Ten Books

Weighty Subjects

Judging from our posts, I believe it is safe to say that we at The American Catholic are a bookish lot.  I think this applies also to most of our learned commenters.  I have always loved books, a trait I inherited from my sainted mother who had a deep passion for the printed page.  If I were not married to a fellow bibliophile, and a librarian of course !, I can imagine my love of books perhaps having been a sore point in my marriage.  “Another bookstore?”  “Can’t we go anyplace without you dragging me to a dull bookstore?”  “You paid what for that history of the Peninsular War!?!”  “The books are in the dumpster.  Say a word and you may end up there too!”   Instead, both I and my bride of 27 years view bookstores as homes away from home, to the vast amusement of our kids.

In this post I am going to list ten books I would recommend.  These ten books have all had some impact on my life.  I invite everyone who is interested to also give their book recommendations in the comments.

1.   The Bible-Since my parents gave me my first Bible, at my request, on Christmas Day 1970, I have attempted, and usually succeeded, in reading a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New each day.  The varied type of literature in the Bible I find endlessly fascinating:  novels, court chronicles, proverbs, otherworldly prophecies, military history, gospels, letters, an endless literary and intellectual feast.  Aside from the spiritual benefits of the Bible, which of course is the main reason for reading the Bible, no one in our civilization can be considered to be well-educated if they are bone ignorant of this book. 

2.   Reflections on the Revolution in France-At the very beginning of the era of totalitarian regimes, Burke’s book stands as a warning and a prophecy. “In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.” Before Burke I was a conservative of the heart, after Burke I was a conservative of the head.

3.   Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire-I am now about to embark on my third trek through this endless tome.  Gibbon hated Christianity in general and Catholicism, to which he had converted briefly in his youth, with a particular fury, and his thesis that the fall of Rome was due to the triumph of Christianity and barbarism I find completely laughable.  So why in the world do I recommend this work?  First his style.  Quite a few people hate it, I love it. “It has always been my practice to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work.” Then the dry as the Sahara wit which enlivens each page.   “My English text is chaste, and all licentious passages are left in the decent obscurity of a learned language.” Finally the book is a tour de force of scholarship.  His footnotes are a treasure to read as we see him glean his facts from disparate sources, all of which he has mastered.  Of course there have been immense strides in our knowledge of the Roman Empire since Gibbon’s day, but we stand upon his shoulders.  Gibbon awakened in me a passion for ancient history, a curiosity to read Christian apologetics in order to combat the attacks of Gibbon on the faith and the realization that I could derive not only instruction but pleasure from reading an author I often violently disagree with.

4.   Wealth of Nations-Adam Smith’s tome, as an explanation of how economies actually work, has never been surpassed in my estimation.  It is a shame how few people actually read this masterpiece.  There is much in it that would surprise his critics and shock his defenders.  This book left me an adherent of free market capitalism, and so I remain.

5.    The Peloponnesian War-As Adam Smith teaches us how economies work, Thucydides instructs us on politics, war and diplomacy.  These lessons are usually sad ones, but necessary to learn.  A great way to read Thucydides is The Landmark Thucydides which has a plethora of notes, maps and essays which I think novices to ancient Greek history would find helpful.  For those seeking a more extensive guide Donald Kagan’s four volumes on the Peloponnesian War are unsurpassed.  Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other is probably the best one volume recent account in English.

6.    Army of the Potomac Trilogy-Journalist turned historian Bruce Catton was the dean of Civil War historians of his day, and his masterpiece was his Army of the Potomac trilogy:  Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road and A Stillness At Appomattox. I read these volumes several times while I was in Junior High and High School and they awakened in me a life long love of military history.  Catton makes skillful use of diaries and letters so that one comes away with an affection for this hard luck army, up against the Army of Northern Virginia led by one of the great generals of all time, Robert E. Lee, that ultimately, through endless blood and sacrifice, did more than their fair share in preserving our Union.

