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"The Best Books I Read in 2010..." | Ignatius Press Authors, Editors, and Friends | January 1, 2011

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The ancient and venerable tradition (six years and counting!) 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 2010--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.

Dale 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. Chesterton.

The Tudors, by G. J. Meyer. Fascinating and complete account of the ruling family who screwed up Western Civilization.

Defence of the Seven Sacraments, by Henry VIII. Luther was a blowhard, but so was Henry VIII.

Three Days to Never, by Tim Powers. Mark Brumley read it last year. I read it this year. You read it next year.

The Glory of Thy People, by Fr. M. Raphael Simon. Autobiography of a Jewish psychiatrist who became Catholic and then became a Trappist monk.

Toward a Truly Free Market, by John Medaille. Best book ever written on Distributism. And this could serve as an economics textbook in any school. In fact, it will be the economics textbook at Chesterton Academy next year!

The Church and the Libertarian, by Christopher Ferrara. There is no longer any excuse for Catholics to defend Von Mises.

The War on Smokers and the Rise of the Nanny State, by Theodore King. Entertaining and well-argued and not very reassuring. Smoke 'em if you've got 'em.

The Church of the Kevin, by Kevin O'Brien. Even though it's only 55 pages long, it seemed shorter.

The Elusive Father Brown, by Julia Smith. A biography of Msgr. John O'Connor, the priest who was Chesterton's friend and was the basis for the fictional detective that Chesterton created. A much more interesting and influential figure than most people have imagined.

The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton, edited by William Oddie. Papers from a scholarly conference at Oxford, from such luminaries as Fr. Ian Ker, Fr. John Saward, and Fr. Aidan Nichols. This excellent and profound volume will help pave the way for Chesterton's beatification.

And speaking of Chesterton, I re-read St. Francis of Assisi, What's Wrong with the World, The Defendant, and a bunch of essays from The Daily News the New Witness G.K.'s Weekly, and the Illustrated London News. Chesterton keeps getting better.

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 are three wonderful books, two new and one old, providing excellent, wise ammunition for anyone wanting to counter the secular debunking of Christian tradition, high culture, the mind, the soul, God, so often met nowadays, particularly in universities:

The Disinherited Mind, by Erich Heller (Bowes and Bowes, 1952, 4th edition 1975).

God, Philosophy, Universities, by Alasdair MacIntyre (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).

Absence of Mind, by Marilynne Robinson (Yale University Press, 2010).

Bradley J. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies, Hillsdale College, Michigan, and the author of American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll (ISI, 2010); Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (2007); and J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth (2003).

When it comes to reading and writing, American and western culture, to my way of thinking, seems to be flourishing even as it experiences pangs and concerns about the changing nature of print and book technologies.

Not only are great new works being produced (one only has to give a cursory examination of the book lists of such publishers as ISI Books or Ignatius to see the obvious proof of this claim), but the technology to write as well as to read has been changing not only over my lifetime, but dramatically even in the previous calendar year, especially with the overwhelming popularity and adoption of such reading devices as Apple's iPad and digital reading devices.

Far from experiencing the death of the written word, western culture seems to be moving toward a re-emergence of an intimate and true alliance of the word and the image—tangible and, if pursued properly, sacramental. In many ways, books will evolve over the next several years to resemble something akin to the stain-glass windows of medieval Christendom. But, this is another matter, for another time.

Much of the joy I experienced this past calendar year came from revisiting beloved works.

Old Delights: Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). Though I've been repeatedly reading Tolkien since grade school (in the late 70s), I'd never experienced The Lord of the Rings in this fashion: I read it to my children, the oldest being age 11. Reading Tolkien out loud puts a whole different light on his writing. The songs come alive (even with my horrible singing voice) as critical to the story, and Tolkien's playing with aspects (slowing, speeding up) of time come to the front. And, of course, Tolkien's famous writing style and variations in tone and cadence leap from each page. Reading the trilogy to my children will always rank as one of the single greatest experiences of my life. We're (my children and I) currently reading The Wind and the Willows and the Ballad of the White Horse.

