"The Best Books I Read in 2009..." | Ignatius Press Authors, Editors, and Staff | December 30,
2009 | Ignatius Insight
"The Best Books I Read in 2009..." | Ignatius Press Authors, Editors, and Friends | December 30, 2009
The long-standing (five years!) tradition continues. Several Ignatius Press editors, authors, and staff were asked to offer their picks for the best books they read during the
past year. The books didn't have to be published in 2009--no need to limit great authors and books--nor did they have to
be about a specific topic. Simply, "What were the best books you read in the past year?" Commentary was optional.
Ahlquist, president and co-founder of the American Chesterton
Society, author of acclaimed books on Chesterton, including
G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and
Common Sense 101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton,
as well as associate editor of the Collected
Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He is also the publisher of
Gilbert Magazine, author of The Chesterton University Student
Handbook, and editor of The Gift of Wonder: The Many Sides of G.K.
The Duty of
Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. Best book I read this year (that wasn't by Chesterton). I started
each day this summer with it, like daily devotions. The inspiring thoughts of
someone hungering and thirsting for holiness amidst all the daily troubles we
all face, only she had to face them on an augmented scale. I didn't want the
book to end. If you still think Dorothy Day is a socialist, then you're a fool.
Here's a great line from one of her entries: "Communism yielded to the
temptation to turn stones into bread."
I Loved Jesus in
the Night, by Fr. Paul
Murray, a small book about a saint written by a future saint. Fr. Murray was
one of Mother Teresa of Calcutta's confessors, and he talks about how she dealt
with the darkness in her life and the constant sense of defeat.
One Man, One
Woman, by Dale O'Leary. A
Catholic defense of marriage using actual scientific studies as opposed to the
agenda-driven psycho-babble that has been foisted upon us by the homosexual
lobby. Dispels all the myths about homosexual partners and demonstrates our
need to protect traditional marriage. Catholics need to be equipped with the
arguments and evidence in this book.
Children of Men, by P.F. James. The movie was great. The book is
better. The pro-life argument has seldom been presented so powerfully and
The Splendor of
Sorrow, by Eddie Doherty. A
journalist-turned-priest places himself mystically into the life of the Christ
and reflects on the Seven Sorrows.
Last Call, by Tim Powers. Harry Potter for grown-ups. A
supernatural thriller. Couldn't put it down.
Ancestral Shadows. Ghost stories by Russell Kirk, of all people.
Quirky and memorable.
The Church and I, by Frank Sheed. A first-hand account of
meeting and knowing the great Catholic literary giants of the early 20th
century, engaging in street corner apologetics, running a Catholic publishing
company on both sides of the Atlantic at once, and watching the changes in the
Church, both good and bad, produced by Vatican II.
Business, by Maisie Ward.
All of the gaps of the above account, filled in by Frank's wife. Includes a
marvelous up-close and personal picture of Hilaire Belloc.
Europe, by Christopher
Dawson. Ironically, one of the best chapters in the book is not about Europe,
but about America. "American religion has lost its supernatural faith and
American philosophy has lost its rational certitude."
Report. Yeah, I know it's an
old one, but I have a whole stack of books by this guy that I haven't read yet,
and that one called to me. Good call, too.
Peace of Soul, by Fulton Sheen. Exquisite. A true "Examination
of Conscience" as Sheen takes apart modern psychology and truly studies the
the Romance of Orthodoxy, by
William Oddie. Drawing on newly discovered sources, Oddie describes G.K. Chesterton's
path to Christianity, leading up to the writing of Orthodoxy in 1908. A more in-depth treatment than has ever
been given to Chesterton's spiritual development. We hope it's volume one of a
two part biography.
Chesterton, I read 200 previously uncollected essays of his that almost no one
knew about. I found them on old microfilm at the Library of Congress. Fantastic
stuff. I also re-read Orthodoxy (which everyone should do every year), Tremendous Trifles,
The Coloured Lands, Where All Roads Lead, The Common Man, A Handful of
Authors, and Maisie Ward's
biography of Chesterton.
British author Lucy Beckett lives in Yorkshire. She as educated at Cambridge University and taught English, Latin and history at
Ampleforth Abbey and College for twenty years. She has published books on Wallace Stevens, Wagner's Parsifal, York Minster and
the Cistercian Abbeys of North Yorkshire, as well as a collection of poems, two novels, The Time Before You Die and
A Postcard From the Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany (Ignatius Press, 2009),
and In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition (Ignatius Press, 2006).
She is married, with four children.
Here, in no particular
order, are some books I much admired in 2009:
Hippo: A Life (Oxford
University Press 2009), by Henry Chadwick, a book found and published after
Professor Chadwick's death. A wonderfully crisp and intelligent short biography
by one of the most admired scholars of late antiquity.
the Jews A Christian Defense of Jews and Judasim (Doubleday 2008), Paula Fredriksen, is a
fascinating learned monograph on Augustine's perception of the vital importance
of Jewish history and faith, and survival, to Christianity.
Pilgrims (Darton, Longman
& Todd 2008), by Nicholas Lash. A collection of very interesting,
wide-ranging and thought-provoking essays and lectures by a distinguished
English Catholic theologian.