7.   City of God-One of the hardest books I have ever read, and also one of the most meaningful, the unabridged City of God is Saint Augustine’s answer to the charge that Christianity was leading to the Fall of the Empire.  (Gibbon’s libel against Christianity was very much in the mouths of the pagans of Saint Augustine’s time.)  912 dense pages in a modern edition, Saint Augustine reveals that he had mastered the history and the culture of the Roman Empire,  perhaps more so than any other man, as he skillfully refutes the charge that Christianity was the cause of the current plight of the Empire.  He breaks free of the cyclical concept that had dominated much of the historical thought of the Greek and Romans, and views history as a linear progression with Christ’s Return as the goal of all history.  In the second half of the work he details the City of Man and the City of God, their histories and their destinies.  I found making my way through this vast tome, a few pages each day, one of the more beneficial intellectual and spiritual experiences that have fallen to me.

8.     Cypresses Believe in God-I’ve always had a fascination with the history and culture of Spain.  This fascination has centered on the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, where Spaniards, in a war marked by great atrocities and great heroism, played out all the popular political mistakes of the Twentieth Century:  Fascism, Communism, Anarchism, Nationalism and Separatism.  The best book on this topic, either fiction or non-fiction, is Cypresses Believe in God by Jose Maria Gironella.  In the first volume in his trilogy,  the lead up to the war which is depicted in Cypresses, the war  is set forth unforgettably in One Million Dead and the aftermath of the war in Peace After War,  Gironella, a veteran of the Nationalist Army, achieves the remarkable feat of creating sympathetic characters in all the warring factions.  Many of these characters do terrible things, but Gironella skillfully leads the reader to understand why they did them without condoning their actions.  Spain is very much a figure in these novels as the characters act out the various aspects of the Spanish character and fight over what Spain was, is and should be.  The whole work is suffused by a deeply Catholic spirit and sensibility as the characters come closer to God or repel themselves away from Him.  The finest novels I have ever read.

9.     The Foundation Trilogy-I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in high school.  I found the concept of predicting the future through mathematics pretty ridiculous, but I enjoyed watching a civilization rising from the ruins over a thousand years.  Asimov was inspired by Gibbon, so perhaps my liking for the stories was predictable.  I have been a fan of science fiction ever since.

10.   The Screwtape Letters-I first  read this book when I was a freshman in college.  I was enthralled by it.  I believe I have derived great spiritual lessons from it.  For example: ” When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool.”   John Cleese did a recording of the letters in 1995 and he makes an unforgettable Screwtape.  There is a play going around the nation based on the Letters and I look forward to seeing it eventually.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Only ten books? I will try. It’s difficult.

    1) The Pillar and Ground of the Truth by Pavel Florensky
    2) The Bride of the Lamb by Sergius Bulgakov
    3) Theo-Drama Volume V by Hans Urs von Balthasar
    4) Reflections of a Russian Statesman by Pobedonstsev
    5) Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky
    6) The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
    7) The Philokalia, Volume II
    8) On First Principles, Origen
    9) Poetic Diction by Owen Barfield
    10) Dune by Frank Herbert

  2. 1. Theo-Drama, volume 4 by Hans Urs von Balthasar
    2. The Idiot by Dostoevsky
    3. Complete Poems, Gerald Manley Hopkins
    4. Phaedrus, Plato
    5. The Clown by Heinrich Bohl
    6. The Symbolism of Evil by Paul Ricoeur
    7. The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    8. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
    9. Catholicism by Henri de Lubac
    10.Showings, Julian of Norwich

  3. 1. God at the Ritz – Lorenzo Albacete
    2. Lost in the Cosmos – Walker Percy
    3. A Matter of Interpretation – Antonin Scalia
    4. St. Thomas Aquinas – G.K. Chesterton
    5. Radicals for Capitalism – Brian Doherty
    6. Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis
    7. The Ethics – Aristotle
    8. The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
    9. 1984 – George Orwell
    10. The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

  4. Mark,

    I almost put Confederacy of Dunces but eliminated it in favor of Lost in the Cosmos. Good book.