Virgil, The Aeneid. Second only to my love for The Lord of the Rings is my love of Virgil's Aeneid. Several years ago Claes Ryn, a most impressive Catholic University philosopher, teased me that by loving the Aeneid I must also love empire. Not true, Professor Ryn! But, I can see why Dante chose Virgil as his guide through the Inferno and Purgatorio. The Aeneid has everything a story could offer: sacramentality, love, betrayal, brutality, mysticism, defeat, and hope. After re-reading Fagel's masterful translation this fall, I followed it up with the first two books of the Divine Comedy.

Cicero, On the Laws (54-51BC). And, just to prove Ryn wrong (in this matter only), I also had the privilege of reading the greatest republican in history: Senator M.T. Cicero. A defender of the eternal republican Cosmopolis (a pagan forerunner to St. Augustine's City of God) as well as the internal republic of the individual soul, Cicero could write like no other. A dialogue regarding the origins of Natural Law, On the Laws sees the Roman discussants debate the nature of the human person, God, and poetry.

Russell Kirk, Program for Conservatives (1954). As with the first two books in this list, I could never count how many times I've read and re-read Kirk's Program. Sadly, it's been out of print for over half a century, though I think it's Kirk's best book. What does the conservative conserve, a thirty-something Kirk asked in the mid 1950s? Should he revere his ancestors and his God, as true men always do, he will conserve the highest of all things, the virtue of love. Though still a nominal Protestant when he wrote this book, Kirk could've easily and justly been mistaken for a Gabriel Marcel, a Romano Guardini, or a Christopher Dawson in his theological anthropology. Each chapter, though, comes from individual lectures given at the University of Detroit while he was also receiving Catholic instruction from a Jesuit. Kirk would wait, however, a full decade after writing Program for Conservatives to enter the Catholic Church.

J.F. Cooper, Last of the Mohicans (1826). Again, how many times have I read and taught this book over the past two decades? I have no idea. Though often criticized for being too romantic (hence, Rousseauvian) in his views, Cooper offered a vision of the American republic—the nature of citizenship, of Christianity, and of Natural Law and Natural Rights—that has been equaled in the arts, to my mind, only by Willa Cather.

And, of course, I met many new and wondrous works as well in 2010.

New Delights Joseph Pearce, Through Shakespeare's Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays (2010). This is the more than worthy successor to Pearce's biography of Shakespeare. Every Catholic should regard Pearce as one of the greatest treasures of Christendom. Few can enter the mind and soul of his subjects as can Pearce. May God grant the author many, many more years of writing. Through Shakespeare's Eyes should be on the reading list of every person who loves and appreciates the best of western and Catholic culture.

Samuel Gregg, Wilhelm Roepke's Political Economy (2010). Gregg, a senior scholar at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has one of the most penetrating minds I've ever encountered. I feel the same way about Wilhelm Roepke. This is a book of the two scholars speaking to one another, a delight in every way. Roepke, an economist and self-proclaimed Christian Humanist, always sought the humane in economic and public policy. It would be difficult to find a non-Catholic thinker more in line with Catholic social doctrine than Roepke. Gregg, also an expert on Catholic social, political, and economic doctrine, engages the deceased Swiss economist in every meaningful way. The result: a work of high, intelligence and wisdom.

Tom Engelhardt, The American Way of War (2010). Never an expert (by any means!) on American foreign policy, I just always saw myself as a midwestern Reaganite (maybe a Tom Clancyite?)—strong defense, well-trained special ops, low and reluctant usage of our military forces overall, huge and swift retaliation, and immense intelligence. While this book didn't change my views, it certainly opened my eyes to the radical progressive view of American empire as espoused by the previous four (post-Reagan) administrations. A must read for any one who believes in Augustinian and Thomistic just war theory and the republican ideals of the Founding generation.

Richard M. Reinsch II, Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary (2010). "Chamber affirmed that in brokenness man comes to find his" final purpose, the author movingly explains. Reinsch, a lawyer and Fellow with Liberty Fund in Indianapolis, seems to possess the qualities of Pearce and Gregg in this stunning biography of one of the most important defenders and critics of western civilization, Whittaker Chambers. Reinsch, a tenacious thinker, digs deeply into the psyche of Chambers, noting the mutually-enforcing influences of personality and thought in the human person.