Five Germanys I
Have Known (Farrar, Straus
and Giroux 2006), by Fritz Stern. A great autobiography, beautifully written,
wise, learned and humane, by a great historian who arrived in the U.S. as a
Jewish refugee born and raised in Breslau, Germany, is now University Professor
Emeritus at Columbia University, has written a number of invaluable books, and
has played a part in U.S. and German history at a high level.
Edith Stein: a
(Continuum 2006), by Alasdair MacIntyre. A brilliant account of how the
circumstances of her life, her friends and teachers, and the terrible times in
which she lived turned Edith Stein, who died in Auschwitz, into a remarkable
philosopher and a brave Catholic.
House: an Intimate History of Poland (Orion 1997), by Radek Sikorski. The splendid story of a Polish
writer brought up under Communism in a poor country district of Poland that,
when Poland was partitioned, was in Germany.This is a lively, attractive
account of a bold and enterprising life and of Poland's recent history.
Sikorski is now Poland's foreign minister.
Mark Brumley is President of the Board of Directors
of Guadalupe Associates and Chief Executive Officer for Ignatius Press.
He is associate publisher of IgnatiusInsight.com. He also oversees magazines
for Ignatius Press, is project coordinator for the Ignatius Catholic
Study Bible, and is editor of Ignatius Press's Modern Apologetics Library.
Mark is also the author of How Not To Share Your Faith, and a contributor
to The Five Issues That Matter Most. Mark and his wife live in Napa, California, and have five children.
Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn. Another medieval "first
contact" story, but told with attention to detail, character development,
knowledge of the Middle Ages, and a light-handed Catholic sympathy.
Three Days to
Never, by Tim Powers.
Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. Israeli intelligence. Parallel worlds. Harmonic
Convergence. Lots of fun.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Ok for Jane Austen. Not my
favorite, by any means. Still, one of the better books of 2009 for me.
Aquinas, by Robert Barron. The prolific, popular, pistic
pedagogue priest on the theology of the Angelic Doctor. A good intro.
Aquinas, by Edward Feser. The prolific philosophy
professor gives us a very helpful intro to St. Thomas' philosophy. Underscore
philosophy. This is not a theological work. (By "theology" I mean sacred
theology; there's plenty of natural theology.)
Embryo, by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen. An
interesting work. I found the explanation of the science generally accurate
but not as accessible as it might be. Very helpful philosophical reflection on
the origin of the human person and the personal status of the human embryo.
Obviously, such a discussion is immensely relevant to the abortion debate, but
as also the issue of experimentation and killing of embryonic human beings.
Some experts will disagree with this or that element of the philosophical
argument but the book is nevertheless an important one that must be reckoned
Man, by G.K. Chesterton.
Always worthwhile. I wish I could read it every year.
Life After Death, by Dinesh D'Souza. Popular apologetics at its
best. D'Souza makes a good case for the afterlife. The New Atheists must
really love him.
Around the World
in 80 Days, by Jules Verne.
Another book club pick. I read it as a teenager. Forgot almost all of it
except the main idea.
Manalive, by G.K. Chesterton. A book club pick. Great
read because it's Chesterton. We're all awaiting the movie.
Moral Philosophy, by Jacques Maritain. A classic.
The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis. Always learn something when I
read this book. To read him is to grow in mental health, as Lewis said of, I
believe, Spencer. Unfortunately, one of the things I always learn from this
book is how far I fall short in agape.
The Common Sense
of Politics, by Mortimer J.
Adler. A great book by one of the promoters of the reading of the Great Books.
Many people would be annoyed by how he uses the term "socialism" and
anti-democrats would reject his claims about democracy as the most just form of
government (actually, the only fully just form of government). Adler's
presentation is similar to the approach of philosophers such as Maritain and
Simon. Simon's Philosophy of Democratic Government is a great work as well, but Adler's is far more
accessible and addresses a wider range of issues.
Brother Odd, by Dean Koontz. A monastic mystery and
spiritual thriller for Koontz's character Odd Thomas. Lots of fun. Koontz is
an entertaining writer who is a Catholic.
Naturalism, by Stewart Goetz and Charles Talifaferro
State, by Hilaire Belloc.
Re-read this work in light of the growing emphasis on state action and
intervention in the economy.
How to Read
Wittgenstein, by Ray Monk.
Bertrand Russell thought Wittgenstein would be his scientific philosophical
missile to destroy traditional philosophy. Wittgenstein came to have other
things in mind. Monk does an excellent job of giving an accessible account of
what those other things were.
Dr. Paul Kengor is a professor
at Grove City College and the executive director of the College's The Center
for Vision and Values. He is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution
on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. Kengor is a frequent
television political commentator and opinion page contributor, as well as the
author of several best-selling books. He is the author of several books, including God and Ronald
Reagan, God and George W. Bush, God and Hillary Clinton, The Crusader: Ronald
Reagan and the Fall of Communism, and co-editor with Peter Schweizer of Assessing the Reagan Presidency. He is the co-author, with
Patricia Clark Doerner, of The Judge: William P. Clark,
Ronald Reagan's Top Hand
Politics for the
Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square (InterVarsity Press, 2009), by Clarke Forsythe.