  5. Wow, Don. You make me look lame…

    1. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
    2. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkein
    3. The Everlasting Man – G.K. Chesterton
    4. Introduction to Christianity -Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
    5. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
    6. Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis
    7. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion – David Hume
    8. Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
    9. Crossing the Threshold of Hope – Pope John Paul II
    10. The Revolution: A Manifesto – by Ron Paul (too recent, I know… but it did crystalize my political and economic disposition and refocused my preference for Jeffersonian principles)

    Here’s a few big-fat books that take far too much time to say that I’ve “read”, or that I’m really wanting to read.

    1. The Bible. A book that I don’t think you ever really “read”, you just revisit. I’ve never read it enough, of course… like most, sadly.

    2. Tragedy and Hope – Carroll Quigley. Probably the most sober and gut-punching rendition of history I’ve ever been in the process of reading. Here Quigley just doesn’t list events… he names names for 1300 pages.

    3. The Creature from Jekyll Island by G. Edward Griffen. A very readable history of the Federal Reserve and its shenanigans. This book will make you a cynic over what men will do for money and prestige.

    4. Man, Economy and State by Murray Rothbard – a book I’ve been desperate to fit in to my reading list a long with the works of Ludwig von Mises, Hayek and a host of other free-market economists.

  6. I’m sorry to say I don’t read many books these days – most of what I read is online in the form of encyclicals and other documents from the Vatican archives.

    I’ll give it a try nonetheless. I wouldn’t say this is an ‘all time’ best list, but a ‘books I’ve really liked recently’ list.

    1. The New Testament
    2. Life in a Medieval Village – Frances & Joseph Gies
    3. A History of Britannia vol. 2 ‘The Wars of the British’ – Simon Schama
    4. Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments – Randy Alcorn
    5. Chance or Purpose – Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn
    6. God is Near Us – Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger)
    7. Aristotle’s Children – Richard E. Rubenstein
    8. America Beyond Capitalism – Gar Alperovitz
    9. Economic Democracy – Robert Dahl
    10. The Outline of Sanity – Chesterton

  7. Whatever happened to the notoriety of books that once comprised the Canon of Western Literature?

    Has the deplorably blatant nihilism of the modern age really made extinct the various remarkable works of the great and noble writers of the past?

    And don’t put down the libraries and the bookstores (as well as used bookshops); these happen to be distinguished hollowed grounds for certain autodidacts!

  8. I’m sure I’m leaving out something, but here are my ten, not necessarily in order.

    1. Reflections on the Revolution in France – Burke
    2. The Federalist Papers – Hamilton, Madison and Jay
    3. The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky
    4. That Hideous Strength – C.S. Lewis
    5. Lord of the Rings – Tolkien
    6. The Seven Storey Mountain – Thomas Merton
    7. The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis
    8. Brideshead Revisited – Waugh
    9. Time and Again – Jack Finney
    10. Misery – Stephen King

    Okay, the last one might need an explanation. I read it for the first time when I was 13 and it is the book that made me want to be a writer. Yes, the plot is about a writer named Paul who is then imprisoned by his “number one fan,” but that’s not why it made me want to write. So it has a special place in my heart.

  9. Just at the moment concerning non-fiction….I would need a seperate list for fiction and non-fiction.

    .Reflections on the Revolution in France – Edmund Burke
    .From Dawn to Decadance – Jacques Barzun
    .The Quest for Community – Robert Nisbet
    .Prejudices and The Social Philosophers (essentially part 1 and 2 of the same things) – Robert Nisbet
    .The Roots of American Order and the Conservative Mind – Russell Kirk (essentially part 1 and 2 of the same things)
    .The Essential Russell Kirk
    .The Portable Conservative Reader
    .The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings
    .Postmodernism Rightly Understood – Peter Lawler
    .Rallying the Really Human Things – Vigen Guroian

  10. Wouldn’t it have been better to have the Top 10 parcelled out in categories (e.g., philosophy, religion, literature, etc.)?

    That is, it would have been quite difficult for me to have one book (Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind/The Roots of American Order) of a certain defined category ranked higher above another (De Civitate Dei) when, in fact, within that book’s rightful category, it would have resided amongst the highest echelons.

