"The Best Books I Read in 2011..." | Ignatius Press Authors, Editors, and Friends | January 3, 2012
Another year, another tantalizing list of good and great books noted and recommended in this seventh edition of "Best Books I Read..." As usual, 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?" No limit was set on the number of books, and 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.
G.K. Chesterton: A Biography by Ian Ker. The world's greatest Newman scholar argues that Chesterton is the spiritual and intellectual heir to Blessed John Henry Newman. Need I say more?
Toward the Gleam by T.M Doran and Looking for the King by David C. Downing. Two entertaining novels that have the Inklings as major characters. It's especially fun to compare the two.
CBGB Was My High School by G.K. Stritch. Who needs another coming of age memoir? Especially about girl involved in the New York club scene of the 1980's? In spite of the subject holding absolutely no interest for me, I found the book utterly compelling.
Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck by Paul Collins. John Banvard was the most famous artist of his day, and you've never heard of him. And don't forget the fame of Delia Bacon and Martin Tupper. Well, apparently you have! Fascinating book.
Coincidentally by George Rutler. Fr. Rutler has the driest wit on the planet and perhaps the most encyclopedic brain, and you would think that rubbing the two together would make an unpleasant scratching sound, but instead all I could do was laugh till I felt quite helpless. Consider the following: "As St. Petersburg is the Liverpool of Russia, it is intriguing to learn from philology that the local Liverpudlian accent pronounces 'hair and heir' and 'hairpieces and herpes' the same." Every sentence in the book is like that.
St. Albert the Great by Kevin Vost. First biography of Albertus Magnus written in over 60 years. Did you know that he determined that earth was spherical and predicted that there was a great land mass west of Europe? Nothing compares to his accomplishments as a scientist, philosopher, theologian, preacher, and most importantly, teacher (he had a novice named Thomas Aquinas).
I have almost finished— but not quite—Boswell's Life of Johnson. But I can see why it is the sort of book one can continue to read and re-read over the course of a lifetime, and maybe never finish because one does not want it to finish.
Oh, and I read some G.K. Chesterton. I discovered over 65 uncollected essays in London this summer, and I took in the new volume of Illustrated London News Essays (1932-34), and re-read St. Thomas Aquinas, The Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton on Shakespeare and The Apostle and the Wild Ducks (which contains the line, "To judge Italy by the Leaning Tower of Pisa, is like judging the human race by the bearded woman at the fair.")
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.
The best new theological book I have read this year is Julian of Norwich, Theologian by Denys Turner (2011), a wonderful explanation of the profound theological thinking of a 14th-century anchoress who could not read Latin and was barely educated, but who reflected long and fruitfully on what she had seen, both as visions and intellectually, of the central truths of Christianity.
For anyone who would like to make a start on reading Hans Urs von Balthasar but is daunted by the huge extent of his work, Fr Aidan Nichols's A Key to Balthasar (2011) is exactly what its title says. Decades of familiarity with a very great theologian, and his own wisdom and lightness of touch make this a seriously helpful guide, for those who have studied Balthasar as well as for those who have not yet begun.
Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World by Jan Karski (2011) was published in 1944, then disappeared from view and has now been republished in a new translation by Sandra Smith. Karski was a young Polish lawyer and diplomat, a devout Catholic, who became a key figure in the Polish Underground during World War II. He was captured by the invading Russians in 1939, and later captured and tortured by the Gestapo. His detailed description of the highly organised "secret state" the Poles prepared for a civilised democratic future after the war is both inspiring and tragic, because this future was betrayed by the US and the UK to the Soviet Union as the war ended. Even more inspiring and even more tragic is his account of visits he made to the Warsaw Ghetto and to Treblinka when the Holocaust was in ghastly progress. Karski, with many dangerous adventures on the way, came to the west to report on Nazi treatment of the Jews. He met President Roosevelt and the British Foreign Secretary, with no result. He died a US citizen and professor, and was eventually acknowledged as a hero by both post-Communist Poland and Israel. A terrific book.
Tony Judt, a historian of tremendous breadth, intelligence and independence of mind, grew up in London, taught in Cambridge, Oxford and Berkeley, founded the Remarque Institute in New York University and died in New York in the summer of 2010, after months of total paralysis from a particularly cruel form of motor neurone disease. His last book, The Memory Chalet (2010), published after his death, was written, somehow, with courage and resourcefulness hard to imagine, during his illness. It is a series of essays about his own life and times, beautifully written, warm, acute and interesting on every page.