Clarke Forsythe is senior counsel for Americans United for Life, the legal arm
of the pro-life movement. Forsythe is not Catholic, but this book is one
Catholics will find not only friendly but uplifting. Tellingly, all four of the
endorsers on the back cover are Catholic, including Bishop Charles Chaput,
Professor Robert George, and the late Richard John Neuhaus. Quoting great minds
from Augustine to Aquinas, from Hamilton to Madison to Jefferson, from Lincoln
to Wilberforce, Forsythe reminds us that we live in a fallen, imperfect
world—comprised of fallen, imperfect men and women—and thus ought
to expect fallen, imperfect results from our political system. As James Madison
wrote in Federalist 51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."
But men aren't angels, and neither are their governments. Thus, the need for an
integral understanding of the virtue of prudence in the public square: the
focus of Forsythe's very timely book. Forsythe makes clear that we should hope
for the best in politics, but not expect the best, and should never place our
happiness in politics. We should make our decisions prudently, and expect
change to come slowly—and not get frustrated along the way. These are
especially needy lessons for pro-lifers.
On Two Wings:
Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (Encounter Books, 2002), by Michael Novak. In
this book, Novak, the excellent Catholic theologian, brilliantly applies John
Paul II's "two wings" of "faith and reason" to the brilliant work of the
American Founders. In all of my reading and teaching on the American Founding,
I had never encountered this application—until Novak. It gave me an
entirely new Catholic understanding of what happened in 1776. The appendix of
the book should not be neglected, as Novak gives brief synopses of the
religious beliefs of figures ranging from Alexander Hamilton to Tom Paine. This
is excellent reading for every July 4.
Fides et Ratio (September 14, 1998), by Pope John Paul II.
Speaking of "faith and reason," this profound encyclical by the late pontiff
examines the hand-in-glove relationship between fides ("faith") and ratio
("reason"). Here, Pope John Paul II considered the "two wings" of faith and
reason "on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." This
encyclical was issued on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.
Holiness (Doubleday, 1962),
by Thomas Merton. This moving work was Merton at his best, and here in a
largely forgotten gem that I found tucked away on the shelf of our parish
library. This small book on how to aspire to holiness cannot be quickly read in
a day. Each page is like a meditation to be savored.
Supper (Doubleday, 1999), by
Scott Hahn. I read this book a second time last spring as the feature book in
our parish apologetics class. It really is a superb work essential to an
informed intellectual understanding of the Eucharist. Every adult Catholic who
presents himself or herself for Holy Communion needs to study this book. Doing
so will amplify the experience in ways far deeper than the typical Catholic can
World War II
Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West (Pantheon, 2008), by Laurence Rees. Now for a
history selection: This book by British historian and documentarian Laurence
Rees includes newly released archival information on the very troubling
relationship among the Big Three: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Prime
Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet mass-murdering despot Joe Stalin. Among
them, FDR's naivetˇ on Stalin was devastating to post-war Europe. The material
on Poland, in particular, is tragic, from the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion in
September 1939 to the cover up of the Katyn Woods massacre. On the latter, FDR
turned a blind eye to the Soviet role in the initial crime and the subsequent
cover up. The book was accompanied by an even more engaging DVD series, which
was carried this year by PBS affiliates.
The Apostles (Our Sunday Visitor, 2007), by Pope Benedict
XVI. This relatively brief book is a superb exposition on the Apostles. I
strongly recommend it for any Adult Education class at a parish. It is both
accessible to the casual reader and also intellectually satisfying to more
serious students of the faith. The chapters on Peter and Paul ought to be
required reading for any RCIA program, especially the Peter chapter.
John Dewey and
the Decline of American Education
(ISI Books, 2006), by Henry T. Edmondson III. For anyone looking for a
thoughtful primer on John Dewey, the founder of modern public education, this
is a good source. The brief book nicely captures Dewey's penchant for
"experimentation" and general corrosive influence on education in America. For
an insight into the colossal failure of American public education, and
especially the nation's horrible teachers' training departments at
universities, this is a nice starter. Edmondson also briefly addresses Dewey's
militantly atheistic statements on religion.
Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen
(William Morrow, 2009), by Mark Rudd, and Radical Son (Free Press, 1997), by David Horowitz. These two
books will seem an odd choice for a Catholic's recommended reading list.
Neither Rudd nor Horowitz is Catholic; both are Jewish, with Rudd (to my
knowledge) remaining a non-practicing Jew. Both share a very similar
background: they were 1960s communist revolutionaries. Horowitz was raised a
communist, a self-described "red-diaper baby." In the 1960s, Horowitz became
editor of the radical publication Ramparts, while Rudd became a major figure in
SDS and the Weather Underground. Today, Horowitz has converted into a dynamic
political conservative, whereas Rudd remains a man of the left. Why recommend
these books to this audience? Both books are gripping memoirs about life and
the dominant figures in the 1960s political left, many of whom today run our
universities and pervade the political climate, from Congress to the White
House. Rudd is now a leader of "Progressives for Obama," and seems shocked that
Americans—including a majority of Roman Catholics—finally agreed
with him on a presidential candidate. Both books are brutally honest memoirs.
