the topic.
A Short History of Modern Philosophy, Roger Scruton. Revised edition. Basically, Descartes to Wittgenstein. “Modern” doesn’t mean “contemporary”. No treatment of Postmodernism, the fad/fixation in some Christian circles. Still, covers two agents of po-mo’s preparatio evangelica, phenomenology and existentialism. The late great Scruton’s masterful overview.
Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom. What do we do if/when AI exceeds human intelligence? Philosopher Nick Bostrom’s “Danger, Will Robinson” contribution to the AI-control problem and possible strategies for saving the world from Skynet. Invest in paperclip companies.
Truth, John D. Caputo. After Cynical Theories I reread this book. Caputo often overstates but it’s worthwhile reading someone committed to the Postmodern project (and who writes reasonably well), rather than simply imbibing critical accounts.
What is Real?, Adam Becker. A popular history of the debate over Quantum physics, siding more or less with Copenhagen’s critics.
What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, O. Carter Sneed. A thoughtful offering to public engagement regarding human life and, if I may use the controverted term, human dignity (even though Sneed draws on MacIntyre). In many ways the “go-to” book for understanding contemporary bioethics. Avoids the politicized progressive v. conservative deadlock. Addresses both the ethical and legal dimensions.
Mark Brumley, President and CEO of Ignatius Press, is author of The Seven Deadly Sins of Apologetics and 20 Answers: Catholic Social Teaching, among other things.
I have two items (a novel and work of scholarship in historical theology) and an honorable mention (which is a story book in juvenile fiction).
• Martin dePorres Kennedy, Manayunk (Lilyfield Press, 2020). This novel in the broad genre of historical fiction, could be described as a “political thriller.” Inspired by the story of Job, the author weaves a tale of a rising star in the Philadelphia Democrat Party of the 1980’s during the Reagan years, when third-wave feminism and related issues like abortion, as well as early identity politics, began to compete with the blue-collar issues of union voters. The main character (Tim Ryan) is a Jesuit-educated devout Irish-Catholic family man and pro-life Democrat who sees his good name sullied in the press as his words and actions are given a nefarious spin by hidden enemies, threatening his career and his marriage, while he struggles to remain true to his faith and his moral values. Martin dePorres Kennedy was raised in the area and in the time when the novel is set, and he leaves the reader with a rich sense of place, in which Philadelphia, and the texture and complexion of its neighborhoods, constitute almost a secondary character set in the book.
• Mark A. Newcomb, The Ark, the Covenant, & the Poor Men’s Chest: Edmund Bonner and Nicholas Ridley on Church & Scripture in Mid-Tudor England (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2020). In this book, Mark A. Newcomb, Ph.D. argues persuasively that two contrasting humanisms behind biblical interpretation contributed to the formation of the Protestant and Catholic options in the early Reformation era: Edmund Bonner (Catholic), following an Italian approach focusing on Christ’s works in the course of his earthly ministry vs. Nicholas Ridley (Protestant), following Erasmus and focusing on Christ’s speech, with a tendency toward reading Christ as a kind of “philosopher.” The resulting difference would then resolve in a being-centered Christic soteriology vs. a doctrine-centric Christic soteriology. This is a penetrating and deeply insightful piece of scholarship.
Honorable Mention: John Cindrich. Finley: The Fish Who Loved Football (FriesenPress, 2021). John Cindrich (who is Catholic) was raised, and currently lives, in the Greater-Pittsburgh area, evinced by the football-centered story in this piece of juvenile fiction, featuring a landscape (or waterscape) reminiscent of the “City of Bridges” (Big City) and its three rivers. It’s a wonderfully entertaining tale of an imaginative and determined fish who discovers football and devises a way, with the help of his friends, to attend a game in person. A fun story to read to your children or to give to your children in their early chapter-book days, it’s all good-natured and family-friendly, like we used to expect from books aimed at this audience.
Richard H. Bulzacchelli, S.T.D., is a lecturer in theology at Catholic Studies Academy.
Anthony E. Clark:
Few activities provide more solace for me these past two years than reading good books in my little “Hobbit hole” with a comfortable chair, an illuminated lamp, and a warm cup of tea. My “Hobbit hole” moved to Scotland for much of this year where I lived as a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, a place most congenial to reading. Being the birthplace of the Scottish Enlightenment – no friend of Catholicism – and the Scottish Reformation – also no friend of Catholicism – I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Catholic Church there is robust and growing.
Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen Platt. Much of my reading has been research for my upcoming book. This year was thus punctuated with numerous articles and monographs about China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911). Platt’s Imperial Twilight is a rare literary gem, such a riveting romp that everyone should read it, not just specialists.
1984, by George Orwell. I cannot recall an era during which this iconic book has been more often quoted, and for good reason in this time of agitprop and doublespeak. I cannot say, however, that I resonated with, or even much appreciated, the concluding sections of 1984, which seemed overly violent and salacious – the point had been made, so why the ending melodrama?
A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis. At times we all groan from fear, sadness, or loss. I read this work this year, which I had intended to read later in life, because I have never before wrestled more with God, and Lewis’s frank skirmish with his creator, like my own, strengthened and matured his bond with God.
The First Jesuits, by John O’Malley, SJ. As much as the Jesuits are lately disparaged in the media, they are also an Order I deeply echo with: the Spiritual Exercises, St. Francis Xavier’s mission to Asia, commitment to the intellectual life, a culture of reading and writing, and a long history of producing spiritual masters and martyrs of the Catholic faith. Father O’Malley’s account of Ignatius, Nadal, Xavier, and the other founders of the Society of Jesus is an exemplary work of reverent scholarship, a very Jesuit example of good research and writing under the watchful eyes of God.
Two Years in the Forbidden City, by Der Ling. We all need to pick up and read some of the dusty volumes, often forgotten wallflowers in our office, that we never expected to open. This memoir by Princess Der Ling, written while living in China’s imperial palaces during the end of the Qing, is a refulgent description of a culture and time long replaced by the new screens and sensibilities of modernity. For an alternative, more generous, view of the Empress Dowager Cixi read this extraordinary book.
Emperor Qianlong: Son of Heaven, Man of the World, by Mark Elliot. Elliot has provided here a well-imagined, well-organized, and well-written introduction to one of China’s most significant rulers, and he brings the Qianlong emperor to life as no other scholar has before.
The Scottish Enlightenment, by David Daiches. This small book was about as useful an introduction of the Scottish Enlightenment as I could have hoped for after arriving at Edinburgh in late August. Daiches’ careful curation of the contours of such eighteenth-century intellectuals as David Hume and Adam Smith confirmed what I already knew of my reaction to the Scottish Enlightenment. While I admire small portions of their intellectual contributions to the Western Enlightenment, I disagree with the predominance of their assertions. Hume enthroned a form of skepticism that constricted human thinking and Smith exalted profit to a point of lessening human value.
The Dean’s Diaries, by David Purdie. I met the author of this delightful parody of the Academy while living in Edinburgh. He became a quick friend once we agreed that the fountain pen is more to our liking than the keypad or anything digital. After reading 1984, I craved a respite from the gloom and picked up The Dean’s Diaries to lift my spirits. Based upon a fictional college in Edinburgh named “St. Andrew’s,” this frolic through the antics of academic culture guarantees unescapable laughter at frequent intervals.
Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott. Scott is my new companion; his work is always in my satchel as I walk, drive, or fly to my next destination. His writing may be long and difficult (long live long and difficult writing!) but Scott’s genius at describing human nature in masterfully fashioned prose is worth the required effort and patience. Waverley is the inaugural work of historical fiction in the Western canon, and it is perhaps the best written depiction of the conflict between the Scottish and English (Catholic and Protestant) contenders for Scotland’s future during the turbulent era of the so-called Jacobite rebellion.
As I write this year’s entry, again in my home office, the morning light outside my window reflects from newly-fallen snow. Snow always reminds me of Lucy’s first encounter with Tumnus while walking over the cold and crunchy snowflakes near the lamppost in Narnia. Reading takes us both away from where we are while simultaneously anchoring us firmly in the place we occupy. I esteem an assertion once made by Paul Claudel: “We know that the world is in effect a text, and that it speaks to us, humbly and joyfully, of its own absence but also of the eternal presence of someone else, namely its creator.”
Anthony E. Clark, PhD, is an associate professor of Chinese history at Whitworth University and the author and editor of several books on Catholicism in China..
David P. Deavel:
Because the times seem pretty, well, eschatological, I taught a course on Catholic apocalyptic novels. The best of the best were a delight to read: Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, Vladimir Solovyov’s War, Progress, and the End of History, Walter Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walker Percy’s Thanatos Syndrome, and Michael O’Brien’s Father Elijah. I had read all before—and they passed the re-reading test with flying colors.
Miller’s and Percy’s novels allow for the possibility that our current apocalypse is not the big-A Apocalypse. In that case, it might be good to prepare for ages yet to come in which our suicidal civilization is rebuilt. To that end, I read some newly-published prophetic works. The Habiger Institute’s The Heart of Culture is a brief history of the glory of western education and how it declined. Michael Ward’s After Humanity: A Guide to The Abolition of Man is a guide to Lewis’s 1945 diagnosis of our suicidal philosophical path—framed as an educational essay. Valentin Tomberg’s 1944 doctoral dissertation, The Difficult Art of the Good, translated by Angelico Press, diagnosed our loss of the fullness of law.
Jesuit at Large, George Weigel’s collection of the late Paul Mankowski, S. J.’s essays provided a selection of cultural, linguistic, and religious reports on problems in the Church and society for the last thirty years. Solzhenitsyn’s Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994 showed us the lion in winter as he prepared to return and help rebuild his native Russia, which had been destroyed by a variant of our modern western error. William D. Schmitt’s Telling Stories That Matter collects the late historian Fr. Marvin O’Connell’s unfinished autobiography and a number of his most pungent addresses and essays—one of them proposed a Benedict Option in the early 1990s. Don J. Briel, Kenneth Goodpaster, and Michael Naughton’s What We Hold in Trust explores the means by which Catholic higher education went astray—and limns a way out of the morass. Not a new volume, but Obianuju Ekeocha’s Target Africa showed how western secular poisons have been exported by nations, foundations, and NGOs.
What to do? Rebuilding education is key. For that, Chris Fisher’s A Benedictine Education, which reprints Newman’s Benedictine essays and pairs them with a modern Benedictine’s account of the poetic theological vision Newman described, is a delight. Margarita Mooney’s The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts gives interviews with modern thinkers living out the ancient ways. And Kathryn Rombs sheds new light on the key figure in any educational renaissance in Motherhood: An Extraordinary Vocation.
Mothers and fathers read children good books. I revisited Kate Seredy’s The Good Master and The Singing Tree with my kids, as well as some books I’d not read before: Hilda van Stockum’s The Winged Watchmen and Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron. Jake Frost’s new The Light of Caliburn delighted my son—and me—with its tale of Merlin’s activity in modern day Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Adults need good books, too. A rereading of Belloc’s The Path to Rome and a reading of James Matthew Wilson’s new poem collection The Strangeness of the Good helped me think of the odd person we call God. So, too, did Paul Türks’ short biography, Philip Neri: Apostle of Joy, and Lucien Cerfaux’s understanding of how to be strange like God and his apostles, Apostle and Apostolate.
Now I’m reading another diagnostic volume, Philip Rolnick’s The Long Battle for the Human Soul, the first volume of his trilogy titled A Post-Christendom Faith, and also Victor Lee Austin’s Friendship, another apocalyptic book given that our final end will be, God willing, full friendship with him.
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).
Adam A.J. DeVille:
It has been in print nearly 40 years now, but I only recently discovered Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer by Ann and Barry Ulanov. I used it this year with surprising success. It almost effortlessly opened up the kind of really deep discussions about God and the spiritual life among undergraduates that I have sometimes despaired of having.
Either biographies or military history are staples of bedtime reading for me. This year I read (and will gladly read again sometime) Gail Hornstein, To Redeem One Person is to Redeem the World: the Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a moving, elegant, and gracious study of the life of a ground-breaking psychiatrist who remains too little known even today for her pioneering efforts to bring healing to patients almost everybody else wrote off as hopeless cases.
Robert Abzug has written a splendid biography, Psyche and Soul in America: The Spiritual Odyssey of Rollo May. May lived at the crowded intersection of mid-century psychology and theology, where a lot of depth and creativity was to be found, not least in May’s close relationship with Paul Tillich.
The last biography I will mention is Winnicott: His Life and Work by F. Robert Rodman. On CWR this year I have several times drawn on D.W. Winnicott’s thought. Along with—but in some ways even more than—Freud and Klein, Winnicott remains the most important theoretician for me in conceiving not just of individual clinical cases, but of the nature and relationship of psychotherapy as a whole.