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought, The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History, Howe's comprehensive look at the so-called Jacksonian period in American history serves as one of the best books of its kind.  Howe's greatest strength is the uncanny ability to unify seemingly disparate things. A wide variety of fascinating and eccentric personalities—the mad John Randolph of Roanoke, the dancing and womanizing Henry Clay, the orating Daniel Webster, the brilliant and wily John C. Calhoun, the black nationalist David Walker, the tiresome Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the ever mutating Orestes Brownson–populate the period.  Would it be possible to find another period of history in which so many eccentrics clashed?  Probably not.

Future Delights I eagerly await to devour! G.L. Gregg, The Iona Conspiracy (2010); John J. Miller, First Assassin (2010); Robert R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind (2010); Kenneth L. Deutsch and Ethan Fishman, eds., The Dilemmas of American Conservatism (2010); Michael O'Brien, Theophilos (2010); Benedict XVI, Light of the World (2010).

Misc. Delights I don't think I could describe my favorite reads of 2010 without mentioning my favorite blogs: Imaginative Conservative (fight on, Winston and Barbara Elliott!); Insight Scoop (Go, Carl!); Pileus (especially Jim Otteson); Tory Anarchist; Catholic Vote; Front Porch Republic (God bless, Patrick Deneen); NRO; The American Culture; Mark Shea; Matthew Anger; Forbes (especially blogs by Art Carden); MacWorld (especially posts by the ever witty Christopher Breen); Andy Ihnatko's Celestial Waste of Bandwidth; and the Dutch Progressive Rock Page. A special mention must go out to my friend, Bill Chellis, as well. And, to Larry Reed, the best poster (is this the correct term?) on Facebook.

Finally, my favorite music of 2010: Kevin McCormick, Songs of the Martin (classical and Americana guitar); anything by Gazpacho, but especially Night and Missa Antropos (post-rock); Spock's Beard X (prog rock); Arvo Pärt, In Principio (classical); The Cure, Disintegration (20th anniversary edition, rock); Natalie Merchant, Leave Your Sleep (eclectic); Lunatic Soul II (post-rock); Frost*, Philadelphia Experiment (prog rock); Big Big Train, The Underfall Yard (prog rock); and Nosound, A Sense of Loss (post-rock).

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.

These are the non-Ignatius Press titles I read, found most interesting, and remembered finding most interesting.  I may have read other things as interesting or more interesting than the titles below, but I don't have time to try to remember what they were.  And I may have read IP titles or mss that will become IP titles that were more interesting than the books below, but in keeping with my usual practice, I have not included them.  

Murder in the Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes by Ann-Margaret Lewis. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson meet Leo XIII and Father Brown.  A lot of fun.

Concepts of Mass in Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, by Max Jammer.  A survey of different aspects of modern ideas about mass.  Some math helpful but not required.  

The End and the Beginning, by George Weigel. Weigel's conclusion to his biography of John Paul II.  Since it's Weigel, it's superb.

In This House of Brede, by Rumor Godden.  A classic novel about a successful English business woman who enters the convent.

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawling and Leonardo Mlodinow. This is an important book because of the media coverage it has received and its fundamentally-flawed thesis, which will be rehashed as having scientifically proved that the cosmos is self-existent and that therefore God is irrelevant as a causal explanation for it.  There are some outrageous historical claims and bad philosophizing (about, for instance, the end of philosophizing). But thoughtful people who want to follow the latest scientistic claims and their allegedly rational basis should read this book.

New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Comtemporary Physics and Philosophy, by Robert J. Spitzer.  An engrossing study of what contemporary physics has to say about the traditional cosmological argumentation for God's existence. By "traditional cosmological argumentation", I mean a line of argument running from some feature or features of the cosmos or the cosmos's existence as a whole to God as the cause of the feature, features, or existence of the cosmos as a whole. Father Spitzer looks at arguments from design, metaphysics, unrestricted intelligibility (Lonergan), and finitude of past time (Kalaam argument). A major contribution to the discussion.