Rudd's story is a shocking tell-all, holding nothing back, and fully revealing
the breathtaking depths of depravity of the 1960s counter-culture. There are
moments in reading Rudd's book when the reader will want to simply go take a
bath—or grab a rosary. (Nonetheless, kudos to Rudd for his painful
honesty.) Certainly, the Rudd book is not even remotely spiritually edifying
(the Horowitz book is politically edifying). Both books are very enlightening
politically, and speak volumes about the long march of the "progressives" now governing
America courtesy of American (and Catholic) voters. Catholics might want to
read these books to learn a little something about what they've just elected.
Miesel is a Catholic journalist, medieval
historian, and co-author of The Pied Piper of Atheism and the best-selling
Da Vinci Hoax. She holds masters degrees in biochemistry and
medieval history from the University of Illinois. Since 1983, she has written
hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and
hagiography. Sandra has spoken at religious
and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews.
Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited
fiction. Sandra and her late husband John raised three children.
Holy Man: Fr.
Damien of Molokai, by Gavan
Daws. An old but excellent biography.
Henry VIII: Man
and Monarch, edited by Susan
Doran. Catalog of an exhibition at the British Library, showing many key
original documents from his reign.
Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn. Solidly researched historical
science fiction puts space aliens in 14th C. Germany--just before the Black
The Company They
Keep, by Diana Pavlac Glyer.
Traces networks of friendship among the Inklings in minute detail.
of Witchcraft, edited by
Richard M. Golden. Exhaustive synthesis of recent research on the European
God and the
Goddesses: Vision, Poetry and Belief in the Middle Ages, by Barbara Newman. A brilliant study of
feminine personifications in medieval art and literature.
Medieval Schools, by Nicholas Orme. Complements his earlier
study, Medieval Children.
Our Lady of
Guadalupe 1531-1797: Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, by Stafford Poole. Text-based survey of the
Tides, by Tim Powers. A
delightful stew ofpirates, Voodoo and zombies in a fantasy version of the
Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religion and Culture, by Miri Rubin. Insightful lectures on Marian
Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe, by Stephen Wilson. The superstitions our
ancesors lived by.
Lost: This metaphysical fantasy is the most
densely layered series ever to run on network TV.
Ponyo: A charming animated fable from Japanese master
Roman Holiday: Still a delight after more than 50 years
but this time I noticed the socio-political subtext.
Star Trek: Terrifically entertaining reboot of the old TV
Up: Lovely blend of serious themes and comedy in
fine Pixar style.
Lorraine V. Murray, Ph.D., is the author of Confessions Of An Ex-Feminist,
and the religion columnist for
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also writes an award-winning column for The Georgia Bulletin and is the author of Grace Notes, Why Me? Why Now?, and How Shall
We Celebrate? In 2009, she welcomed the arrival of two books: The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O'Connor's Spiritual Journey and Death in the Choir, her first
work of fiction. Murray lives in Decatur, Georgia, with her husband.
O'Connor: Collected Works. I
spent most of my waking hours during the past two years working on my new book The
Abbess of Andalusia, which is a
spiritual biography of Flannery O'Connor, so the Collected Works was a real godsend. It contains both of her
novels, plus 28 short stories, eight essays, and a lovely collection of her
The Way of the
Ascetics by Tito Colliander.
This book has moving reflections on prayer, fasting, humility, and inner
warfare against demons. The author's profound advice, based on the teachings of
the Holy Fathers, runs counter to the typical secular advice we so often are
bombarded with. For example, he notes, "Do not seek higher posts and higher
titles: the lower the position of service you have, the freer you are...." Amen,
A Memoir of Mary
Ann by the Dominican Nuns of
Our Lady of Perpetual Help home, Atlanta. Mary Ann came to the Dominican sisters
when she was just 3 years old and died nine years later from a severely
deforming cancerous tumor on her face. The sisters wanted to record their
memories of this unusual little girl, so in 1960 they approached Flannery
O'Connor, and she agreed to help them with the book. Flannery's introduction
stands as a deeply moving and profound reflection on suffering, and the book
itself is lively, spirited and joyful, just like Mary Ann herself.
In the School of
the Holy Spirit by Jacques
Philippe. Starting with the premise that the shortest way to holiness is by
following the Holy Spirit's inspirations, this book tackles a crucially
important question: how can we discover which inspirations come from God, and
which are the work of that master trickster, the devil? The author relies on
help from Scripture and the saints, and does a superb job of providing solid
criteria for clearing a path through the weedy temptations and deceptions of
O'Brien, born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1948
is a self-taught painter and writer. Both his written work and visual art
have been reviewed and reproduced widely. He is an author of several books,
notably his seven volume Children of the Last Days series of novels,
including Father Elijah, A Cry of Stone, and Sophia House. His most recent novel is Island
of the World: A Novel, which is set in the Balkans.
He is also the author of A Landscape With Dragons, an examination
of the phenomenon of contemporary pagan influence in children's culture.
Visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author
page for a full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press.