In that relationship, I have been driven by a very complex and difficult case to read all that I can about schizophrenia, including two especially valuable books: the first is George Atwood’s The Abyss of Madness. The second is Christopher Bollas, When the Sun Bursts: On the Enigma of Schizophrenia. I’ve read almost all of Bollas’ books, and this is one of his best. Its elegance is matched with some practical insights and techniques I have found helpful. His warnings to clinicians what not to do have also proved useful, as have Atwood’s.
The greatest Russian Christian mind of the last century continues to make a splash. In short order this fall we had two new works of Sergius Bulgakov translated for us by two very gifted and promising young scholars: Mark Roosien, The Eucharistic Sacrifice and Roberto de la Noval, The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology: Personal, Political, Universal.
My clinical work includes both victims of sexual abuse in the Church, and those who are abusers themselves and court-ordered into treatment. For the latter, I have found Richard B. Gartner, Healing Sexually Betrayed Men and Boys: Treatment for Sexual Abuse, Assault, and Trauma the most valuable new book in the area. Gartner has long been a pioneer in working with this population. For the latter, a new book, From Trauma to Harming Others, ed. Ariel Nathanson, is also very valuable.
The challenge for the patient and penitent alike, whether in consulting room or confessional, is the same: do I really want to change? Winnicott famously observed that “health is so much more difficult to deal with than disease,” and every confessor and psychotherapist on the planet surely has experience of this. We are ambivalent creatures, wanting to change and thwarting such efforts often simultaneously. These dynamics are explored in his newest book, On Wanting to Change by Adam Phillips, the most prolific and rewarding psychoanalyst writing today. In this book he shows himself open to theology even more than in past works. I have benefited enormously from all his books.
Dr. Adam A.J. Deville is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, Indiana).
William Doino Jr.:
The most rewarding book I read in 2021 was God’s Diplomats by Victor Gaetan, a magisterial history of the Pope’s representatives across the globe. These dedicated prelates, who work tirelessly to promote peace, human dignity and Judeo-Christian values—often against fierce resistance—may be the least appreciated branch of the Holy See. But Dr. Gaetan, a prominent Vatican correspondent with degrees in international law and diplomacy, finally gives them their due, with exceptional skill and insight.
Gaetan’s knowledge of the history, training and outlook of the Vatican’s diplomatic corp is extensive; his sober and even-handed approach toward the Church’s much-debated diplomacy with Cuba and China is refreshing, as is his praise for the Holy See’s concerted efforts to obtain peace in the Middle East, Columbia, Kenya and South Sudan. Gaetan’s lively, first-hand experiences with the personalities and events described in this book make God’s Diplomats essential reading —an indispensable guide to Vatican diplomacy in the modern world.
The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project continues to release new editions of DvH’s acclaimed works, and the latest, What is Philosophy? is a book I profited immeasurably from. In a new introduction, Catholic philosopher Robert Sokolowski explains why: “Dietrich von Hildebrand was one of the central figures in the schools of phenomenology…. In the present book he says that phenomenology should not be considered just one particular movement in philosophy; it is a way of thinking that was, in fact, followed by most classical philosophers. It simply reflects on the way things are and the way they show up to us in their essential being.”
Von Hildebrand had a passion for objective, transcendent truth, and was deeply distressed by the way modern philosophy turned people away from it, because of a radical fall into rationalism and relativism. “Nevertheless,” writes von Hildebrand, “or rather precisely for this reason, a widespread hunger for genuine philosophy is present …. Never was true philosophy, never was doing justice to the universe in its breath and depth, as necessary as it is today. Never was it of such existential and vital importance for human beings, since their naïve access to the world and to life is so seriously infected by the pseudo-philosophy of false philosophers.”
What is Philosophy? is von Hildebrand’s response to this intellectual crisis, and he answers it with exacting prose and powerful argumentation. In the words of Professor Sokolowski, von Hildebrand’s book “shows how effectively he responded to the thought of his time and how valuable his philosophy and theology are for us in ours.”
Finally, Dorothy Day on Pilgrimage: The Sixties, a new collection of her writings from that turbulent decade, reminded me, once again, why I so admire Day: after her conversion from radical leftism to Catholicism, her burning desire for social change continued, but was now imbued and purified by Catholic social teaching. At the same time, once she became a Catholic, she realized the Gospel’s non-negotiable demand for chastity, which she joyfully accepted, leaving behind her bohemian lifestyle forever. Her first position didn’t endear her to arch-conservatives, and her second infuriated runaway “progressives” who embraced the sexual revolution. But Dorothy’s full-dimensional Catholicism has earned her widespread support among faithful Catholics, not least Pope Francis and many others hoping her Cause for Sainthood advances.
Day’s greatest strength was her pursuit of holiness, typified by her profound prayer life and boundless hospitality, and her love for the sacraments, particularly Confession and the Eucharist. All these qualities are what grounded Day—and on full display in this moving and challenging chronicle of her faith and action.
William Doino, Jr. has written about religion, history, and culture for many publications, including First Things, the Times of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, Inside the Vatican, and America.
Thomas M. Doran:
I read a number of edifying, informative, thought-provoking books this year.
My beautiful Jewish daughter-in-law entered the Catholic Church in 2021, and she bestowed on me a book she read during her formation: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, by Brant Pitre, that explains why Jesus is the definitive Old Testament Bread of the Presence, Manna from Heaven, Paschal Lamb, Holy of Holies.
The Chosen, by Chaim Potok offers a poignant picture of quite different Jewish perspectives on Judaism in the 1940s, and more broadly, religious faith. Also, a beautiful story about friendship.
A Distant Trumpet, by Paul Horgan is a 19th century epic that contrasts fallen human nature with heroic virtue. Things As They Are, also by Horgan, is a series of short stories depicting a wrecked and redeemed world through the eyes of a young Catholic boy who is himself both flawed and heroic. Two well-crafted, successful 1950s/60s mainstream novels that couldn’t find a mainstream publisher today.
Helgoland, Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution, by Carlo Rovelli is by no means a Catholic/Christian work, but the predominant theme in the book, that all things in the universe are not merely connected but relational, that they are this or that in relation to other things being this or that, reminds me of the relational Trinity. Is it possible that a Relational Creator chose to create a relational universe, including—especially—His spiritual and physical creatures?
While 30-Second Quantum Theory, the 50 most thought-provoking quantum concepts, each explained in half a minute, edited by Brian Clegg, has a breezy-sounding title, the book is chock full of fascinating information. Something that stuck with me is how many prominent scientists, including many Nobel Prize physicists, challenged the consensus science of their day. Perhaps a word for our day too.
It’s uncommon when my second reading of a novel is more enlightening than the first reading but that was the case with A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, who threads the needle between the horrors of Soviet Marxism and a man who quietly and unobtrusively refuses to succumb. The humility that enables Count Rostov to see the truth about himself fosters the humor that permeates the novel.
Thomas M. Doran is an engineer, professor, and novelist.
While we certainly weren’t back to normal in 2021, the increased activity meant fewer books read. Still, there were some great ones.
Let me start with fiction. Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a thought-provoking novel set in New York City during the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Beha, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, is a great writer with an eye for detail. Here, just as in a previous novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, he probes questions about the mysteries of life and the world beyond the material.
My college classmate, Max Gross, published his first novel, The Lost Shtetl, which gives us the story of a small Jewish village in Poland overlooked for decades if not hundreds of years including by Hitler and the Second World War. The culture shock of a village stuck in time coming up against the modern world leads to a hilarity.
James McBride’s Deacon King Kong is a riotous and vivid tale of 1960s Brooklyn that is in the process of some serious changes. I laughed out loud frequently as I read this book.
Let’s turn from fiction to poetry. I read several collections of Dana Gioia’s poetry this year. My favorite was Pity the Beautiful: Poems. Gioia is a national treasure.
Just before Holy Week, a friend recommended reading Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. I’d read it before but reading it during the week we commemorate those events bore great spiritual fruit. I likely will do it again.
While we are on the topic of Pope Benedict/Joseph Ratzinger, I also finished rereading Introduction to Christianity in 2021 and reread his little What It Means to Be a Christian. Both are as fresh as when I first read them. The latter, a book I hope to write a bit more about, is amazing in that it packs together all the themes of Benedict’s life and teaching into three short Advent sermons.
In 2021, I also had the pleasure of reading Abigail Favale’s wonderful memoir, Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion. There is so much solid food here.
Finally, I need to mention a groundbreaking book, The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism by D.C. Schindler. Schindler, his father David L. Schindler, and many other critics of liberalism are chided for not proposing any alternatives. That criticism—which was unfair to begin with—cannot be made anymore. The Politics of the Real is a book that expands the imagination; it helps one think outside of the categories bequeathed to us by liberalism. Schindler offers an expansive vision of a politics of the real. Run, don’t walk to get this book.
Conor B. Dugan is a husband, father of four, and attorney who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The most important book I’ve read in 2021 is probably Knowing the Love of God by Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange (also published as The Last Writings. This set of sermons truly opened up the possibilities of actually opening oneself up to allow God making Himself supernaturally known to you, in contrast to the avarice and pride that often accompanies the speculative soul’s desire to possess Him.
Other than that, Jacques Ellul’s classic Propaganda has been invaluable with regard to providing a perspective on the perplexing social and political processes of our day and age.
And as a good third (although I might have finished it last year, I’m not sure) we have Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s a very peculiar book, and far from what I expected. It also perfectly encapsulates the duty of the Christian to actually make a stand, to make a real choice, to find an answer within himself to the question of “Who do you say that I am?”
Johan Eddebo holds a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion.
Two preliminary comments. First, as I was putting my four-year-old granddaughter in her car seat to take her home she wondered what I was going to do the rest of the day. I said, “Probably go upstairs to my office and read a book.” She asked, “The Grinch?” I thought I should mention it since she thought it was one of the best books I had read (to her) this year. Second, the most provocative, insightful, brilliant book I read this year is Liturgical Dogmatics, but modesty prevents me from naming the author. (Fortunately, you are already at the webpage of its publisher, so can probably find it.)
I said last year that all the visitors in my guestbook were involved in working dinners researching Western post-Reformation spirituality. It’s been a whole year, and that has still occupied me the whole time. I’m going to wheel out a tray of dim sum for your lunch here, and give you some tastes of them.
The Holy Will of God, by Benedict Canfield, “The soul is never overcome unless she so wills it herself.” Humility of Heart, by Gaetano Maria de Bergamo. “Death is the best teacher of truth; and pride—being nothing but an illusion of our —to a vanity which it does not recognize as vanity.” The Interior Life, by François de Sales Pollien (ed. J. Tissot). “For want of piety, the mind neither goes from the world to the idea, nor from the idea to the soul, and still less from the soul to God.”
A Treatise on Interior Peace, by Ambroise de Lombez (translated by Elizabeth Ann Seton). “If, then, He chastises you, love Him; if He works to your perfection, love Him still more, because He shows you the greater love. If He makes you sensible of your slightest failings, be not troubled. It is a proof He desires to save you.” A Treatise on the Knowledge and Love of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 3 volumes by Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure. “[Be like] Magdalene who, unfurling the great wings of her love and all her affections, hovers around this tomb, powerless to attempt to quit it. Let us learn from her example, to hover like young eagles around the Blessed Sacrament.”
Claude La Colombiere Sermons, “My God, you have continued to pursue me, to call me, to attract me, to love me … Perhaps also, if I do not weary of following him, he finally will weary of fleeing from me.” The Interior Christian in Eight Books by M. Bernier de Louvigny. “The cross is a thing of great excellence because it was the altar chosen by his Heavenly Father for this life-giving sacrifice.” “The Eucharist ought to produce in us such inclinations as very much resemble those which the hypostatical union produced in the sacred humanity.”
Comfort for the Fainthearted, by Abbot Blosius. “God has promised to forgive thee when thou art converted, but He hath not promised to-morrow to thee if thou dost delay.” An Easy Way to God, by John Bona. “A good desire prays always, for the affection of a sincere love lifts up its voice continually before God.”
Amazing what riches there are in forgotten authors. But, alas, “Self-love easily flatters itself that it has attained the attitudes which it has admired in books.” (Fenelon)
David W. Fagerberg is an associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
The last twelve months have provided little of the respite from worry and strife that was promised as last year closed out and, perhaps as a result, I seem to have lost the ability to utilize fiction as a means of escape. I once derived a frisson of frightened pleasure from tales of Cold War spy craft or police procedurals. The danger and intrigue were at a safe distance of time or space. Now the danger and intrigue seem to be at our front door and there is neither comfort nor diversion to be found in these stories. This year has had me reading not for distraction but consolation. I have been looking for books that are beautifully written, describe the good, or are seeking truth.