Christians as Political Animals, by Marc D. Guerra.  A revisiting of the so-called "theologico-political problem". Lots of Leo Strauss, James Schall, Ernest Fortin.  A good Augustinian balance to the boundless optimism of some philosophical and theological proponents of democracy.  I'm not convinced by certain of the author's arguments; there seems to be a predisposition to oppose the modern at work in how some of the arguments are framed. I don't mind opposing the modern when the modern is wrong.  But I don't start from the premise of "guilty until proven innocent", so I am suspicious when an argument seems to do so.  I am also suspicious of the Straussian approach to texts, which at times strikes me as succumbing to the elephant-behind-the-tree method of exegesis. Nevertheless, the author raises some important issues.  Since many people start from the presupposition that "modern" means "good" and "ancient" (and certainly "medieval") means "bad", it's helpful to have someone argue in ways that challenge that presupposition.

The Great Dialogue of Nature and Space, by Yves Simon.  I wish I could listen in on a conversation with the Yves Simon of this book, the Jacques Maritain of The Degrees of Knowledge, Mortimer Adler of The Conditions of Philosophy Stephen Hawking of The Grand Design Stephen Barr of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, Richard Dawkins, Edward Feser of The Last Superstition, Father Robert Spitzer and John Polkinghorne.  Maybe a few others, too.  What a great conversation that would be.  Meanwhile, we can read their books.

Augustine: A Life, by Henry Chadwich. Short and sweet.

The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by Paul Rhodes Eddy.

The Philosophy of Space and Time, by Hans Reichenbach. Not an easy read but worthwhile.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton.  I read it again. It was better this time than the upteen times before.  But then that's Chesterton.

Chris Burgwald holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and has been the Director of Evangelization & Adult Catechesis for the Diocese of Sioux Falls in South Dakota for the past eight years. He and his wife have four children.

Here are some of the best books I read this past year:

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I've been online in one form or another since 1992, and particularly over the last ten years or so—as high-speed broadband has become ubiquitous—I've noticed a negative shift in my ability to read in a sustained, deep fashion. In his book, technology journalist Nick Carr (no Luddite, he) offers empirical evidence for what I've seen in myself: using the internet (particularly with a high-speed connection) extensively over a long period of time actually changes the way we read and think, in generally (but not completely) negative ways. I love modern technology, but Carr's book prompted me to shut down the browser and open a book more often.

Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power. Bacevich is a (Catholic) retired Army colonel who now teaches at Boston University and has written several books over the last few years lamenting the militarism which he finds to be rampant in American society and culture, but from a conservative political perspective. In this book he argues against the trends in American foreign policy which have been dominant—regardless of which party is in power in Washington—over the last several decades, contending that they have served to sustain American appetites which are in fact unsustainable. Particularly because he writes as a conservative, I found his critiques to be incisive and thought-provoking.

Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Ancient World. This is the first in a projected four-volume world history series written by Wise Bauer, and I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. She has a way of writing history which is very engaging. Even though the text clocks in at 777 pages (not counting endnotes), this is a very readable book, helped by the fact that the chapters are relatively short (often only 8-10 pages in length). The second volume on the Medieval era was published this year, and I'm looking forward to diving into it as well

Pope Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini. The Holy Father's post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church is a fantastic magisterial text. It's clear that he is simultaneously summarizing and synthesizing the work done by the synod fathers—Peter speaking on behalf of the Twelve, as it were—but in his own key and with his own emphases. As with most papal documents, it deserves a far wider read than it has thus far received.

Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World. This was easily the best read of the year for me. The Holy Father has such a gift for communicating the deep truths of our faith in a clear and inviting manner. I was particularly struck—once again—by his emphasis on the centrality of Jesus Christ. In an age when many Catholics are yearning to learn more about their faith, Pope Benedict reminds us that at the heart of Catholicism is not merely doctrinal truths, but the One Who is Truth: Jesus of Nazareth.

Finally, on a far lighter note, this year I also read Max Brooks' World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and I have to say, it was quite an enjoyable read (it was recommended by Joe Carter in a post at the First Things website). Brooks actually manages to make the specter of a zombie apocalypse thought-provoking in numerous ways.

Part Two | Part Three


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