A reread of Cancer
Ward, First Circle, and One Day in the Life of Ivan
Denisovich by Aleksandr
A Postcard from
the Volcano by Lucy Beckett,
a deeply moving novel about a group of young people in Europe on the verge of
Honour trilogy by
Evelyn Waugh. Waugh at his driest, subtlest, and most scathing story-telling
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (forget Disney and read this
witty, dark, moral tale), if possible in the edition with the utterly superb
illustrations by Roberto Innocenti
St. Catherine of
Sienna, by Sigrid Undset
Life and Fate, by Vassily Grossman. Written by a Soviet
dissident, this novel is a portrait of Stalinist society during the seige of
The Rites of
Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989) by Modris Eksteins. This brilliant,
magnificently written history of the years immediately preceding WWI, and up to
and including WWIIilluminatesthe degenerate moral, psychological,
and cultural climate of Europe that contributed to the worst wars in the
history of mankind. Also Eksteins' Walking Since Daybreak: A Story of
Eastern Europe, World War II and the Heart of Our Century (1999)
Alphabet, written by an old
friend, Fr. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB—gentle humour, wisdom and the eyes of a
So Brave, Young,
and Handsome, by Lief
Enger—a young American novelist who writes a galloping narrative that is
both comic and tragic, with delightful wit and a Christian eye for the
mysteries of divine providence.
E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is author of Will Catholics Be "Left
Behind"? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Todays Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius
Press, 2003), recognized by the Associated Press as one of the best
religious titles of 2003, and co-author, with medievalist Sandra Miesel,
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code (Ignatius,
2004). Carl writes for several Catholic periodicals, pens a weekly Scripture column for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper, and is a contributing editor for This Rock magazine.
A former Evangelical Protestant who entered the Catholic Church in 1997, he has a Masters in Theological Studies
from the University of Dallas. Carl lives in Oregon with his wife, three children, two cats, and some books and CDs.
I read passages,
paragraphs, and even entire books published by Ignatius Press but will, as is
my custom, leave those books out of my list—with a single exception: 111
Questions on Islam: Samir Khali Samir, S.J. on Islam and the West, interviews conducted by Giorgio Paolucci and
Camille Eid. It is a very helpful and balanced introduction to Islam, written
by a highly respected scholar who is one of Pope Benedict's main advisors on
issues relating to the Muslim world.
Many of the books I read this past year had to do with either politics and
philosophy, and many of those books were published by Intercollegiate
Studies Institute (ISI). At the top of both lists is a book I read twice and
whose author I interviewed once: The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding
and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by
Command (ISI, 2008), by
James Kalb. I'll borrow here from the review I wrote for Catholic World
Report: "Despite its
attention-grabbing title—a title that Kalb readily demonstrates is far
less polemical and far more prescient than it might appear at first
blush—this is one of those rare books of political and cultural criticism
that is clear without being simplistic, complex without being esoteric, and
wide-ranging without being scattered."
title from ISI is The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact,
Theory, and Sign of Contradiction
(ISI, 2009), by J. Budziszewski, professor of philosophy and government at
University of Texas. This introduction to natural law is clear, witty,
accessible, and brilliantly argued. The Geography of Good and Evil:
(ISI, 2009), by Dutch philosopher Andreas Kinneging, covers some of the same
territory, with a particular focus on leisure, justice, and virtue; it draws,
in part, on the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand and reminds me in many ways of
the writings of Josef Pieper.
Game: Pluralism, Liberalism, and the Moral Conscience (Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), by Francis
Canavan, S.J., is a slender but powerful collection of essays that demonstrates
how shaky, even rotten, are the various premises and assumptions of modern
liberalism. The author, who taught for many years at Fordham University, passed
away in February 2009.
I put off reading
Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American
Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change (Broadway Books, 2007, 2009) for some time,
concerned it might be just another paint-by-numbers work of ideological
polemics. On the contrary, it is a well-researched and strongly argued book
with much food for thought. In addition, it's very well-written and quite
humorous, providing needed respite from the often depressing nature of the
It was a rather
strange experience to read The Seal: A Priest's Story (XLibris, 2008), by Rev. Timothy J. Mockaitis,
not only because I know the author, but because it details events that took
place while he was my pastor. In fact, Fr. Mockaitis received my wife and me
into the Church in 1997, during which time he was dealing with many of the
tense and trying legal difficulties that had come about because of a taped
confession. You'll not think of the priesthood or the sacrament of confession
quite the same once you read this book.
A Modern Guide
to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often Misinterpreted Teaching (Hillenbrand Books, 2008), by Edward N. Peters,
JD, JCD, is the book to get if you or someone you know has questions about
indulgences. The only question it doesn't answer is, "How many indulgences
received for reading it?"
Word on Fire:
Proclaiming the Power of Christ (Crossroad,
2008), by Fr. Robert Barron, are homily-like Scriptural reflections on God,
Christ, the Holy Spirit, the saints, liturgy, and faith. Excellent. Two similar
works, written many decades ago, but filled with delightful writing and
penetrating thought, are Stimuli (Sheed and Ward, 1951) and Lightning Meditations (Sheed and Ward, 1959), both by Monsignor Ronald
Knox. The brilliant English convert never fails to impress with his erudition,
depth, and beautiful style.
Speaking of Knox, I
re-read one great Chesterton book, Saint Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb
Ox" (1933) and read one I should have read many years
ago, St. Francis of Assisi
(1923), which provided a fascinating contrast between two of the greatest saints of the past millennium.
The Society of
Judas: A Novel (2009), by C.