I have re-read novels this year.
1984, George Orwell and The Thanatos Syndrome, Walker Percy
“He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act.”
I have read novels for the first time that I should have read years ago.
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
A masterful work of metafiction that manages to still speak to the human.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner
Is there a Stegner fan club out there? I will join. One of the sweet memories of the past year was a trip with my daughter to an estate sale during one of the narrow windows of relaxed COVID measures. My daughter was just a few months away from her wedding and looking for furniture to furnish her first apartment. She found a lovely little desk and I, in a corner, in a box, found a stash of Stegner’s novels. Bliss.
I didn’t read very many new works of fiction but the one I did dealt with Russia, scientists, poison and morality.
Untraceable, Sergei Lebedev
The notable works of non-fiction include:
Dopesick, Beth Macy
I read the book before the television series was released.
What Really Happened in Wuhan, Sharri Markson
In an interview, Markson remarked that the release of her book garnered a fair amount of attention in Australia and the U.K. but not as much in the U.S. It deserves attention.
A State of Fear, Laura Dodsworth
A book about the weaponization of fear by the U.K. government in the time of COVID. A review I wrote of the book was published by Catholic World Report.
I am not alone in identifying the months of being unable to receive the Blessed Sacrament as a profoundly disturbing time. The depravation had a wide reach, affecting the Church, society and individual Catholics in ways that, I believe, we have not yet fully realized. I found great comfort in appealing to the intercession of the English martyrs. Both priest and lay recusants, by God’s grace, were brave and bold in their efforts to say and hear the Holy Mass during the Reformation and Penal times in England.
Strangers and Nomads, Dudley Plunkett
A newly published, slim volume of biography and devotions to the Catholic martyrs of England and Wales.
Edmund Campion, Evelyn Waugh
“They were conditions which, in the natural course, could only produce despair, and it depended upon their individual temperaments whether, in desperation, they had recourse to apostasy or conspiracy. It was the work of the missionaries, and most particularly of Campion, to present by their own example a third, supernatural solution. They came with gaiety among a people where hope was dead.”
Anna Farrow is Executive Director of the English Speaking Catholic Council.
Shusaku Endo’s Silence has a haunting quality that not only survives translation but crackles with intensity. It is a tale of Portuguese missionaries set in seventeenth-century Japan. I’ve read other books by Endo and this one is his best. It is, in my mind, world class literature. It is also a masterpiece in depicting faith.
Every few years, I go back and read William Faulkner’s The Bear. This is one of those years. It has the same intensity as Endo, a mytho-historical quality that rises to the level of art. One of the finest pieces of fiction written by an American, ever. If you haven’t read Faulkner, this is the place to start. It is a coming-of-age story of the highest caliber. It is also about a loss of tradition and is therefore pertinent to our own times.
David Pinault’s fantasy novel Providence Blue is my pick for new fiction this year. What do you get when you throw Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and a priest together in a fast-paced plotline? Providence Blue. The Call of Cthulhu and Conan the Barbarian meet Christian theology.
I also go back and read a Japanese classic, Takuan Soho’s The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman, every few years. This thin volume, written in the seventeenth-century, had a deep impact on me when I went on a Zen kick many years ago. Today, it makes me think of the English classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, written in by an anonymous monk in the fourteenth-century. Both books are concerned with contemplative prayer but in different ways. They both will have an impact on those who are drawn to mysticism and would see it expressed from two cultural perspectives.
Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, is another author I enjoy reading. This year I read When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature. Merton wrote on Zen from a Catholic monk’s perspective. Here he contemplates nature. In my opinion, it is a must read.
I recently read The Cardinal Müller Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church. I have a only a passing knowledge of Müller and purchased the book out of curiosity. I’m glad I did. It is a book about hope. Without faith in God, hope shrivels on the vine. I highly recommend this book for those familiar with Cardinal Müller and for those who are not.
I’ve read Gabriel Marcel’s philosophy and would recommend Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope for those interested in a Christian existential approach to the subject of hope. This year I read some of Marcel’s plays. The Broken World is a world-class drama. The theme of the play is about being lost in the modern world. I have no idea how or why I have never run across this play before. Highly recommended. You won’t forget it.
Jack Gist is a professional writer and teacher, and author of the Revival Writing blog.
In the nonfiction category, I tended to read books in pairs this year. J. D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy is well-known. Too often, a well-known book is a misrepresented one (I heard the movie of this book was bad, but I haven’t seen it). Vance is honest about the troubled people he comes from, gentle toward them and himself, humble about the fact that he’s writing a memoir at all. I paired it with Fulfillment, Alec MacGillis’s study of American economic shifts over the past few decades, especially focused on manufacturing jobs and Amazon warehouses, and the impact on blue-collar workers. The two together give one much to ponder about the unique poverties Americans experience, and the many poisons that combine to cause such a sickness.
Another interesting pair consisted of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage and Sarah Chapman Hill’s This Is Your Brain on Birth Control. Shrier has done noble work exposing the phenomenon of rapid-onset gender dysphoria among teenage girls and the horrific response to it that has quietly become the standard in the health industry. She does so with utter compassion for all involved. Hill is an evolutionary psychologist who thinks hormonal contraceptives are one of the best things that ever happened to women. However, she acknowledges that women have not been given the necessary information to understand all the ways the Pill affects them and seeks to change that. Her book is a fascinating and easy-to-read description of the many side effects of birth control—not the ones you may have heard of, like an increased risk of cancer, but ones that are more immediately interesting to a young woman considering taking the drug. Hill cites convincing evidence that the Pill makes women less attractive to men, less attracted to men whom they would otherwise find attractive, and more likely to be diagnosed with depression. And, she points out that young girls are often prescribed these hormonal treatments before their brains have fully developed, putting them at even greater risk of the worse psychiatric effects. Together, these books show that the medical professions are doing incalculable harm to young women. Every woman and every parent of a daughter should read these books.
In the fiction category, I recommend In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden, a beautiful portrayal of life inside a contemplative convent, recently brought back into print by at least two publishing companies after a period of obscurity; Frozen Assets, by P. G. Wodehouse, for when you need a good laugh; and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith, for when you need a cozy detective story set in Botswana.
Rachel Hoover lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee.
Ronald L. Jelinek:
When the ball dropped on 2021, our then-newly-elected president was fresh off a campaign trail in which he predicted—or perhaps, more accurately, declared—that the upcoming winter would be “long” and “dark.” Unwilling to dismiss his past proclivity for never allowing a good crisis to go to waste, some Catholic friends and I decided we had better prepare. Finding the pursuit of truth in increasingly short supply, our newly-formed book club began with Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies. The author’s sage advice: at a minimum, refuse to affirm anything you know to be untrue.
As the bitter cold set in, we marched into the “grey town” of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. As only he can, Lewis presents character after character who, when offered heaven’s truth, choose instead to aimlessly wallow in the self-deception of purgatory (or was it Hell?). Trudging through our own grey days of late February, the club sought relief from Thomas Merton’s oft-overlooked work, Bread in the Wilderness. An inspiring celebration of the Psalms, Merton motivates a renewed appreciation for the poetic beauty of these prayers. A good Lenten read.
In March, I began juggling a second book club. This “family group” focused on history and introduced my wife, daughters, mother and me to Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution. The latter is a well-researched account of how a rag-tag network of undercover patriots helped Washington reshape the trajectory of the war. Kilmeade’s love of Long Island shines through as he navigates the reader up the north shore to the town of Setauket, a short drive from where I grew up. Enthralled by this account of hometown history, I took my family back to the Island several months later and retraced the Culper Ring’s steps. Ellis’s extraordinary book is an engaging collection of events, my two favorite of which include Alexander Hamilton. “The Dinner” details his efforts to persuade Jefferson and Madison to overcome their aversion to the federal government’s assumption of northern states’ debts in return for moving the capital south. “The Duel” provides a moment-by-moment account of Hamilton’s ill-fated showdown with Aaron Burr. Together, these offer perspective on this wise statesman and flawed man.
As my friends and I continued our journey through Catholic fiction that spring we encountered J.F. Power’s Morte D’Urban and Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote and enjoyed hilariously funny profiles of two very different priests’ efforts to shepherd their flocks. Francois Mauriac’s Vipers’ Tangle offers a complex view of human nature and a sorrowful reflection on the trappings of self. When fall rolled around, I discovered we had saved the best for last: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is outstanding. A haunting tale about the lure of sin and the power of grace, it is a masterful reminder: it’s never too late to choose joy.
When time permitted, I read several books on my own including Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life both of which offer lessons of courage amidst suffering. Wilfred Reilly’s Taboo and Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds bust through today’s woke fallacies. As a quant jock and Ph.D., Reilly uses statistical methods to debunk liberal lies about interracial crime, racism and “white privilege” while Douglas Murray brilliantly exposes the absurdity of popular misconceptions surrounding gender, race and identity. Echoing Dreher, Murray’s words stiffen the spine: “either speak the truth as you see it or grow to despise yourself.” Wisdom for another long, dark winter ahead.
Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D. is a Professor of Marketing at Providence College.
The books I’ve read in 2021 include:
Telling Stories That Matter: Memoirs and Essays by Marvin R. O’Connell.
I so enjoyed this memoir of the late, great historian Marvin O’Connell that I wish I had prolonged its reading. With the skill of a novelist, he vividly presents his youth in Minneapolis and his early life. Sadly, left unfinished in the memoir, was his time as a professor at Notre Dame. The book also includes a sample of O’Connell’s work on John Henry Newman, Belloc, and Thomas More. O’Connell is an historian’s historian who writes, “However often and egregiously I have failed to live up to it, my ideal has always been to see the past, and to reconstruct it, as an integral whole, with all the interrelationships and complexities that involves. Indeed, how can one do otherwise, if one truly seeks to chronicle that tangle of mind and emotion, of pride and passion and sentimentality, of providence and chance, of cruelty and compassion, of the good and the bad, that has been the human story?”
Long time friends and Notre Dame colleagues Ralph McInerny and David Solomon add a couple of delightful essays about O’Connell that round out the book.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland offers 21 snapshots of how Christianity made a decisive difference in various times and places, including Lyon in 177, Milan in 1300, and Abbey Road in 1967. Holland is an extremely gifted writer whose understanding of the ancient world serves to highlight the radical difference Christianity made even among people who like to think of themselves as post-Christian.
Word on Fire Bible: The Gospels Hardcover is a spectacular presentation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John accompanied by gorgeous art and generous commentary from ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary readers of the Gospels.
Christ Alive in Me: Living as a Member of the Mystical Body by Fr. David Meconi S.J. provides an engaging exposition of this central message of the Gospel. Jesus is not just a teacher, however wise, nor a mere guru who gives us a great example. He is the vine, and we are the branches. He is the head, and we are his body. He can live in us, and we can live in him. This reality is called by different names such as divinization, “theosis,” and deification. The truth at issue is that we become not just pupils of a divine teacher, but children of God adopted into the Divine Family of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Christ Alive in Me: Living as a Member of the Mystical Body, Father Meconi provides a winning and witty presentation of the point of human life and the deepest desires of the human heart. In our baptism, we are made children of God. In our everyday life, we are called to live that reality.
In Mythos, Stephen Fry presents an ancient Greek mythology book for adults and a modern telling. This book is perhaps most delightful in audible form as read by the author.
In Miracles Today: The Supernatural Work of God in the Modern World, Craig S. Keener provides abundant evidence that God continues to intervene in surprising and consoling ways in the contemporary world.
In Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling, Matthew Dicks provides tips and tricks for telling the stories of your life in entertaining and important ways. If Alasdair MacIntyre is right that “man is a story telling animal,” then this book can make us all more human.
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich says the credit (or blame) falls to the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage and family. People from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) cultures differ vastly in psychology from people from non-WEIRD cultures in terms of individualism, time, thrift, hard work, adherence to impartial principles, and analytical thinking. A WEIRD psychology eventually gave rise to free markets, inalienable rights, and democracy. Where did this distinctive psychology come from? Henrich’s answer is that “the medieval Catholic Church inadvertently altered people’s psychology by promoting a particular set of prohibitions and prescriptions about marriage and the family that dissolved the densely interconnected clans of Western Europe into small, weak, and disparate nuclear families.” The Church insisted on the free consent of both man and woman to marriage. This undermined the power of patriarchs in arranging marriages to foster alliances useful to the extended family. Henrich notes, “Norms about arranged marriages empower patriarchs to strategically use their daughters’ marriages to nourish their clan’s network of alliances and relationships.” The free consent of medieval marriages weakened these clans. The social consequences of dissolution of strong kinship ties included a rise in voluntary associations, such as universities, guilds, and religious orders (Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans). These voluntary associations both arose from and prompted further development of WEIRD psychology in part by competing among each other for members. In place of a family patriarch making decisions, impartial rules and principles governed these voluntary associations that elected their own leaders.
