Each year around New Year’s, editors send out requests for book recommendations to include in a column with a title like “Best Books I Read This Year.” I never reply.
Most people I know are busy and have precious little time for even the books they have, let alone a stack of new ones. Besides, I’m never sure why anyone would be interested in the books I’m reading.
And in certain instances, I find there is something a little presumptuous about these lists: “Was reading through Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica this month, found it riveting; looking forward to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus next month.” That’s fine, but it’s just not me.
If someone asked, “What’s the best book you read last year?” I suppose I might say, “Homer’s Iliad.” But then, I teach the great books, so it’s my job to read Homer. I didn’t just pick it up for fun.
I am grateful to have a job that allows me to read plenty of really good books, but the point is, if I were recommending “good books,” I would just point people to the classic list of “great books,” including the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Why would you waste your time with a lot of other second- or third-rate books that are much less interesting and much less well-written? So, as you can see, I’m probably not the best person to ask.
But as lockdowns lengthen and many have more time at home, I’m feeling compelled to propose a few recommendations, for reasons I hope will become clear in due course.
Last week on The Catholic Thing, our esteemed editor, Robert Royal, wrote a lovely article praising the late Jude Dougherty, the man who was for many crucial years the dean of the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. I never attended CUA, nor did I have the good fortune to study with Prof. Dougherty, but let me assure you, he was legendary. Hence my first recommendation. On our newly-named website, CatholicThinkers.org (formerly the International Catholic University), you will find wonderful lectures by Prof. Dougherty on his book The Logic of Religion. Check them out.
We changed the name to CatholicThinkers.org, by the way, so people could find us more easily in online searches. Since we received a generous gift that has allowed us to provide our materials for free, we thought it was time to make the change. BTW, if you’re interested in donating and helping us with our work, please go to the website.
We have another wonderful course – on logic – being developed by Edward Houser to go with his book just out from CUA Press and another on the proper understanding and use of the principle of double-effect, with more to come. And we still have all our superb courses by the giants of the previous generation: scholars like Ralph McInerny, Fr. William Wallace, Fr. Benedict Ashley, Charles Rice, and a host of others.
But that’s only one book recommendation, isn’t it? Not to worry, more are coming. The challenge is that, if I recommend something, I want it to be good enough that you could justify taking a break from reading the Fathers and Doctors of the Church to spend time reading it, and short enough that people without a lot of free time can read it and get a lot out of it. That’s a difficult combination. But I honestly think I have two.
The first is called Spiritual Direction from Dante: Avoiding the Inferno by Fr. Paul Pearson of the Oratory in Toronto, forward by Anthony Esolen. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that Paul Pearson was a good friend in college, and we took instruction in the Catholic faith together with the late Fr. Benedict Ashley. When I first saw this book, I picked it up simply because I know Fr. Paul. “Oh look, Paul wrote a book!” But then, once I started reading it, I realized quickly that it was the best darn thing I’d ever read on Dante. It is not essential that you’ve read Dante’s Inferno to benefit from it. But then again, why not make your way through the Inferno while you’re reading Fr. Paul’s book? There is no better guide. I hate to say this because he is a good friend, and I’m more than a little jealous, but this book is really, really good.
The second book I want to recommend is by someone I’ve met only once, and he’s a (gulp) Jesuit. Fr. John Gavin, S.J., has written a wonderful little book, Mysteries of the Lord’s Prayer: Wisdom from the Early Church, due out in early April. Full disclosure: I wrote a blurb for this book.
When the publisher wrote and asked whether I would write a blurb, my first thought was: “This guy’s a Jesuit; certainly they can find a dozen people more interesting and important than I to do this!” But then it occurred to me that if I agreed to write a blurb, they might send me a free book (which they haven’t yet). Since I have trouble refusing free books, I said okay. But instead of the book, they sent me a PDF preview. So not only did I not have the free book I wanted but, as I slowly began to realize, I now likely had the duty of actually reading the book before I wrote the blurb. So, I started reading and, thanks be to God, it is delightful: the book is clear, well-written, and filled with great wisdom. Get a copy. It’s got a great blurb on the back.
Well, there you go. Any of those recommendations would be worth your time. But of course, if you’re determined to make your way through St. Augustine’s City of God, the sermons of John Chrysostom, and all of Shakespeare’s history plays this year, then go right ahead. You’re a better man or woman than I am.
*Image: The Four Evangelists by a monk of the Ada School, c. 820 [Aachen Cathedral Treasury, Aachen, Germany]. This a page from the illuminated Aschen Gospels, created during the reign of Charlemagne.