    In other words, it (at least, to me) becomes a false ranking when not distinguished in their appropriate categories.

  11. This is books we recommend, as opposed to the traditional most influential, stuck on a desert island, best ever, etc?


    1) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
    2) The Iliad by Homer
    3) The Divine Comedy by Dante
    4) The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien
    5) Confessions by Augustine
    6) The Great Seige – Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford
    7) The Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi
    8 ) The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoyevsky
    9) Fields Without Dreams : Defending the Agrarian Ideal by Victor Davis Hanson
    10) No Exit by Sartre

    I chose to put these together imagining that someone had agreed to read up to ten books recommended by me in order to understand how I believe the world to be. Rank is not necessarily an indicator of quality so much as how indicative I consider the book.

    If I could squeeze one more thing in it would be:

    The Final Dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo) by Plato

    I have no explanations as to why these (clearly more significant works than some I did include) didn’t make they list. It’s just that I would have guided someone to read the others first.

  12. In addition to the fiction/non-fiction breakdown, there should also be a seperate category for religious works, which could cover both non-fiction and fiction. My list would begin with Guardini’s The Lord. If graphic novels were allowed, I’d recommend Alphonse: Untimely Ripp’d by Lickona and Gugliotti.

  13. The queries about categories are reasonable, but one of the purposes of this post was to cause people to think carefully about their choices. It is difficult, at least I found it so, to be limited to 10 books, and the difficulty is deliberate in the intention behind the post of having people think hard about what their choices would be.

  14. Whose Brendan Hodge?

    Anyway, that’s some impressive catalog — in spite of the fact that Tim Powers, Jane Austin and the fiercely anti-ecclesial Voltaire (although, somewhat understandable given his admittedly inestimable natural talent and biting wit, which even certain hierarchs themselves acknowledged) was included in the list.

  15. It’s my library. Or at least, our library. My wife and I combined when we got married, of course, and now our raising children has added other sections to the collection. Here’s a fun way to view it:


    I really can’t recommend LibraryThing enough. It’s free for the first couple hundred books in your catalog, and a lifetime membership of $25 gets you permanent use of a catalog as large as you need. With modern books, you just have to type in the ISBN and it will pull in the title, author, publication date, etc. Incredibly useful for keeping track of your library.

    Voltaire I only had because he was assigned in college. No great fondness. If you want to go after disreputable authors that I like I guess you could take aim at Camus, Sartre or Lucretius.

    Jane Austen and Tim Powers, however, I will make no apologies for, both are among my favorite authors. 🙂

  16. I’ve read a lot of books but can’t really come up with 10 that signficantly changed my life or my point of view on various issues. I can list some that did:

    1. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. Not only did it make a fantastic movie, it shows in a compelling fashion how the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures all interacted in the time of Jesus.

    2. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. Excellent portrayal of how small choices and habits become big ones.

    3. The Screwtape Letters, also by C.S. Lewis — no explanation necessary

    4. The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand. While I’m not a big fan of Rand or of Objectivism in general, this book which explains her ideas about art helped me finally figure out why classic art is so good and modern art so unappealing.

    5. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel — wonderful portrait of the relationship between Galileo and one of his daughters who became a nun, as well as Galileo’s relationship with the Church

    6. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day — compelling story of Day’s conversion and her founding of the Catholic Worker movement

    7. Called out of Darkness by Anne Rice — just read this recently; one of the best “reversion” stories I’ve read in a while

  17. Oh, and I almost forgot to include “Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America” by Steve Kellmeyer (a book I actually proofread prior to publication). Now I don’t agree with EVERYTHING in this book (and most Catholics who read it probably won’t), but the author does make two points I find compelling:

    1. The Church ought to be concentrating more resources on ADULT education and formation, which is far more cost effective than trying to run parish schools or CCD programs;

    2. If adults are properly formed in the faith, the Catholic formation and education of their children will take care of itself.