Inferno by Dante and translated by Anthony Esolen provided an occasion for a faculty and student reading group at Loyola Marymount University.
Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and co-author of Jordan Peterson, God and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life.
This year’s books were sadly more political than Catholic.
I reread John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. Murray’s vision of a public order based on natural law and principled limitations seems ever less relevant to the ever more ideological public order in which we live. It’s good to remember what once seemed possible, though.
I also read several works by leading figures in the pre-war American intellectual Right: Irving Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership, Paul Elmer More’s The Skeptical Approach to Religion, and Richard M. Weaver’s Visions of Order: Cultural Crisis Of Our Time. (Weaver mostly wrote after the war, but his approach was very much in line with that of the earlier thinkers.)
All were well worth reading. Babbitt and More attempt to reconstruct a classical vision, of politics and Christianity respectively, out of modern skeptical and experience-based ways of thinking. Both do remarkably well, at least in concept. But Babbitt’s idea of realizing his vision through the education of a class rather like Confucian scholars seems hopelessly unrealistic. More’s approach, reminiscent of Pascal’s in the Pensées, seems more hopeful, in part because it’s more individual than social: life forces each of us to adopt some fundamental view of things, so which view best enables us to make sense of life and the world?
Weaver, an acute analyst, has a similar general approach, but runs aground on an issue that plagues any conservatism not tied to a definite religious outlook. His preferred form of society requires authoritative myths and social forms, but there seems to be no way for him to get them other than through a Platonic noble lie, and he doesn’t want that.
Current events led me to read several memoirs of what happens when lawless utopians gain power. John Scott’s Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel provides a fascinating account of a young idealist who ran off to Magnitogorsk in the early 1930s to help build socialism, and Sergei Golitsyn’s Memoirs of a Survivor: The Golitsyn Family in Stalin’s Russia gives a rich account of life among Russian aristocrats after they lost everything but before they were arrested. Both survived, Scott by managing to leave Russia and Golitsyn by working as a peripatetic surveyor and chancing never to be in town when a wave of arrests hit.
I also read a couple of excellent memoirs by people who were shamed and cancelled—and then incarcerated—during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai and Ji Xianlin’s The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The first was by the wife of a representative of a foreign oil company, the second by a university professor, both highly civilized people. Not surprisingly, they had a hard time of it. Nien Cheng, for example, had a daughter who was beaten to death.
And I read several novels, all relating somehow to the Woman Question: George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Henry James’s The Bostonians, and the first novel in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. Eliot’s novel was a bit marred I thought by her usual concentration on insensitive men and misunderstood underdogs, but it’s hard to complain about such a great novelist. James presents modern relations between the sexes as a mess that won’t get better soon, which is certainly a possible point of view. The soundest tale was Undset’s account of a headstrong girl and her bad boy lover/husband in 14th century Norway. All three are very good on social setting as well as character.
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Timothy D. Lusch:
Since most library book sales in this part of Ohio have been canceled due to the never ending pandemic, it might be supposed that I bought fewer books. Yeah, no. In fact, I bought more. So did my wife. Books are piled everywhere. Even—heresy of all heresies—in the kitchen where I read over breakfast. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were a great way to start most days.
After sedately contemplating how to live, I jumped in the saddle with General Custer in Robert W. Utley’s Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. It is the best and most balanced bio of Custer available. Balance and Johnny Tapia are not usually mentioned in the same sentence. Paul Zanon’s The Ghost of Johnny Tapia spans the short life of this boxing champion from the horrific trauma of his mother’s violent death to the peak of elite boxing and ultimately losing his battle with drugs. He was an exciting fighter who could not defeat his demons.
Demons abound in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. It is very much a Western but let’s just say the bad guys are far worse and, as befits our darkening age, the good guys aren’t winning. Not so with Jack Schaefer’s Shane. There is never a doubt that the man who rides onto Joe Starrett’s farm is going clean the bad guys out. But it is no less thrilling to read.
Life in the trenches of WWI was, by most accounts, anything but thrilling. Still, Thomas Boyd’s autobiographical novel Through the Wheat manages to capture the something of the boredom and exhilaration of infantrymen under the strain of war. Catholic poet Joyce Kilmer’s Trees and Other Poems was published before he entered the trenches and so do not convey the terror and disillusionment of the War Poets. But it is a marvelous collection of poems, simple and pleasing. The shadow of his death at the Second Battle of the Marne in the waning months of the war hangs over each line.
Shadow accompanied Kurt Gödel, the logician—and arguably greatest mind of the twentieth-century—for most of his life in Austria and America. Stephen Budiansky’s Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel is an engaging portrait of this troubled but brilliant man whose mind endeared him to Albert Einstein. Einstein, at the end of his life, said that if he had it to do over again, he would study the Talmud. This Jewish repository of knowledge and culture and, of course, law, is given fascinating treatment by Rabbi Morris Adler in The World of the Talmud and Harry Freedman in The Talmud: A Biography. Both books chronicle the development and unlikely survival of this multi-volume Jewish text.
Survival was a dim prospect for Union soldiers at the battle of Fredericksburg. Wave after wave charged entrenched Confederate positions on the heights above town and were summarily cut down. Victor Brooks’ The Fredericksburg Campaign: October 1862-January 1863 is one of the few books dedicated solely to the battle. Jason Riley’s Maverick, a biography of economist Thomas Sowell, is about a battle of a different sort. It is the intellectual journey of one man dedicated to … wait for it … the Truth. Sowell is a deep well to draw from and will remain so for years to come.
Timothy D. Lusch is an attorney and writer.
Rev. Fr. Matthew C. MacDonald:
One of the books I was privileged to read that is a very important theological endeavor for our current ecclesiastical climate is Vessel of Honor: The Virgin Birth and the Ecclesiology of Vatican II. It is the doctoral dissertation of a very good friend of mine, Fr. Brian Graebe who is the pastor of the Basilica of Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Fr. Graebe talks about the theological and historical origins and development of the Marian dogma of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and how it serves as a model of how the faithful adhere to the deposit of faith and the bishops of the Church are called to hand on and protect the deposit of faith.
I have also read the republishing of Timothy O’Connell’s Heart of the Redeemer on the theological and historical origins and development of the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
During my retreat week, I enjoyed the classic The Living Flame of Love by St. John of the Cross where he describes the journey of the soul through prayer, purification, suffering, and surrender into the glory of the divine embrace of Trinitarian Love. Many people can be intimidated by John’s writings but this work is a good place for beginners to start.
I was also privileged to read X-Ray of the Priest in a Field Hospital: Reflections on the Sacred Priesthood by Fr. Armand de Malleray, who has some powerful meditations here that speak to both priests and lay faithful alike on the nature of the priesthood and its mission and discernment of vocations in light of modern challenges and crises. Fr. De Malleray gives a unique perspective in the crisis of priestly holiness especially in his chapter on the Fourteen Stations of Priestly Apostasy, where he uses the gradual eroding of faith of the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Fr. Rodrigues in sixteenth-century Japan from Shusku Endo’s Silence as their backdrop.
Eric Sammons’ Deadly Indifference is also an important theological contribution on how religious indifference of the members of the Church regarding the necessity of living out the basic orthodox principles of the faith is the greatest threat to her life and mission. Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB in his work Through the Heart of St. Joseph gives an important meditation on the vulnerability, littleness, silence, and hiddenness of St. Joseph as he guards and loves Jesus and Mary as well as the Church to our current day.
Fr. Matthew C. MacDonald is parochial vicar at St. Mary’s Church in Washingtonville, New York.
Daniel J. Mahoney:
For an inviting combination of lucid and elegant writing, political good sense, and thoughtful solitude for our moral and cultural inheritance, one can’t do better than The Critical Temper : Interventions from The New Criterion at 40 (Encounter Books, 2021). Standouts include Jacob Howland, “Prophets of Democratic Leveling,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “A Sketch of Democracy,” Kenneth Minogue, ”Morals and the Servile Mind,” Gary Saul Morson, “Leninthink,” and Adam Kirsch’s “T.S. Eliot’s Animus.”
Nobody saw through the diversions by which human beings attempt to evade God’s grace and the truth about man, or gave a more satisfactory (and challenging) account of “the misery of man without God,” than Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century. He saw past the dead-ends that are unreflective dogmatism and self-destructive skepticism. And contrary to legend, he was no fideist or irrationalist (the “heart” was for Pascal first and foremost a cognitive faculty). For non-specialists I recommend the indispensable resource that is Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensée’s Edited, Outlined, and Explained (Ignatius Books, 1993). Kreeft is a most clear and trustworthy guide and a sheer delight as a commentator and teacher.
For two timely books that do much to restore civic sanity and historical accuracy, I recommend Mary Grabar’s Debunking the 1619 Project (Regnery, 2021) and Donald T. Critchlow’s Revolutionary Monsters: Five Men Who Turned Liberation Into Tyranny (Regnery, 2021). At the end of these courageous books, nothing is left of the new mendacious racialism and the strange cult of revolution that applauds tormentors and killers of the bodies and souls of human beings if they speak in the name of the Left. These are perfect books for family members and friends who have forgotten how to see clearly or who were never exposed to a remotely accurate account of the history of modern times.
I have recently immersed myself in Rick Brannan’s new translation of the texts of The Apostolic Fathers, available in paperback from Lexham Press. The letters of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, among others, give us access to the sturdy faith and courage of the Christians who immediately followed the first apostolic generation of Christ’s followers. And how revealing to read in the very early text called Didache (“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) that “murder(ing) a child by abortion,” or sexually molesting the young, are among the gravest of evils. Here one sees the remarkable continuity of Christian wisdom.
Nobody did more to expose the grave evil that was Communist totalitarianism or to warn the West of its own vulnerability to ideological lies than the Russian writer and Nobel Laureate in Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The first volume of his memoir Between Two Millstones: Sketches of Exile: 1974-1978 recently became available in paperback from the University of Notre Dame Press with a “Foreword” by yours truly. We see Solzhenitsyn warning the West about its own decline of civic courage, the malign threat posed by Communism, and the need for measured spiritual and cultural renewal. The great Solzhenitsyn was beset by an earlier wave of political correctness from journalists, academics, and emigrés who did their best to ‘cancel’ or discredit him. But in the new setting of the West (first Switzerland, then the United States) he persevered with head high. And Solzhenitsyn slowly began to perceive that too many in the West saw historic Russia—Orthodox Russia—as the enemy and not the implacable Soviet or Bolshevik Dragon. This book is both an indispensable chronicle of recent times and an enduring work of literature.
Daniel J. Mahoney is professor emeritus at Assumption University, Senior Fellow at the Real Clear Foundation, and Senior Writer at Law and Liberty.
Francis X. Maier:
Nearly all my 2021 reading has been for research. It’s also been a pleasure — of sorts. Today’s self-consciously “progressive” flacks and hacks, both political and religious, warrant special attention. The way they subvert the meaning of words in their pursuit of power (however well-intentioned), is what Josef Pieper called a kind of “rape” in his brilliant little book Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. And Pieper’s view fits perfectly with Augusto Del Noce’s warnings in “On Catholic Progressivism,” a must-read essay in his book The Age of Secularization. As Del Noce wrote:
The words freedom, democracy, and justice are untouchable, and rights are constantly declared, but this does not alter the fact that actual reality is marching toward a synthesis of all the forms of despotism that have ever appeared in history.
Sobering thoughts. And they led me to revisit George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In today’s warped media environment, advocates for social redress or personal liberation can sometimes bear an uncanny likeness to Squealer, the PR czar for Comrade Napoleon.
Neil Postman’s book Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology, and Education was another useful 2021 re-read. Postman was a thoroughly secular thinker. He was committed (naively, I’d argue) to the charms of the Enlightenment. But much of his work has value for a Christian believer. His essays in this volume — especially “My Graduation Speech,” “Defending Against the Indefensible,” and “Social Science as Moral Theology” — are pertinent to today’s cultural terrain.
In other reading: Roger Scruton’s essay “Man’s Second Disobedience,” in his volume Philosopher on Dover Beach, is a superb take-down of the dangers in modern revolutionary thought. And his essays “Stealing from Churches” and “Regaining My Religion” in his book Gentle Regrets are both deeply moving.
Finally, 2021 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s excommunication and his final break with Rome at the Diet of Worms. For anyone addicted to Reformation history, three books make for good, if sometimes dense, reading: The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola, edited by John C. Olin; Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus, also edited by Olin; and An Exposition of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, by John Colet, the English Catholic priest, educator, and humanist, and a close friend of both Thomas More and Erasmus.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.