The great novel of the year, for me, has been Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (in an excellent English translation by Robert Chandler 1985), written in Soviet Russia in the 1950s. The KGB thought they had destroyed the manuscript and all traces of it in the 1960s, but one copy survived. It is a panoramic story, with a huge cast of characters, of the war between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, centred on the battle of Stalingrad. Grossman, as a journalist on the front line, had seen it all for himself. Into scenes of terrible brutality and destruction are woven the heroism, generosity and goodness of many individual lives, and also the increasingly evident parallels between the two totalitarian ideologies locked in mortal conflict. It is the only novel I have read which thoroughly deserves to be compared with War and Peace, and it has none of Tolstoy's heavy theorising about history.
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).
2011 proved one of my best reading years, frankly, in a long time. In fact, I don't remember being able to enjoy and savor as many books since my first few years in graduate school. Amazingly enough, I didn't read a clunker throughout the year! That's got to be a first in my forty-four years of existence. As Carl dangerously gave us no limits, here I go.
William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959). This book has sat next to my bed for a little over twenty years. The beds have changed, the nightstands have changed, and the locations of the beds the nightstands have changed, but this book sitting next to it has not. It's massive and a bit daunting. When my sabbatical began this August, I decided to take the plunge. Without question, this was the best book I read in 2011. At the risk of being hyperbolic in my very Birzer way, I can state that I think it one of the greatest books I've encountered. For some reason it has gained the reputation of being superficial. That would be the very last word I would ascribe to it. It's majestic in its art, astounding in its reach, and sobering in its message. For all intents and purposes, though it deals only with roughly twelve years of German history, it might as well have been a microcosm for the entirety of the 20th century. Toward the end of this massive book, Shirer very well described his theme, paraphrasing Lord Acton when he wrote: Hitler was "a power-drunk tyrant whom absolute power had corrupted absolutely and destroyed." Never afraid to voice his own views, Shirer fully blames the German people for supporting Hitler by commission and omission in nearly every way. Only when the Nazis tried to take over the film industry in the 1930s did the German people protest. Otherwise, they supported Hitler beyond comprehension until his very last days and his marriage in the Berlin bunker. In Rise and Fall, Shirer demonstrates the horrors of the Holocaust, while also noting the very few Germans—a few academics such as economist and philosopher Wilhelm Roepke and a few religious leaders (almost equally Catholic and Lutheran)—who opposed the Nazis and generally paid with their own lives. I came away from the book convinced that Count Von Stauffenberg should, at the very least, be considered for canonization, though his priest refused to give him absolution in the confessional as he'd not yet set the bomb off to kill Hitler! Whether his priest was an orthodox Thomist or a more radical Suarezite probably played a role in his views on tyrannicide. I cannot praise this book enough, and now that I've conquered the book, I'll try to write a longish review of it in 2012.
James R. Otteson, Adam Smith (Continuum: New York, 2011). Already recognized as a (though, the to my mind) leading scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment and classical liberal philosophy, Otteson has produced a small but packed book on the life and thought of this most important moral philosopher and economist, Adam Smith. In particular, Otteson demonstrates that The Theory of Moral Sentiments had to come before his more famous Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Far from being the mindless Social Darwinist his opponents would one day paint him as, Smith appears in the more than able hands of Otteson as a very broadminded and deep-thinking scholar, a man concerned with the most fundamental and important of questions. A meticulous scholar himself, Otteson is one of the most impressive persons I know, and I've known him since we first sat together in Intensive German our freshman year at Notre Dame, 1986. Just as Smith was both philosopher and economist, Otteson holds a double appointment—as a full professor in the philosophy as well as the economic departments—at Yeshiva University in New York.
Tom Wolfe, I am Charlotte Simmons. While I've read many of Wolfe's non-fiction books, I'd never read one of his novels before. As with The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, I am Charlotte Simmons is certainly not a small book. The similarities don't end here. They're equal not just in length, but in brutality. Wolfe's insightful novel follows the life of a brilliant but innocent 18-year old from the mountains of North Carolina through her freshman year at an Ivy-League style university. According to Wolfe, his book is accurate. Certainly, I don't think we have such horrors at Hillsdale College, nor did we at Notre Dame. So, I've been spared these things in my own life in academia. But, even if 10% of what Wolfe claims goes on at larger and at most elite-ranked schools is true, our youth are being baptized in a rapacious decadence in their college years. While this book is well worth reading, be forewarned, there are no heroes in the story. Reading this book was akin to watching the aftermath of a car wreck on the highway. We crane our necks in curiosity, say a quick "Hail Mary" for the victims, and keep driving, continuing with our prayers that such things never happen to those we love. Throughout the story, we pity Charlotte for her choices, and, in the end, we find ourselves pitying our culture as a whole. Stunning cultural criticism without relief or joy.