Theodore Murr, was one of the few works of fiction I read this past year, and
it was memorable. A raw and often startling book, it tells the story of a
priest who learns, through betrayal and great suffering, the real meaning of persona
Christi. There are hints of
Graham Greene, J. F. Powers, and Walker Percy, but the final work is quite
Two books about music
that I enjoyed this year were The Essential Canon of Classical Music (North Point Press, 2001), by David Dubal, and What
Jazz Is: An Insider's Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz (Walker and Co., 1997), by Jonny King.
Finally, two books
that went together in many ways, despite being published almost sixty years
apart: Understanding Europe
(Sheed and Ward, 1952), by Christopher Dawson, and The Nation That Forgot
God: A Book of Essays (The
Social Affairs Unit, 2009), edited by Edward Leight and Alex Haydon. The
"nation" in question is England, but the larger context is Europe.
Dawson warns of what could happen when a culture rejects its religious and
traditional roots; the essays compiled by Leight and Haydon (including pieces
by Roger Scruton and Archbishop Vincent Nichols), describe what has happened.
Not always pleasant reading, but certainly timely.
Pearce has firmly established himself as
the premier literary biographer of our time, especially in interpreting
the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary tradition. He is the author
of acclaimed biographies of G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, Hilaire Belloc,
and J.R.R. Tolkien, and books on English literature and literary converts. His most recent book is The Quest
for Shakespeare. Pearce is Writer-in-Residence and Associate Professor of Literature at Ave Maria
University in Naples, Florida, and is the Co-Editor of the St. Austin
Review and the Editor-in-Chief of Sapientia
Press. He is also the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions.
Visit his IgnatiusInsight.com
author page for more about his work and a full listing of his books
published by Ignatius Press.
There is no doubt that
the best new book I've read this year is A Postcard from the Volcano by Lucy Beckett (Ignatius 2009). This wonderful
novel is not merely the best new work of fiction that I've read in several
years it is, me judice, a work that deserves a place among the classics of
modern literature. I am in awe at the sheer genius of Miss Beckett. Brava! And
Another gripping work
of fiction is Piers Paul Read's Death of a Pope (Ignatius 2009). Although not in the same league
as the aforementioned Volcano,
it is, to employ a time honoured and time-worn clichˇ, a real page turner. How
refreshing it is to read a thriller with theological nous.
assertion that Volcano is
"the best new book I've read this year" indicates that I've read some
books that are even better but that are not "new". I think, perhaps,
that the accolade of "best old book" that I've read this year belongs
to Maurice Baring's sublime C, a novel that is as long and convoluted as its title is short and au
point. The plot of C is excruciatingly slow--and I mean this as a
compliment! Like a good game of chess, there's no real action or denouement
until all the pieces are in place. Then, like a coiled spring, it bursts into
action, all its potential energy, stored painstakingly in the first few hundred
pages, exploding with kinetic gravitas--and yes gravitas can be kinetic! Baring
has to be one of the most unjustly neglected novelists of the twentieth
century. All lovers of great literature should consider it a duty to pray for
the resurrection of his reputation.
The best work of
apologetics I've read this year is indubitably Richard Purtill's superb Reason
to Believe: Why Faith Makes Sense
(Ignatius 2009). I can't see how any honest intellectual could take Dawkins and
his ilk seriously after reading Purtill's philosophical defence of faith.
As a convert myself,
and as my own work suggests, I am fascinated by conversion stories. This being
so, two new collections of conversion stories have been most welcome additions
to my library in 2009. Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-three Surprised
Converts to Replant His Vineyard
(Ignatius 2009) and Mere Christians: Inspiring Stories of
Encounters with C.S. Lewis
(Baker Books 2009) offer a wealth of wonderful testimonies of the workings of
divine grace in Enemy territory. Heart warming and faith building fare for the
While we're on the
subject of converts, I must mention two excellent new books on converts, for
which I have written introductions and which will be published next year. Roy
Campbell Remembered: An Intimate Portrait by His Daughters (Zossima 2010) is a posthumously published
memoir of the convert poet by his daughters, Tess and Anna, edited with
sympathetic dexterity by South African scholar, Judith Coullie. I drew on much
of the material from these memoirs for my own biography of Campbell, Unafraid
of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell (ISI 2005/HarperCollins 2002) but it is good to
see the memoirs finally being published in their own right. The other converts
book is Converts to Rome,
by John Beaumont, an exhaustive compendium of English converts from the time of
the Reformation, which will be published by St. Augustine's Press in 2010.
Last year I praised a
new book on C. S. Lewis and Ronald Knox, Second Friends: C. S. Lewis and
Ronald Knox in Conversation
(Ignatius 2008). This year, I'm pleased that there is further evidence of a
Knox revival with the publication of The Wine of Certitude: A Literary
Biography of Ronald Knox by
David Rooney (Ignatius 2009), an excellent literary biography that serves as a
perfect introduction to Knox's life and work.
Finally, and at the
risk of being accused of self-promotion (heaven forbid!), I must wax lyrical
about the new Ignatius Critical Edition of The Merchant of Venice (Ignatius 2009). The selection of critical
essays assembled in this edition is simply second to none. Anyone wishing to
understand this most controversial of Shakespeare's plays will find no better
has doctoral degrees in canon and civil law. He currently holds the Edmund
Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.