Ryan “Bud” Marr:
Catholic Theology, Tracey Rowland. The esteemed professor from the University of Notre Dame (Australia) provides a masterful overview of contemporary approaches to Catholic theology. The book is primarily intended as an aid to the millennial generation of Catholic scholars, helping to orient them to “the different species of theologians they are likely to encounter in their academic ‘zoos’” (p. 207). If you know any young theologians in formation, you could do little better than to gift them this book.
The Resurrection: Experience Life in the Risen Christ, Fabrice Hadjadj. Hadjadj’s monograph—containing twelve meditations on biblical encounters with the risen Lord—is both thought-provoking and challenging. Early in the book, Hadjadj notes that “there is something better than doing extraordinary things: illuminating ordinary things from within” (p. 21). This is what Jesus did, not only as he journeyed towards the cross but also during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension. Hadjadj draws fresh insights from the post-Easter appearances of Christ, setting them before his readers as a challenge to renew the way we approach and live each day. The end result is one of the more profound works on spirituality that have been published during the past decade.
Christ Versus Satan in Our Daily Lives: The Cosmic Struggle between Good and Evil, Robert Spitzer. Fr. Spitzer is a careful thinker but never boring. With this book, he has given us an instructive manual for overcoming the spiritual forces of evil in the world. Fr. Spitzer first establishes a strong theological foundation—covering such topics as evidence of the supernatural, Jesus’ victory over Satan, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit—before transitioning to a decidedly practical discussion of recognizing the Devil’s tactics and attaining victory over temptation. Other authors have sometimes addressed the latter topics without laying the solid theological groundwork that Fr. Spitzer provides at the start of his work. His reputation as an orthodox theologian and compassionate pastor bolsters my confidence in recommending this title.
Vatican I and Vatican II: Councils in the Living Tradition, Kristin M. Colberg; Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, John W. O’Malley. Contemporary theological discourse in the United States continues to be dominated by arguments about the meaning of Vatican II. Dr. Colberg and Fr. O’Malley press us to contextualize these present debates against the larger backdrop of Vatican I. Near the end of his book, Fr. O’Malley argues that “the most important and authoritative moment in the history of the reception of Vatican Council I is Vatican II” (p. 247). Taking seriously the ecclesiological perspective of the latter council, he suggests, could help to mitigate the ultramontane forces unleashed at the former. Colberg’s work directs its attention primarily to the continuities between these two most recent ecumenical councils, pushing back against the notion that one must choose between one or the other’s presentations of church and ecclesial authority. These two studies could be read in tandem as a fruitful dialogue around the Church’s reckoning with the modern world.
Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion, Abigail Rine Favale. I love a good spiritual autobiography in the vein of Augustine’s Confessions or Newman’s Apologia, and Favale’s account of her conversion is a paragon of the genre. Favale traces her spiritual journey from mainstream evangelicalism into the Roman Catholic Church, recounting how postmodern feminism pushed her out of the evangelical world but ultimately proved incapable of nourishing her spiritual needs. Whereas many who are outside the Church perceive Catholic sexual morality as one great “no,” it was the faith’s coherent affirmation of marital intimacy and fidelity that helped to draw Favale into the Roman Communion. Many of us have family members and loved ones who have drifted away from the Church because they have struggled to understand or live up to the Church’s teachings. Favale’s conversion story could serve as a non-threatening way of inviting them to return home.
Preparing to teach a course on public speaking, I found motivation in All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification, by Timothy Steele.
Over the summer I was psyched to anticipate something new from favorite author Peter Kreeft. Wisdom from the Psalms did not disappoint. It’s a bravura merging of Bible study, theology, and philosophy.
In Rock Me on the Water, Ronald Brownstein recreated the Los Angeles of the 1970s and told how sixties culture fed into the evolving mainstream. He left me feeling sad even as he reminded me how much I love the California vibe and sound.
‘Evangelicalism’ may have been tarred and feathered this year in the national press, but it also got itself a new devotional classic in the form of John Piper’s Providence. It’s a thick doorstop of a book, and while Catholic readers will at points demur, there’s plenty in its pages to inspire across ecclesiastical fault lines.
And speaking of Fault Lines, Voddie Baucham Jr.’s book by that title raised hackles by offering counterpoint to the reigning narrative on racial strife. Score one for diversity.
In biography there was Fawn Brodie’s The Devil Drives on Sir Richard Burton, Bernard de Tissier Mallerais’ Rest of the Story on Marcel LeFebvre, Clare Carlisle’s biography on Kierkegaard, and Frank Sheed’s The Instructed Heart on Maisie Ward. Four fascinating lives.
Two older Ignatius Press books were helpful as I wondered over reports of church news: Catholicism and ‘Fundamentalism,’ by Karl Keating, and Hans von Balthasar’s small but stirring Primer for Unsettled Laymen.
Also a few unsolicited pop culture finds/excavations:
On TV… Netflix’s new reboot of Lost in Space is a terrific rocketship ride.
On Film … Blast from the Past (1999) exudes that forgotten virtue of charm; Populaire (2012) is the best French movie about typing you’ve never seen.
On Vinyl … On See You Tomorrow (2020), The Innocence Mission is more textured than twee. For the better. (Bonus of a song inspired by a Jan van Eyck painting); Donna Summer’s She Works Hard for the Money (1983) gives the lie to decades of disco-shaming, with hooks and spiritual subtexts to spare (2020); and Burt Bacharach & Tonio K’s Original Demos (2017) is the definition of chill.
But switching back to the substantial, my top shout out this year goes to two visual triumphs of communication. Moody Press breathed new life into The Pursuit of God, the most famous title by A. W. Tozer, a Protestant doctor of the (lower case) church. Theology as a graphic novel? Yes, I know it sounds absurd, but it works: art director Erik M. Peterson has produced something altogether unique. And on another level entirely, there was the new Shuyler Quentel edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. It has everything: pedigree (1971), apocrypha, and impeccable page design. Best of all, the Thee, Thou, Lest, and Arts all remain intact. Glory be. It’s the ultimate reissue.
Joseph Martin is Associate Professor of Communication and Graphic Design at Montreat College.
The best novel I read in 2021 was Thomas Mann’s classic The Magic Mountain. An engrossing philosophical novel grounded in deep reflections on, among other things, the nature of time, it follows twenty-three-year-old Hans Castorp, who visits his cousin in a sanatorium in Davos in the early twentieth century but ends up staying for seven years after he is himself diagnosed with tuberculosis.
The sanatorium, filled with affluent, well-fed, yet gradually dying patients, is a metaphor for Europe on the eve of the Great War. Most enjoyable were the disputes between the best f(r)iends Settembrini, an Italian anticlerical freemason symbolizing the legacy of the Englightenment, and Naphta, a Jesuit and Jewish convert whose views are an odd blend of Marxist revolutionary fervor and fideistic anti-intellectualism (he rejects the heliocentric model, for instance); with Naphta, Mann was perhaps suggesting that its “progressive” slogans aside, communism is but plain old-fashioned authoritarianism in a new wineskin.
Filled with quirky characters, intellectually stimulating dialogues on Big Ideas, and sensuous descriptions of food and natural beauty that made me want to visit the Swiss Alps, reading The Magic Mountain was a supremely enjoyable summer read (despite its often-snowy setting).
I was greatly impressed by Edward Pentin’s The Next Pope, a detailed summary of the life, views, and ministry of nineteen cardinals likely to be leading papabili in the next conclave. I learned much about the intellectual and personal backgrounds of many influential cardinals as well as plenty of fascinating anecdotes (did you know that Cardinal Dominik Duka of Prague was a cellmate of the famous dissident writer Vaclav Havel in communist Czechoslovakia?). I wish Pentin would write similar profiles for every cardinal elector!
When Australia’s High Court unanimously acquitted the imprisoned Cardinal George Pell of charges of sexual abuse based on shaky evidence and unreliable accusers, I was disgusted by the aggressive anti-Catholicism of Australia’s legal and media elites that had led to this. To slightly alter a phrase from Sinclair Lewis, the same could happen here, and by “here,” I mean anywhere in the increasingly Christophobic West.
I found much to admire in the first volume of Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal: his insightful reflections on the state of the Church in his native Australia, across the West, and globally; his astute thoughts on Tolstoy, Vietnamese “dry martyr” Cardinal Van Thuan, and other books he read in prison; his captivating writing style; the fact that the farcical sentence surprisingly increased the faith of many otherwise lukewarm Catholics in Australia and elsewhere. I hope this book will lead to a serious public discussion on anti-Catholicism and will inspire readers (Catholic or otherwise) as much as it inspired me.
Of the history books I read in 2021, I most liked Richard Pipes’ Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. In Western academia, few leftists today deny the crimes of Stalin; however, Lenin often gets a free pass, routinely portrayed as an idealist from whom his successor deviated. In the fine third volume of his trilogy on Russian history, Pipes corrects these myths, demonstrating that Stalin was a logical successor to the psychopathic political fanatic Lenin, who was responsible for man-made famines and bloody purges of his real or perceived political opponents. Pipes also chronicles Lenin’s bloody persecution of religious believers, including the author’s fellow Jews and the Orthodox as well as Catholic Churches, a topic most secularist historians ignore. As Marxism and socialism are becoming increasingly attractive to millennials not old enough to remember the Cold War, this remains a very relevant read nearly three decades after its initial publication.
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian.
James R. A. Merrick:
American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time by Joshua Mitchell (Encounter, 2020). Mitchell pursues several interesting lines of analysis in this treatment of contemporary American society. He first considers the ways in which woke culture is a bastardization of Christianity, at times cute, often clever. His treatment of the two fundamental economies that shape human behavior – spiritual and material – is illuminative. Mitchell also describes the way in which Enlightenment individualism has degenerated into what he calls postmodern “selfie man.” Finally, he convincingly shows that we are a society of addicts, addicted because our technological progress has led us to constantly prefer shortcuts and substitutes to the necessary but difficult goods of human life.
Prison Journal: Volume 1 by George Cardinal Pell (Ignatius Press, 2020). As others have said, this is a modern spiritual classic. It sets forth a powerful example of spiritual resilience, Catholic dignity, virtue, and redemptive suffering. Inspiring and great fodder for prayer.
Personal Prayer: A Guide to Receiving the Father’s Love by Frs. Boniface Hicks, OSB and Thomas Acklin, OSB (Emmaus Road, 2020). In full disclosure, I work for the publisher. But after re-reading this book again this year, I continue to think it’s one of the best books on prayer. It sets the life of prayer in the context of divine fatherhood.
The Ecstasy of Love in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas by Peter Kwasniewski (Emmaus Academic, 2021). A revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation, this book is a serious contribution to our understanding of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Apart from demonstrating the importance of this oft-ignored theme throughout Aquinas’ corpus and situating Aquinas’ views within his philosophical and theological heritage, Kwasniewski gives us tantalizing treatments of the ecstatic dimensions of our faith, such as the reception of the Holy Eucharist. Again, in full disclosure, I am the director of this book’s publisher.
John Henry Newman on Truth and Its Counterfeits: A Guide for Our Times by Reinhard Hütter (Catholic University of America Press, 2020). Hütter walks readers through several foci of Newman’s writings and shows how they have been misunderstood. In each chapter, he pits Newman’s view against its misinterpretation or counterfeit – conscience vs. self-expression, faith vs. private judgment, doctrinal development vs. both antiquarianism and progressivism, and the university vs. the technical school.
False Mercy: Recent Heresies Distorting Catholic Truth by Christopher Malloy (Sophia Institute Press, 2021). If there’s one thing we, as a society and as a Church, don’t understand but think we do, it’s mercy. This book diagnoses our disease, and hopefully will inoculate a generation of Catholics against the cheap substitution of sheer affirmation/acceptance for genuine mercy.
Deification through the Cross: An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation by Khaled Anatolios (Eerdmans, 2020). This is a bold but not at all naïve treatment of the doctrine of salvation. It refreshes some of the traditional concepts of the cross which have been largely taken to be embarrassments to modern theologians. Fr. Anatolios argues that on the cross, Jesus at once perfectly glorifies the Father and offers representative repentance for human sin. The Liturgy is the fitting manifestation of the cross, whereby we participate in Christ’s cross, crucifying our sinful attachments to created pleasures in favor of the glory of God.