The Landmark Herodotus and The Landmark Thucydides. Thanks to the graciousness of two close academic friends, Aeon Skoble and Sarah Skwire, I had the chance to participate in a Liberty Fund colloquium dedicated to the first two histories written in the world. Herodotus strove for a mythic history, taking customs and traditions at face value, while Thucydides mocked the supernatural. Both provided excellent reads—but, I'll side with Herodotus. Give me the gods any day over mere plain old pride and egoism. Free Press, by the way, produces the Landmark series. I greatly admire the craft of making books, and Free Press has outdone itself in providing maps, essays, annotations, illustrations, etc. to augment these texts. Regardless of the text (already, of course, outstanding, as proven over thousands of years), these versions of the books themselves are works of art.
Homer, The Odyssey (Fagels trans). This story is, of course, the story that began all others. Brilliant and moving in every way, the Fagels translation rings with beauty and immerses the reader into a world in which one cannot separate myth from legend from history. "The great Nile swelled by the rains of Zeus—and make a splendid rite to the deathless gods who rule the vaulting skies." Gods, demi-Gods, monsters, heroes, and men populate this world, overrunning it all with pride, fear, lust, and all things mischievous. While I will probably not return to this book for pleasure (as I do with The Aeneid), I'm glad to have read this as an adult. Who cannot sympathize with the man alone, separated from his wife and child, ready to return home, only to be delayed over and over again by circumstance, misfortunate, and the prickly whim of the gods? While Circe provides more intimidation than the Detroit-based TSA, at least Circe found some form of redemption for her evils.
Josef Pieper, The End of Time: Meditation on the Philosophy of History (1954; Ignatius Press, 1999). Did Pieper write anything that shouldn't be read? What an amazing mind in almost every way. As a professional historian as well as a lover of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and T.S. Eliot, I'm somewhat obsessed (in a healthy way) with the notion of time, of the liturgy, of the seasons, and of the possibility of escape into eternity. Pieper explored all of these questions in a riveting manner. What is history? What is time? What is the apocalypse? Pieper understood history as an essential part of God's cosmos, central to working out the drama of the Logos. Deeply influenced by Scripture as well as by the works of Donoso Cortes, Christopher Dawson, and George Orwell, Pieper wrote "the end will be characterized by one single governmental structure equipped with prodigious power, which, however, fails to establish any genuine order. At the end of history there will be a pseudo-order maintained in being by the exercise of power."
Christopher Dawson, The Movement of World Revolution (1959; new edition forthcoming this year from CUA Press). In 1959, Life magazine proclaimed this book to be the book of a generation, a way to understand not only the then-present world of the Cold War but, equally important, to understand how the world had arrived at the point it had. One of the first meta-histories of the post-war era, The Movement of World Revolution is quintessential Dawson: precise where necessary, sweeping where possible, always elegantly argued and written. Dawson's argument: with the secularization of religion, populations would need to be fulfilled. Lost, population turn to ideologies and nationalisms. In the end, secularization leads to loss of all freedom and all personality, and man, through the ideological mechanism of the nation-state, will become merely a cog in a vast, grinding machine, a terrestrial hell.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm on sabbatical this academic year, and much of my reading has been connected to my project, exploring the Christian Humanism of Russell Kirk, especially between 1936 and 1964. To that end, I've happily reread his Randolph of Roanoke (1951); The Conservative Mind (1953); St. Andrews (1954); A Program for Conservatives (1954); and Academic Freedom (1955). I've enjoyed each thoroughly, and I'd recommend any one of these for any reader of Ignatius Insight. Sadly, only The Conservative Mind is still readily available. It should be remembered that Kirk's conservatism was not the current commoditized conservatism of moralistic government, never-ending war, and American expansion abroad. For Kirk, conservatism meant conservation of the dignity and liberty of the individual person, a protection of the personality uniquely given to each person by the Creator. Kirk's vision was the vision of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, even though he did not convert to the Catholic faith until 1964, when he was 46.
