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.