The Abuse of Conscience: A Century of Catholic Moral Theology by Matthew Levering (Eerdmans, 2021). Levering is today’s great doctrinal cartographer, mapping contemporary controversies and guiding theologians to the best path. In this book, he surveys twenty-six moral theologians, tracing the ways in which they exchanged the classical focus on the human will for a novel focus on individual conscience. Levering convincingly shows that this was not an improvement but a deformation of moral theology, the remedy for which is a return to the ethics of St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite by Michael Fiedrowicz (Angelico, 2020). A priest and professor of Early Christianity, Patrology, and Christian Archaeology, Fr. Fiedrowicz gives readers a thorough yet highly readable account of the history of the Old Mass. Part I overviews the history of the development of the Old Mass, differentiating organic development from alteration. Part II insightfully explores the aspects of the old rite, their meaning and historical background. Part III highlights the connection between rite and dogma, arguing that the Old Mass is dogma performed or celebrated. The Old Mass remains perennial because it encompasses the whole of the Church’s development as well as renders the whole of the Catholic Faith.
Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass by Peter Kwasniewski (Angelico, 2020). A common knock on the Old Mass is that it is not intelligible to the modern world and feels antique to the average Catholic. It would be hard to maintain that after reading this book, which shows just how relevant, relatable yet resplendent the Old Mass is. Kwasniewski demonstrates how that the sublimity of the Old Mass is at once what our humanity needs and what divinity demands.
Dr. James R. A. Merrick is a former Anglican priest and a lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
In 2021, we welcomed our fifth child. As a consequence, my reading for the year was primarily made up of murder mysteries and re-readings of the classics with the children or in preparation for my teaching load. Highlights included:
• Emma by Jane Austen. Last academic year, my students and I read nearly everything by Jane Austen (including minor works, unfinished works, and letters). My months were packed with exquisite sentiment, refined moral understanding, and stylistic brilliance. It is difficult to select one work among so many, but (inspired by my students) I was delighted by fresh insights into this novel particularly.
• Our Mutual Friend & Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Former for class, latter with our eldest. I adore Charles Dickens, even to the point of forgiving him for writing the middle section of Martin Chuzzlewit. Every re-reading confirms me in my judgment that, lovable and worthy as my husband is, his lack of appreciation for Boz is representative of the fallenness of man.
• Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, by Brant Pitre. This remarkable book so fascinated and delighted me that I almost impulsively mailed a copy to the most violently atheistic, anti-Catholic modern Jew of my acquaintance (discerning this would be mildly patronizing and potentially counterproductive, I decided to pray for him instead).
• In Pieces by Rhonda Ortiz & An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer. My tolerance level for romance is very low, but historical fiction delights me and these two were a wonderful balm in the days of “fourth trimester” sleep deprivation. The interplay of personality was fascinating in Ortiz’s novel and the detailed descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo were riveting in Heyer’s.
• The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Another re-reading, this time with our eldest daughter. Accompanying her through this beautiful work, supporting her through the profundities of grief and joy, was one of the highlights of the year. (We are a “spoiler free” household, so we had quite a number of chapters in which to work through her emotional collapse after the Bridge at Khazad-dûm … )
• The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Another happy re-reading. Lady Audley’s Secret is the most notorious sensation novel, perhaps, but Collins’ writing could knock M.E. Braddon into a cocked hat.
• Medusa’s Web by the incomparable Tim Powers. No one handles the “supernatural thriller” like Powers.
• The Night the Saints Saved Christmas, by Gracie Jagla. A new addition to our ever-growing Christmas book collection. I can’t read it aloud without bawling.
• Speaking of children’s books, Margaret Mahy’s Bubble Trouble is one of the most amazing things I’ve read aloud all year. It makes me want to break out my scansion books and track the feet!
• The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God, by Thomas Joseph White, O.P. I was blessed to read a pre-publication version of this tome, which will be published by CUA Press in 2022. It was a memorably humbling spiritual experience. Nothing simultaneously reassures one of a still-functioning brain post-pregnancy and puts one’s limited intellectual capacity into perspective quite like seven hundred pages on the Trinity.
• And, finally, the two books I intended to read but have not yet had the chance to (both of which are, I hope and pray, coming out in the US in early 2022): Mysteries Made Visible: Praying the Rosary with Sacred Art by Lawrence Lew, O.P. and Joseph Pearce’s Faith of Our Fathers: A History of Catholic England (a book I have been secretly praying he would write for many years).
Eleanor Bourg Nicholson is author of A Bloody Habit (Ignatius Press).
Carl E. Olson:
With so much packing, moving, unpacking, demo-ing, and renovating in 2021, my reading was even more haphazard, partial, and restless than usual (also, I’m not including any Ignatius Press titles here).
Advent by Jean Daniélou is a book I’ve read at least three times now, a wonderful book by one of my favorite theologians. Daniélou is both a masterful teacher of Scripture and an energetic guide to salvation history.
The Sacrament of Love by the Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov is often remarkable and occasionally discombobulating. His insights into the closely connected vocations of monasticism and marriage are sometimes brilliant; his failure to apply some of his (correct) theological principles to the lived reality of marital love is unfortunate. Flawed, but worthwhile.
Abp. Charles J. Chaput’s Things Worth Dying For was a huge hit in our men’s reading group, and for good reason. It unfolds slowly, almost deceptively—and then you are in deep, bracing, challenging waters. Highly recommended.
Tracey Rowland’s Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism is academic, but both very readable (Rowland is an elegant, clear writer) and quite applicable to 2021, not only in regards to Germany but to the West at large. (Alas, it is spendy.)
C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing: What the Essayist, Poet, Novelist, Literary Critic, Apologist, Memoirist, Theologian Teaches Us about the Life and Craft of Writing by Corey Latta is long in subtitle as well as in detailed, often fun, nearly always useful insights into both the thought of Lewis and the craft of writing. Some of the questions at the end of the chapters are redundant and forced, but this book was one of the more relaxing, enjoyable reads of the year for me. Even more exceptional is Michael Ward’s recent book about my favorite Lewis’ book: After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, published by Word on Fire. Erudite, detailed, and full of every sort of context, it is one of the best books about a great book I’ve ever read.
I’m still making my way through Paul Ladouceur’s impressive study titled Modern Orthodox Theology: Behold, I Make All Things New, but have already learned a great deal about an admittedly complicated topic. Ladouceur is clear and charitable, and it’s difficult to tell where he himself is situated theologically, which is actually a positive quality in this case.
I have read countless articles on matters COVID, as well as parts of several books. The best, so far, is Alex Berenson’s Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives, which is very well written and researched, non-partisan, and often wickedly funny.
Romance and System: The Theological Synthesis of Matthias Joseph Scheeben by the remarkable and prolific Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., is the introduction to Scheeben’s work and thought. The publisher, Emmaus Academic, has also been translating and publishing Scheeben’s brilliant Handbook of Catholic Dogmatics in very handsome, hardcover editions. Highly recommended.
I read Ted Gioia’s magisterial The History of Jazz many years ago, but bought the new edition, as well as Gioia’s newest book, Music: A Subversive History, which I am dipping in and out of as I am able. Gioia is a brilliant researcher and writer (in addition to being an accomplished jazz pianist) who rewards readers on every page.
One of my picks last year was Carl R. Trueman’s masterful Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution , which I described as “erudite, bracing, perceptive, and yet remarkably calm.” In February 2022, the “101” version of that book will be published, titled Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution; it is excellent and it deserves a wide audience.
Finally, I recently picked up a little book published in 1979, titled Less than Words Can Say by Richard Mitchell (aka, The Underground Grammarian), and it is fantastic and even more timely now than it was over 40 years ago. “Words never fail,” wrote Mitchell. “We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen.” Amen, amen.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.
This was a good reading year for me. Below are some highlights.
The Aviator, Eugene Vodolazkin. Not as good as Laurus, but playing creatively and intelligently with the same themes of memory, time, conversion, repentance.
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, Christopher Beha. This is masterfully done and very much in the mid-20th c. Catholic style of where sin abounds….
Brother Wolf and The Letters of Magdalen Montague, Eleanor Bourg Nicholson. The first is a rollicking good time and theologically interesting; the second was charming and quite moving.
Viper’s Tangle, Francois Mauriac. Cultural Christianity on trial. Beautiful.
The Confessions of X, Suzanne Wolfe. This is the fictionalized story of Augustine’s mistress and in years past I would never have picked it up. I am glad I did because it is incredibly well done, both as a novel and as faithful to the life and spirit of Augustine.
Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion, Abigail Favale. I read this twice, once on my own and once for class. Both times I was moved and edified. My students loved it and with good reason. Favale is a beautiful writer and a fine thinker and has a compelling story.
Reparations, Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. I was not persuaded by this book, but it is, generally, well done and irenic.
Racecraft, Barbara and Karen Fields. I was very persuaded by this book. Racism creates race. Racecraft functions like witchcraft. It clouds our minds and makes us see things that aren’t there.
Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole. I read this because my recently deceased friend Thomas Levergood was likened to the main character, Ignatius Reilly. That comparison (minus some particular vices) is humorously apt.
In Pieces, Rhonda Ortiz. My lovely wife wrote a lovely novel. Not my usual genre, but so well done and thoughtful and, I must confess, moving unto tears.
Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz. An odd but enjoyable book about a saint in the making who sees dead people.
Divine Comedy, Dante. Alright, I only read Inferno and Purgatorio, but I’m on my way to filling perhaps the biggest lacuna in my education.
Big in Heaven by Steven Siniari (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2020) is a collection of short stories about Saint Alexander the Whirling Dervish Orthodox Church, a fictional parish in a gritty working-class Philadelphia neighborhood. Through Fr. Naum, the humble and perceptive parish priest, we enter into the complex lives of Saint Alexander’s motley and often eccentric parishioners and neighbors.
The author, Fr. Siniari, a retired priest of the Orthodox Church in America, reached out to us at Chrism Press not long after we opened our doors, thanking us for welcoming Orthodox voices alongside Catholic ones. Since then we’ve enjoyed several email exchanges. He’s a wonderful man, a devoted priest, and a talented writer; we’re happy to count him a friend.
In a Far-Off Land by Stephanie Landsem (Tyndale, 2021). That the evangelical market only produces “didactic” and “sentimental” commercial fiction is a decades-old stereotype that needs to be put to rest. Every market has its pulp, and while the Christian market is no exception, authors like Susie Finkbeiner, Amanda Dykes, Lisa Samson, Roseanna M. White, Erin Bartels, Amanda Cox, Patti Callahan, and others are proof that Christian publishers are also committed to quality high-popular and literary fiction. The evangelical style is different—Protestants lean toward the dialectic whereas Catholics lean toward signs and symbols, and what may read as “on the nose” to a Catholic may not read so to Protestants. Yet evangelical fiction isn’t a monolith; where a book falls on the dialectical-analogical spectrum depends on the author. So it goes in real life. Catholics think evangelicals are too direct and evangelicals think that Catholics are too understated, while reality proves to be far more nuanced. But I digress.
Another stereotype in need of correction: that the evangelical market is universally anti-Catholic. This too is changing, as Christian publishers are becoming increasingly open to Catholic voices and themes. For example, take Catholic author Stephanie Landsem, whose poignant In a Far-Off Land was released this year by Tyndale. Set in 1930s Hollywood, In a Far-Off Land is a Prodigal Son retelling, a romance, and a murder mystery rolled into one. The story takes up four points of view: Mina, a Midwestern farmgirl turned aspiring actress who is drawn into Hollywood’s dark underbelly and is accused of murdering a prominent actor; her agent, Max, an inscrutable man hiding a troubled past; his hardworking, straight-laced Mexican-American cousin, Oscar, who assumes the role of Sherlock against his will; and Ephraim, Mina’s German immigrant father, awaiting the return of his wayward daughter. Rarely does a book move me to tears. This one did.
Brother Wolf by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson (Chrism Press, 2021). Disclaimer: I was one of its editors. Honest truth: Brother Wolf is smart, winsome, suspenseful, convincingly Victorian/fin-de-siècle in content, tone, and style; and deeply Catholic. No one understands the Gothic literary tradition and its symbolic, literary, and theological potential like Eleanor Nicholson. Only Karen Ullo, her managing editor, and the rest of the Catholic Vampire Fiction crew can keep up with her. While Brother Wolf can be read as a standalone, I also highly recommend its sister novel, A Bloody Habit (Ignatius Press, 2018).
Rhonda Ortiz is a Lay Dominican, award-winning novelist, and founding editor of Chrism Press.
For fans of the fantastical (or anyone needing a break from 2021 and beyond), I am sharing some works that I greatly enjoyed this past year:
The Inkworld trilogy (Inkheart, Inkspell and Inkdeath), by Cornelia Funke, is a charming fantasy series which, while certainly not as profound or broad an epic as the Lord of the Rings, is nonetheless a worthwhile world in which to pass some time. In a twist on the ‘portal-to-another-dimension’ trope, the plot concerns violent thugs who are inadvertently called out of their own fictional story and into the real world. The ensuing adventure contains a lovely portrayal of a traditional family torn apart by very unusual circumstances. Its old-fashioned central theme of good versus evil, and the virtues of heroism and self-sacrifice, are memorably and beautifully portrayed.