In immersing myself into Kirk's world of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, I also read a number of then prominent authors. The most difficult was Isabel Paterson and her radical individualism as found in The God of the Machine. Another radical individualist who attracted me as much as Paterson confused me, though, was Albert Jay Nock, a classicist and Anglican of sorts. While I certainly found much of what he argued wrong headed or offensive (I also loved a lot of it), I have rarely encountered a writer as good as Nock. This summer, I devoured his autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943); his two memoirs on the New Deal—A Journal of These Days (1934) and A Journal of Forgotten Days (1948)—his insightful discussion of the liberal arts, Theory of Education in the United States (1932); and most of his published letters. And, happily, most of his works are still available. I also reread a number of books by the most famous Humanists of the day, Irving Babbitt—especially Democracy and Leadership (1924)—and Paul Elmer More. Reading Babbitt, a Harvard professor of French classics, must be an acquired taste. While I gained much from him, I would never read his works for enjoyment or personal growth. The opposite is true for Paul Elmer More, a Princeton classicist. I have yet to read a thing from More I didn't take to instantly—in style and thought. In particular, I recommend his Pages from an Oxford Diary, a "Confessions" of sorts written on his deathbed. It is truly one of the most moving accounts of grace I have ever encountered. I have read it time and again, and I will continue to do so until I find myself on my deathbed.
One of the great joys of the year was rereading my favorite C.S. Lewis book, That Hideous Strength (1943), the last of the Ransom/Space trilogy. I never tire of this book, and I could never count how many times I've read it. It's a perfect mix of philosophy, theology, and joy.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Tony William's America's Beginnings (2010); and Stratford Caldecott's Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (2009). Each of these deserves large reviews and success.
And for pure entertainment in 2011: Tom Clancy's Dead or Alive (2010), Against All Enemies (2011), Locked On (2011); and Phill Brown's Are We Still Rolling (2010)?
In the stack, eagerly awaiting to be read in 2012: Neil Peart, Far and Away (2011); Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (1972); C. Bradley Thompson, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea (2010); Claes Ryn, America the Virtuous (2003); Mark Powell, Prophets and Sages: An Illustrated Guide to Underground and Progressive Rock, 1967-1975 (2010); and Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (2011).
Mark Brumley is President and Chief Executive Officer for Ignatius Press. He is the editor of A Study Guide to Jesus of Nazareth and is editor and co-author of A Study Guide to Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week. He 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.
The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. It took me a while to get around to this controversial book. Interesting discussion of the rise of string theory and some of the problems its proponents have. Part of the trouble with physics the author doesn't address but indirectly alludes to (referring to issues involving realism)—the need for a solid metaphysics to underpin physics. The politics of recent physics is interestingly discussed in the book. That's probably what has so many people upset.
The Capitalist Manifesto by Mortimer Adler and Lee Kelso. Re-read it in light of the Occupy Movement and the downturn in the economy. This book clarifies what genuine capitalism is and what the issues are regarding economic rights, their relation to political democracy, and the nature of a free economic.
The Resurrection of Jesus by Michael R. Licona. The new standard work.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A book club pick, with Joseph Pearce leading the discussion. Lots of fun.
The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A classic. Another book club pick.
The Genesis of Science by James Hannam. Take that, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Not that they would take the time to read this book or think about their own positions in light of it.
"One Teacher": Doctrinal Authority in the Church by Le Groupe Des Dombes
Church, State, and Society by J. Brian Benestad. A thought-provoking book misnamed as an introduction to Catholic social teaching. It isn't introductory. It's a significantly advanced text. Too much Leo Strauss lurking behind the text for my taste, but still an insightful and must-read text for those who want to think about politics and the Church's teaching. Benestad is an under-appreciated resource, in my view.
Everywhere and Everywhen by Nick Huggett. Philosophy of science that interacts with General Relativity. Some interesting insights but nevertheless the book begins from what I take to be an inadequate metaphysics.
Surnaturel: A Controversy at the Heart of Twentieth-Century Thomistic Thought edited by Serge-Thomas Bonino, O.P. Half the story, told in bits but nevertheless helpful.
Man and the State by Jacques Maritain. Re-read it in light of Occupy Movement. An endless source of ideas.
J. Budziszewski, who holds a Ph.D. from Yale University, is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of several books, including What We Can't Not Know: A Guide (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Revenge of Conscience, How to Stay Christian in College, and The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction.
A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, trans. by Mary Ryan, with foreword by James V. Schall, S.J. (Catholic University of America Press).
Part Two | Part Three
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