He has authored or edited several books and is the translator of the English
edition of The
1917 Pio Benedictine Code of Canon Law. His most recent book is Excommunication and the
Catholic Church (Ascension Press, 2006. Read IgnatiusInsight.com interview here.)
His canon law website can be found at www.canonlaw.info.
The Human Right
to Language, by L. Siegel
Caesar, by C. Chaput (2008)
Ford: Moral Theologian, by
E. Genilo (2007)
Doing Our Own
Thing: the Degradation of Language,
by J. McWhorter(2003)
Interpreting: the myth of neutrality, by M. Metzger (1999)
Universities and Ecclesiastical Authority, by J. Conn (1991)
Congo, by M. Chrichton (1980)
Helter Skelter, by Bugliosi & Gentry (1974)
American, by G. Greene
The Loved One, by E. Waugh (1948)
Socrates, by A. Taylor (1951)
Ius Canonicum de
Delictis et Poenis, by I.
Tres filie, tres
clerici (12th century)
Stephen K. Ray was raised in a devout, loving Baptist family. His father was
a deacon and Bible teacher and Stephen was very involved in the Baptist
Church as a teacher of Biblical studies and lectured on a wide range of
topics. Steve and his wife Janet entered the Catholic Church in 1994. In addition to running a family business, Steve spends time researching, writing,
and teaching about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of Crossing
the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church, Upon
This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early
Church, and St.
John's Gospel: A Bible Study and Commentary. He is currently producing
a 10-video series for Ignatius Press called The
Footprints of God: The Story of Salvation From Abraham to Augustine,
filmed on location in the Holy Land. His website is www.catholic-convert.com.
One book on nutrition
and food that I read and used a lot this year is SuperFoodsRx – 14
Foods That Will Change Your Life,
by Steven G. Pratt, MD. A good book for us gluttonous American Catholics.
I know this is not the typical "Catholic book" you are looking for,
but I think we Catholics need to focus more on these kind of things and become
better examples. Okay, I'm off my soapbox and here are the
There are three
relatively new Bible commentary series, and one that has been around for
awhile. The first two sets are based on quotes from the Fathers of the
Church—unhappily they are both by Protestant publishers. The third is a
Catholic series and the fourth is a Jewish series.
Of all the books I
have used this year, the vast majority are electronic books. I have Logos
Bible Software 4 on my
computer and have it running constantly. I couldn't live without it. I have
almost 3,500 books and resources in its electronic library and there is nothing
else like if for those interested in studying the Bible. But, let's get to
actual turn-the-pages kind of books.
The first is Ancient
Scripture Commentary on Scripture,
published by IVP. The second has only three volumes released so far but I am
using the one on 1 Corinthians which is exceptional. It is The Church's
Bible series published by Eerdmans. They follow Scripture
verse-by-verse and provide quotes from the Fathers to enlighten each passage of
the Bible. Very helpful.
There is also an
excellent new Catholic Commentary series edited by two friends of mine: Peter
Williamson and Mary Healy. It the Catholic Commentary Series, and is published by Baker Academic. They have
three volumes out so far: Mark, Ephesians and 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus. I covet
the whole series and can't wait for the other volumes to be published. Hey, is
"coveting" always bad?
Another series I have
found extremely valuable—actually brilliant—is the JPS Bible
Commentary series. The JPS
stands for Jewish Publication Society. Having a scholarly Jewish commentary
series adds a whole need deep dimension to Old Testament study. I used the
volume on Genesis while writing the commentary on the first book of the Bible
and found it extremely insightful and brilliant.
I also have enjoyed
Kenneth Howell's new translation and commentary on the Apostolic Fathers with
his first edition: Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Syrna published by Coming Home Network. I love the
Apostolic Fathers because—to be honest—they were the ones that brought
me into the Catholic Church. These two were very influential. My friend Ken did
a fantastic job of bringing them to light again for a modern audience. Can't
wait for future volumes.
lands I have enjoyed three books that are older but relevant in their own way
of revealing the lands of the Bible before they became modern. They were
written by Henry V. Morton and published by Da Capo Press: In the Steps
of the Master, A Traveller in Rome,
and In the Steps of Paul.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and
Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his
St. Augustine's Press
published a very short and quite useful book by Ralph McInerny entitled, Some
Catholic Writers. The book
consists of some forty short essays in Catholic novelists, primarily, but also
thinkers of various sorts, like Maritain, Gilson, Msgr. Kelly, and Josef
Pieper, who would not be called novelists, but who are still within the
category of both Catholic and writers. McInerny literally gives us a wonderful
list of things to read or reread. And he is ever amusing: In the chapter on
Pieper, he writes: "All philosophers long to be intelligible, yet become
accustomed to the glazed eyes of listeners when they try to convey what it is
they are working on." Yes, avoiding the "glazed eye" is ever the
concern of any professor.
A couple of these
novelists that McInerny speaks of I had never heard of, or, if so, only
barely--Kate Chopin, Baron Corvo, or Francis Marion Crawford, but I now want to
read them. Many are familiar--Chesterton, Maurice Baring, Flannery O'Connor,
Mauriac, Waugh, Peguy, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is buried across the river
in Rockville. A couple are not Catholics, like Willa Cather.