The cult-classic Gormenghast novels (Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone) by Mervyn Peake, stand as colossal achievements in gothic fiction. Immured within the confines of a vast, decrepit palace, a cast of grotesque yet ultimately lovable caricatures navigates the politics of the decaying House of Groan. The story contains no magic other than the spell of the author’s incredible grasp of the English language and his breathtaking imagination. Peake’s ability to describe emotions, perceptions and sensations the reader never knew he had, yet instantly recognizes, is particularly masterful.
A similar but more recent work is the award-winning One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Like Peake, Garcia-Marquez presents a bizarre but utterly captivating account of a multigenerational family. Told in the style of a larger-than-life oral tradition, the reader follows the exploits of the dysfunctional Buendia clan, struggling under a mysterious curse and living in an isolated village in Columbia. The preposterous spectacle of the flawed but endearing characters’ ambitions, passions, successes and failures, is a deeply poignant and heartbreaking testament to the reality of mankind’s sinful state.
S. Kirk Pierzchala is a lay Dominican and novelist living in the Pacific Northwest.
My Top 10 books of 2021:
• Light of Reason, Light of Faith: Joseph Ratzinger and the German Enlightenment by Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai (St. Augustine’s Press, 2021). The title says it all – everything you need to know about Ratzinger on the faith and reason relationship and where he sits in relation to the German philosophical traditions of the 18th century and beyond.
• Introduction to Sacramental Theology: Signs of Christ in the Flesh by José Granados (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2021). Fr Granados has managed to interweave Patristic and scholastic ideas with the best of twentieth century sacramental theology and he presents his brilliant synthesis in words that are a pleasure to read.
• Before Amoris Laetitia: The Sources of the Controversy by Jarosław Kupczak OP (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2021). This book covers every single angle of the issue – the historical, the sociological, the moral, sacramental, canonical and dogmatic.
• Christ Alive in Me: Living as a Member of the Mystical Body by David Vincent Meconi, SJ (Steubenville: Emmaus Road, 2021). Fr Meconi explains how to be a Catholic means participating in the life and love of the Holy Trinity.
• Liberty: The Last Essays by Georges Bernanos (Providence RI: Cluny Media, 2019). This is a reprint of the 1955 Henry Regnery publication of The Last Essays of Georges Bernanos. It includes the essays ‘France before the world of tomorrow’ and ‘The European Spirit and the World of Machines’.
• The How to Book of Catholic Theology: Everything you Need to Know but No One Ever Taught You by Fr John P Cush (Huntington: Indiana: OSV, 2020). This is a great primer on the study of theology for beginners.
• The Pope Benedict XVI Reader (Word on Fire Publications, 2021). This is a collection of Ratzinger/Benedict’s homilies and short essays and an excellent, user-friendly, introduction to his thought.
• Couples Awaken Your Love by Robert Cardinal Sarah (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2021). An inspirational reflection on the sacrament of marriage by Africa’s heroic cardinal.
• Cur Deus Verba: Why the Word Became Words by Jeremy Holmes (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2021). This book offers a kind of systematic theology of scripture and unearths a mountain of treasure that is both inspirational for the lay reader and also highly useful for priests preparing homilies.
• Paul Stenhouse MSC: A Life of Rare Wisdom, Compassion and Inspiration (Melbourne: Connor Court, 2021). This is a biography of Fr Paul Stenhouse, a great Australian priest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who was the principal celebrant of my wedding in 1992.
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is the author of several books on Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, culture, and theology.
My three best books for 2021 are Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson, and Mass Exodus by Stephen Bullivant.
Kristin Lavransdatter (Penguin Classics), for which Undset received the Nobel Prize in 1928, is arguably the finest Catholic novel ever. Like its only serious competition, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, it is set in a thoroughly Catholic culture—in this case, 14th century Norway—where even bad people are bad in distinctively Catholic ways. Kristin herself is one of the truly memorable characters in world literature, and the chronicle of her life is filled with drama, pathos, and a powerful, pervasive spirituality. Although very long, the book is consistently exciting—a great read from beginning to end.
Paul Johnson is a skillful writer of popular history, and in A History of the Jews (HarperCollins) he tells the story of a remarkable people whose triumphs and tragedies extending over four millennia make for fascinating reading. Johnson’s fast-paced narrative is crammed with information and enlivened by colorful anecdotes and vivid character sketches. Happily, too, the author is consistently respectful of Jewish religious beliefs—and is pained, it seems, whenever the Jews themselves do not live up to them.
In Mass Exodus (Oxford), British sociologist Stephen Bullivant probes the causal factors at work in the decline of Catholicism in the United States and Great Britain since the Second Vatican Council. Rejecting the explanations of conservatives who blame what’s happened on Vatican II and liberals who attribute it all to Humanae Vitae, Bullivant demonstrates that the reality is far more complex than simplistic, ideologically driven accounts would allow. And, much to his credit, he largely eschews the jargon of his trade and writes clear, informative, and occasionally amusing prose.
Russell Shaw is the author of more than 20 books.
While obliged this year to do a fair amount of reading for book projects, I also found time to read for pleasure – edifying pleasure.
For Newman and his Critics, which Bloomsbury will be bringing out in the summer of next year, I read James Anthony Froude’s wide-ranging 5-volume Short Studies on Great Subjects (1867-83), as well as his 12-volume history of the English Reformation (1856-70), which depicts the assassin and apostate Henry the Eighth as a national hero, a liberator who plucked his countrymen from the wiles of papal oppression. Froude may not be the most reliable critic or historian but he is a spellbinding stylist. He was also obsessed with Newman. I also read Memories of Life at Oxford, and Experiences in Italy, Greece, Turkey, German, Spain and Elsewhere (1905) by the ardent defender of Anglicanism, Frederick Meyrick, who could never leave off abusing Newman. For another chapter for the book, I read nearly everything Wilfrid Ward wrote, as well as Maisie Ward’s richly documented two-volume life of her father and mother, The Wilfrid Wards and the Transition (1934-7) which is full of her accustomed brio. Ward was one of Newman’s first biographers. Lastly, I read the letters and a good many of the works of Charles Kingsley, whose charging Newman and his co-religionists with being liars led to the convert’s composing his great work of spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864).
For another forthcoming book, The Saint Mary’s Anthology of Christian Verse, which Gracewing will be releasing in the Spring, I read reams of poetry, including such good 20th and 21st-century poets as Ruth Pitter, James McAuley, Elizabeth Jennings, Charles Causley, Richard Wilbur and Dana Gioia.
To revisit an historian whose work has always fascinated me, I read R.W. Southern’s two-volume Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe (2001), Robert Grosseteste (1986), and Saint Anselm and his Biographer (1963), as well as History and Historians: Selected Papers of R.W Southern (2004) edited by R.J. Bartlett. Most readers interested in St. Anselm are familiar with Southern’s classic Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (1990), but these other books are worth reading as well. In essence, what Southern spent his long life saying is that secular humanism has been an altogether predictable bust and if we are to rescue the Western Civilization that the Schoolmen put on the map we must return to the truly humanizing, truly civilizing work of scholastic humanism.
Those who have upheld the work of the Schoolmen most consistently have been our Catholic poets, starting with Dante. Indeed, Southern cites Dante’s De Monarchia (1313) as the “noblest expression” of the scholastic humanism that he writes to extoll.
Man is a mean between the corruptible and the incorruptible. Just as every mean partakes of both extremes, so man has a dual nature. And since every nature is destined for a definite end, it follows that Man has two ends: on the one hand the happiness of this life, and on the other, the happiness of eternal life. The former consists in the exercise of Man’s human power and is symbolized by the terrestrial paradise which we attain through the teachings of philosophy and the practice of the moral and intellectual virtues. The latter consists in the enjoyment of the vision of God, to which Man cannot attain except by God’s help.
No one honors this scholastic humanism more admirably than Dana Gioia, as his verse and essays so brilliantly attest. In “Singing Aquinas in L.A,” which he includes in The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays (2019) he recalls singing the Tantum Ergo of Saint Thomas Aquinas as a Catholic schoolboy and feeling “enraptured” during the benediction. Of course, the beautiful hymn to the Blessed Sacrament is at the very heart of the same scholastic humanism that the Reformation and the Enlightenment sought to discredit, though it remains the only foundation on which we can build if we are to recover our lost exuberance. Readers interested in seeing how Gioia’s poetry prospers this work of renovation should get hold of his 99 Poems: New and Selected (2016).
Two other Catholic titles merit recommending. The first is The Noble Martyr: A Spiritual Biography of St. Philip Howard (2019) by Dudley Plunkett, a model hagiography of the Earl of Arundel (1557-95), one of the forty martyrs canonized by Pope VI in 1970. In the prison cell where he died of dysentery after refusing to renounce the Faith to which he vowed to remain true after hearing Edmund Campion defend it, he inscribed: “The more affliction we endure for Christ in this world, the more glory we shall obtain with Christ in the next.” The second Catholic title worth touting is David Carpenter’s Henry III: The Rise to Power and Personal Rule 1207-1258 (2020) in the Yale English Monarchs series. While some of the more recent volumes in this series have been wobbly, Carpenter’s is a glowing exception. His portrait of the king whom he describes as having led a life ‘surrounded by prayer,’ captures the essence of the man who left behind not only Westminster Abbey but thousands of grateful beggars.
Edward Short is the author of several acclaimed studies of Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman, as well as the forthcoming Saint Mary’s Anthology of Christian Verse (Gracewing).
A couple Ratzinger projects this past year precipitated my return to a few of the Bavarian pope’s classics, including his Principles of Catholic Theology, Introduction to Christianity, Truth and Tolerance, Milestones, and the unabridged version of Dogma and Preaching, all published by Ignatius, of course. The latter, containing early occasional writings and homilies, is a lesser known but no less stimulating collection that, among other things, give evidence of a vibrant and pastoral Christocentrism in the young Ratzinger. Meanwhile, Ratzinger’s profoundly existential Jesus of Nazareth books (Doubleday) continue to serve me well teaching Theology 101.
An eye to the category of history in Ratzinger’s thought also occasioned a return to von Balthasar’s Theology of History (Ignatius). Pair this one with his Love Alone is Credible (Ignatius), another old friend that is more often than not on the “active” list upon my desk, and you won’t be disappointed. A dynamic Christocentric antidote to the age is to be found in both in spades. The only book that got a serious cover-to-cover treatment this year was Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (Harvard), a dense but lively intellectual and cultural history of secularism that will get some treatment in the classroom next semester. Goes well with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity, among others.
Finally, Anna Silvas’ The Mystery of Christian Marriage Throughout the Ages delivered as promised, and I began what I hope to be a serious engagement with Livio Melina, José Noriega, and Juan José Pérez-Soba’s Camminare nella luce dell’amore (Cantagalli) reading the able English translation in five volumes by Joel Wallace, Walking in the Light of Love: The Foundations of Christian Morality (Sacra Pagina). Melina is perhaps the foremost moral theologian active today, and this text is a brilliant representation of what moral theology can look like when it is centered on the dynamism of the acting person ordered from and to Love, capacitated by union with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Goes well with Servais Pinckaers’ The Sources of Christian Ethics and Carlo Caffarra’s Living in Christ, among others. Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books) rounds out my list and promises to be another example of a secular historian who recognizes just how much Christ has shaped even the deepest convictions of a secular age. Could be a helpful apologetic resource. And, as always, especially amidst our present insanity, any chance you get to read anything by René Girard, do it.
Dr. Conor Sweeney is associate professor of theology at Christendom College.
Carl R. Trueman:
Two of my favorite books of the year were those I reviewed for CWR and about which nothing more needs to be said: the second volume of Thomas Weinandy’s New Testament theology, Jesus Becoming Jesus, covering the Book of Signs in the Gospel of John, and Erika Bachiochi’s fascinating argument for pro-life feminism, The Rights of Women.
In terms of fiction, Dostoevsky became something of a preoccupation this year, and I read/reread The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground, The Gambler and The Double. The Devils in particular has an eerie resonance with our current situation, showing how political radicalism is enabled by the useful idiocy of progressive elites. In a year of yet more national wokeness, Dostoevsky’s plot seems a little too contemporary for comfort.
In addition to Dostoevsky, I have finally started to read Sigrid Undset’s classic, Kristen Lavransdatter. It is a remarkable book, capturing beautifully the world of the Middle Ages. However, the lead characters – Sigrid and her husband – are most unsympathetic. At the time of writing this, I have another 500 pages in the company of these awful people. A great, important novel but certainly not an entertaining read.