  18. 1. Aspects of Alterity – Brian Treanor
    2. The Brothers Karamozov – Fyodor Dostoevsky
    3. History and Truth – Paul Ricoeur
    4. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
    5. Mystery and Manners – Flannery O’Connor
    6. Politics of Prudence – Russell Kirk
    7. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene
    8. Radical Hermeneutics – John D. Caputo
    9. Reflections on the Revolution in France – Edmund Burke
    10. A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Helprin

  19. had The Brothers Karamazov and Reflections on the Revolution in France on my list too, but since Mr. McClarey has limited us to 10 (sob!), I decided to pick books nobody else has yet mentioned.

    1. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts – Clive James (A very hard to characterize book. Cultural Amnesia is a book profiling seminal 20th century writers, artists, statesmen and tyrants. Hitler and Mao make an appearance; so does Louie Armstrong, and, of all people, Tony Curtis. So do a lot of intriguing lesser-known writers; James seems to have read just about everything of worth written in the last century. Read it and you’ll come away with at least a dozen authors you’ll want to become better acquainted with. James is not shy about offering his opinions and many of his profiles highlight the disgraceful record of 20th century writers who provided intellectual cover for Fascists and Communists – his take-down of Jean-Paul Sartre is masterful.)
    2. The Complete Stories – Franz Kafka
    3. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
    4. The Deptford Trilogy – Robertson Davies
    5. Animal Farm – George Orwell
    6. The Gormenghast Trilogy – M. Peake (don’t bother with the third book; the first two are superb)
    7. The Fatal Shore – Robert Hughes
    8. Citizens – Simon Schama
    9. Modern Times – Paul Johnson

    And, because we’ve all listed books that aren’t exactly beach reading, I’m going to end on a light note:

    10. Wodehouse’s Short Stories

  20. I’m not trying to break the rules or anything, but I can even think of parts of books I can recommend. For me, James Joyce’s numerous sins (which include, in my opinion, “Finnegan’s Wake”)are erased by the sheer beauty of the last paragraph of “The Dead.” I first read it when I was 16 and I still believe that it is one of the loveliest, most evocative paragraphs ever written in English.

    “The snow was general all over Ireland,…,”

  21. I’m late to this, but I want to contribute my top-10:

    1. Holy Bible, RSV-Catholic Edition
    2. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis
    3. Triumph – The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, a 2000 Year History by H.W. Crocker, III
    4. A History of Christendom Vols. 1, 2, & 4 by Warren H. Carroll
    5. Witness To Hope, The Biography of Pope John Paul II by George Weigel
    6. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
    7. Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington
    8. Uncommon Faith by John F. Coverdale
    9. Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam by Pope Benedict XVI & Marcello Pera; Forward by George Weigel, Translated by Michael F. Moore
    10. God’s Choice by George Weigel

    Honorable Mentioned: The Foundation Trilogy would have been up there as in Donald’s, but I would definitely place it in my number one spot in a separate “Science Fiction” top-10, but strictly just books in general, it didn’t make it, maybe five years ago, but not today.

    Many books by George Weigel would be in the next ten of course.

    I want to read The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene some day.

    Also I do want to read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day. Any good books written by Dorothy Day that anyone would recommend would help.

    I am also open to any good recommendations on the Spanish Civil War and the French Revolution. I’ve read Warren Carroll, which is by far the best I’ve read so far. I’d like similar recommendations. Is Reflections on the Revolution in France by Burke one?

    Blackadder’s St. Thomas Aquinas – G.K. Chesterton, is the second time I’ve heard Chesterton mentioned in a reading on St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s enough for me to put it on my Amazon wish list and mark it as a Christmas gift to myself.

  22. 1. The Cypresses Believe in God – Jose Maria Gironella
    2. One Million Dead – Jose Maria Gironella
    3. The Jesuits – Malachi Martin
    4. Rich Church, Poor Church – Malachi Martin
    5. Cider With Rosie – Laurie Lee
    6. The Cure of Ars Today – George Rutler
    7. Jesus of Nazareth (Vol. 1) – Pope Benedict XVI
    8. Salt of the Earth – Peter Seewald
    9. God and the World – Peter Seewald
    10. The Art of Eating – MFK Fisher

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