In the chapter on
Belloc, we read: "Christians feel less impulse to go teach all nations
when it is intimated that in their own way the pagans have the Good News
already." Needless to say, no idea, certainly not one espoused by Belloc,
has been more responsible for undermining the missions than this one. Tyrants
by comparison welcome the apostles.
In the chapter on
Willa Cather, we read the story of Ralph Waldo Emerson visiting the great
Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore, after which he wrote to his wife: "It was
such a relief to see a ceremony in which the preacher was not the star."
We read this comment today with the realization that too many of our Catholic
cathedrals now feature "stars" in the name usually of Vatican II
McInerny is fond of
citing the following passage from Samuel Johnson, this time found in the
chapter on James Joyce: "Sure, Joyce was an honest apostate. He does
however put one in mind of Dr. Johnson's remark that the Irish are an honest
race--they never speak well of one another."
Each of McInerny's
short chapters gives the reader just enough incentive to want to go out and
read the author. To read them all is the lifetime of reading that
McInerny himself has delightfully engaged in.
Speaking of Brian
Moore, McInerny writes: The moonscape power of Moore's fiction lies precisely
here. The loss of faith is loss indeed, and it is often taken to have
Dostoevskian consequences." Or as he put it earlier, "It is to
Moore's artistic credit that the lone alternative to eternal life is stark,
violent, and irrational."
Let me conclude, with
McInerny's summation of Graham Greene: All efforts to see the
significance of human life in this-world terms are inadequate to the way it
really is." On second thought, this conclusion of McInerny is equally as
good: "Novels are books deliberately written in quest of the wonder of the
human person whose life is inevitably a mixture of the intended and unintended
but with the suggestion of a patter of whose meanings we are never quite
sure.... The poet, the novelist, the saint above all, remind us how little our
fates is in our hands." What is in our hands is the record of what
McInerny tells us to read and yes rejoice in our reading."
Russell Shaw is the author of eighteen books and is the former information director of the National Conference of
Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference and Knights of Columbus. He is also a member of the Equestrian Order
of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the father of five and the grandfather of nine.
By far the best book I
read in 2009 was The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. This is a very long, slow
paced, and absolutely fascinating Victorian novelabout a bigtime
confidence man and thehuge number of people--sycophants, broken-down
aristocrats, and people seeking glamourby association--whom he draws into
his web. As I read it several months back, I kept thinking, "It's Bernard
Madoff to the life." Now, along with Madoff, I also am reminded vividly of
that wonderful couple who crashed the White House state dinner hoping to get on
TV. Some things never change, I guess, and Trollope back in 1875 knew what they
Dr. Jose Yulo teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization, United States history, and public speaking at
the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on
the philosophy of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a
Bachelor's degree in the classical liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. Originally from Manila in the Philippines,
his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien. He is
a regular contributor to IgnatiusInsight.com.
Search for IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Dr. Jose Yulo
Political Philosophy, by Leo
Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. To this day, the definitive work on the
field. Of note are Strauss' discussion on Machiavelli and Fr. Ernest
Fortin's chapter on Augustinian political thought.
The Germania, by Tacitus. A perennial read in my
Western Civilization class. At times Tacitus' condescending eye toward
the inhabitants of Germany is tempered by his wistful admiration of their
culture vis a vis his native Rome. A regular question to students is
whether Tacitus truly saw the Germans as barbarians. A more introspetive
query is whether the Germans, with their upholding the sancitity of marriage
and birth of offspring amidst a warlike ethos would have seen our own
postmodernity as barbaric.
The Mind that is
Catholic, by Fr. James
Schall, S.J. Schall's work belongs in Strauss and Cropsey'd earlier
compilation of great political thought. However, the good father's book
stands alone in its insistence on politial philosophy's original charge:
that of searching for the best regime. As Schall himself strikingly put
it: "Augustine thus understood in advance the data of a Machiavelli
at the beginnings of modernity, but he did not conclude with it. He did
not think that understanding the worst in us justified our ignoring the
Beowulf. It is a true tragedy in the history of
literature to have such a unique and evocative poem so manipulated by and for
popular culture. The 2007 film adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon work
portrayed Beowulf, and before him Hrothgar, as pseudo-Nietzschean ubermen
brought down by their carnal desires. Perhaps this is because the virtue
of the Anglo-Saxon hero is so distant from the modern frame of mind as to make
it almost impossible to translate into the language and images of the
times. The literary Beowulf stood betwixt pagan and Christian epochs;
during the time, as mentioned by the venerable Bede, when men viewed life as
the flight of the sparrow in and out of the light and warmth of the mead
hall. Through these Northern pagan lenses, virtue was still achievable,
though one did not cling to a transcendent font of virtue. Tolkien's
depiction of Theoden of Rohan best fits this ethos, men of an earlier age
seeking right yet being untouched by the light of salvation. Unlike
medieval pagans, popular culture knows of, yet rejects virtue, both the
salvific, and the worldly.
Previous Editions of "The Best Books I Read...":
"The Best Books I Read in 2008..."
"The Best Books I Read in 2007..."
"The Best Books I Read in 2006..."
"The Best Books I Read in 2005..."
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