My big personal discovery this year is the work of Hartmut Rosa, a German critical theorist who actually has useful things to say. Much of his work is made up of large, detailed tomes akin to those of Charles Taylor. But an entry point to his thought is the short book, The Uncontrollability of the World, a slim volume which explains, among other things, why the more we think we can control the world, the more problematic the world becomes and the more impotent we feel.
Finally, for fun I read Richard Thompson’s autobiography, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Thompson, a founding member of English folk band, Fairport Convention, offers an entertaining inside view of the English folk scene in the 60s and 70s and, unlike so many artists, does so without any sense of self-importance. I saw Thompson perform at a club in DC this summer and was amazed at his musicianship: as a folk guitarist I am not sure he has a peer. As a writer, he is honest, insightful, and fun.
I also have two books on my ‘to read’ list that I suspect are likely to find a positive reception among CWR readers: Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment by Benjamin and Jenna Storey, and Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living. I anticipate that both will prove excellent.
Carl R. Trueman teaches humanities at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
The past year was filled with fruitful reading, and I enjoyed exploring a number of works of fiction and non-fiction. A professor I had at my alma mater, Dr. Andrew Swafford, is – as I could detect from his plentiful references to the author in the classroom – a fan of C.S. Lewis. This past year, I’ve gone through several of Lewis’ books, two of which I’d particularly like to highlight.
The second installment of the Lewisian space trilogy, Perelandra, is a riveting story for the mature reader, the plot of which ventures into the waters of both theology and philosophy, using science fiction as a powerful medium for delivery. A thought-provoking read!
I also read A Grief Observed, in which Lewis shares personal musings over the development of his emotions and mental wellbeing after the loss of his wife. In it, he confronts the difficulties he finds his Christian faith encumbered with such as feelings of being closed off from God, the marital relationship and its post-death consequences, and a tumultuous cycle of bereavement.
Dr. Holly Ordway’s informative Tolkien’s Modern Reading (which I reviewed for The University Bookman) is simply delightful. It’s a necessary inclusion for any reader who thinks himself knowledgeable on the Lord of the Rings author, his life, or his work.
Reading The Power and the Glory served as my introduction to the literary maestro Graham Greene. A weighty tale of the consequences of sin – both on the soul and in temporal results – this novel tackles despair, regret, and repentance. In reading it, it has made me eager to delve into more of Greene’s works.
One of the books I reviewed for Catholic World Report was Miracles, a Japanese novel that hunts down the details of St. Maximilian Kolbe’s life and the purported miracles attributed to his intercession. Written by Sono Ayako, and translated by Kevin Doak, the novel doesn’t get every theological premise 100% accurate but continually offers a raw encounter with the genuine struggle between faith and doubt.
A Long Walk with Mary, a beautiful personal account by the talented Brandi Willis Schreiber, falls in the vein of memoir and takes the perspective of an Orthodox Christian in search of a more relatable bond with the Theotokos, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Lastly, I enjoyed reading through a few enjoyable collections of Catholic poetry including Collected Poems (Random House, 1982) by Karol Wojtyla and Give Joan a Sword (Macmillan, 1944) by Sister M. Thérèse of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Divine Savior.
The first is a broad array of poems penned by the man whom the world knew as Pope John Paul II; this offers poetry that is both scripturally rich and spiritually stimulating. The latter, with a foreword by Jacques Maritain, was a fantastic find at a local church sale. Unfortunately, a generic Google search yields very little regarding Sr. M. Thérèse. But her beautiful poetry speaks for itself as it speaks also of faith, the Sacraments, and the war-torn world of the 1940s. Hers is a very accessible and purely pleasurable style of verse, and it deserves better notoriety.
John Tuttle has a BA in journalism & mass communications and theology from Benedictine College.
Philip Zelikow’s The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917 (Public Affairs) would have done better as a 10,000 word long-form magazine essay than as an often-repetitive book, but the story Zelikow unfolds is fascinating and disturbing. Working from materials in the relevant foreign ministry archives, especially in Germany, the author convincingly demonstrates that President Woodrow Wilson and his unofficial consigliere, “Colonel” Edward House, had a real chance to broker a negotiated, rational peace that would have ended the First World War in late 1916 or early 1917: an opportunity lost because of Wilsonian electoral fever, Housian incompetence, and the two men’s unwarranted belief in their own sagacity. David Lloyd George’s ambitions to climb to the top of the greasy pole of British politics didn’t help, either, but the main burden of guilt in this telling of the tale on Wilson. So to the bill of indictment (racist, elitist, anti-Catholic) against the man H.L. Mencken derided as the “Archangel Woodrow” can now be added the charge that his electoral ambition and ineptitude helped make possible Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler and Nazi Germany, World War II, and all that followed therefrom.
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:
Last year (2020) I read Ron Chernow’s marvelous biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Because I enjoyed that book so much, this year I read Chernow’s biography of George Washington – Washington: A Life. This book too is an amazing accomplishment. Chernow makes evident that Washington was a very complex man, possessing many admirable virtues and his share of weaknesses. It becomes evident that, among all of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Washington stands out as uniquely qualified not only to be the general of its first army, but also its first president. Although Washington saw himself, as did many of the Founding Fathers, as the American equivalent of an English gentleman aristocrat, yet he very much cared for the cause of the common man. This benevolence is seen in his relationship with the soldiers over whom he commanded. As the country’s first president, it was Washington who foresightedly recognized that the new nation could not simply be a loose confederation of “sovereign” states, to which the people professed their first loyalty. Rather, the States must perceive that their own well-being and the good of the nation as a whole resided in their oneness. For Washington, the newly founded nation must be The United States of America. Also, both as general and as president, Washington attempted to be fair in his judgments and policies in the midst of conflicting opinions and acrimonious factions. Within this political infighting, Jefferson does not come off as an admiral honest man, which did not surprise me.
While portraying himself as a wealthy gentleman farmer, Washington was always on the verge of bankruptcy. Thus, he was constantly greedy for huge tracks of land—not only in Virginia, but also in what is now Pennsylvania. Moreover, in the midst of attempting to be honest, just, and forthright, Washington was eager to preserve, promote and enhance his own enduring reputation—often in a humble non-aggressive self-aggrandizing manner. He did not want to seek honor, but he ardently hoped that honor would find him. He knew he would be remembered throughout the ages, and he wanted that memory to be admirable.
The saddest and most troubling issue throughout Chernow’s biography is that of slavery. Washington was of two minds. He knew it to be evil, and contrary to the country’s founding documents, yet he could not image that he could live as he thought proper without slaves. They were the ones who would enhance his wealth and give dignity to his position. Moreover, because he felt that he treated his slaves well, or better than most owners, it was hard for him to grasp why they would desire freedom, and in that desire flee. He saw their dissertation as a lack of gratitude and loyalty. The irony is that he knew that owning slaves was economically impracticable, for they cost more to cloth, feed and house, than their labor monetarily accrued. In his will, Washington did free his slaves upon his death, but then, obviously, he no longer needed them. Washington realized that slavery was an ever-growing cancer within the nation. Though he tried to avoid the issue, he recognized that at some point it would have to be addressed, which included the prospect of civil war. Thus, while Washington may be considered the pre-eminent Founding Father, it would take Lincoln, by means of war, to make the nation truly one—wherein all men and woman are acknowledged to be created free and equal.
In the midst of the present heated, and often acrimonious, conflict over the manner in which the liturgy should be celebrated—Latin or English, Novus Ordo, or the Extraordinary Form—I would highly recommend the reading or re-reading of Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, especially in the Commemorative Edition published by Ignatius Press, which also includes Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. Ratzinger’s love for the liturgy is so evident that the reader cannot help but grow in his or her love for and appreciation of the liturgy. Moreover, Ratzinger’s treatise displays immense historical and theological erudition, as well as authentic pastoral wisdom. It should be required reading for all seminarians.
If one is looking for a contemporary study on the Incarnation, it would be hard to find a better book than Thomas Aquinas and the Crisis of Christology, ed. By M. Dauphinais, A. Hofer, and R. Nutt. This book is composed of a series of essays on various scriptural, historical, and theological topics that pertain to Christology, all of which are authored by a preeminent group of Thomistic scholars.
The Year of St. Joseph may be coming to a close, yet Mike Aquilina small treatise, St. Joseph and His World, does not lose its appeal. Aquilina is rightfully noted for his various books on the Fathers of the Church. In the present book, he brings to life the world in which St. Joseph found himself. We may think of the peace of Bethlehem wherein Jesus was born amidst the choirs of angels, yet danger lurked everywhere. There is King Herod who seeks to kill “the king of the Jews.” Joseph, with Mary and Jesus, must flee to Egypt and so into the unknown. Upon the Holy Family’s return, Joseph must still assure Jesus’ safety. In the midst of the political and religious turmoil that surrounds him, Joseph must also continue to work so as to provide for his family—and he must apprentice his son in the carpentry trade. At all times, Joseph’s task is to assure the wellbeing of Mary and Jesus. Aquilina makes Joseph and the world that he lived in come to life, and in so doing, he enhances the readers appreciation of St. Joseph—the Protector and Guardian of the Church.
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap. is a noted American theologian and the author of several books.
Out of many, three favorites from the past year:
Motley Stones, a collection of short stories by Austrian Adalbert Stifter (1805-1868), this edition published by NYRB Classics.
Stitler has the reputation as a writer of bucolic rhapsodies, and that reputation, at least judging by these stories, is undeserved. For while the landscapes are everything Austrian landscapes are: beautiful, magnificent, bold and absorbing, and most of the characters are good, well-intentioned, and say their prayers (most of which seem to be answered), there is, at the heart of it all, a wildness that threatens, continually, as close as the next cloud on the horizon.
Stitler’s stories are astonishing, unsettling yet comforting all at once. Some reviewers see a sort of fatalism or naturalistic nihilism at the heart, but I don’t see that at all.
What they seem to be about is the truth that living on this earth, in this world, amid natural powers and other human beings, what we must do if we want to survive is pay attention. We must watch, we must listen, we must remember. And then, we must pass on what we’ve seen, heard and learned. Slowly, gently, still paying attention as we bring the next generation into the conversation, shaping our stories to what they need and are capable of at any given moment.
What struck me the most at this reading was that these stories all seem to be framed around storytelling. It can get complicated. The narrator talks to someone who starts telling a story about another person telling a story.
But isn’t that life?
We’re walking in our story, sharing a story, remembering a story.
There is, indeed, a spiritual sense woven through these tales. Observant Catholics people this world, and they are faithful in their devotions and earnest in their faith. Their prayers are answered. Sometimes there are what the faithful might call miracles, and what the world might just call a stroke of good luck. But none of it is presented in a sentimental manner. The Mass-going, the praying with the sounds of the bells, the entreaties for rescue and safety are simply what one does, living in this world of beauty and mystery, trusting that there is safety in the storm.
Brighton Rock – as much as I’ve read of Graham Greene, this was my first time for this one. What is fascinating to me about the book – aside from the still timely critiques of mass, popular culture – is that while Green’s conversion is often derided as superficial in the moment, as he did it mostly so Vivian would marry him (and perhaps it was ), the moral and spiritual landscape of this novel is deeply and profoundly serious – and challengingly so.
My 17-year old son saw the cover of the last book on the list and proclaimed, “That is probably the most boring book ever written.” Hey, there! I don’t criticize your endless (boring) landscapes of orcs and elves and sandworms or whatever, do I?
And no, Going to Church in Medieval England is not the most boring book ever written. It’s an engaging and manageable survey of exactly what the title indicates. What was life like in a medieval English parish? How was it organized and administered? What was worship like? What were the conflicts and disagreements about? Contemporary Catholic life is full of conflict, top to bottom, sadly. Reading and understanding history doesn’t fix that – but it certainly offers a broader context for making sense of and enduring the tensions of the present.
Amy Welborn is author of over twenty books on spirituality, saints and history.
Who knew that Marshal McLuhan was a medievalist? His PhD thesis from Cambridge was published in 2007 as The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time. It is an astonishing piece of work which shows McLuhan as a scholar of the liberal arts. His thought ranges from Cicero to Alcuin to Erasmus, with references to the scholastics. He cites Greek, Latin, German, and French sources with ease. It offers more than an introduction to grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. I feel like a beginner when reading it.
My favorite books that I’ve read as part of my teaching duties this year include Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. These types of books not only never age, but given the amount of poison in contemporary culture, they are beacons of the way forward.
Brian Welter writes about education, history, and theology for many publications, including Studia gilsoniana. He teaches English in Taiwan.
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