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"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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
(1953); St. Andrews (1954); A Program for Conservatives (1954); and Academic
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
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
(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
(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
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
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
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
edited by Serge-Thomas Bonino, O.P. Half the story, told in bits but
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
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
Part Two | Part Three
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