Because Reading Is Hard

Tuesday, July 17, AD 2012

This might be one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. No, it’s not some Womynpriest ranting about the Vatican, or a sportswriter waxing poetic about a “gritty” but otherwise terrible baseball player, or anything written by Thomas Friedman. It’s a list of “six films that improve the source material.” There’s nothing inherently wrong in suggesting that a movie is better than the book it is based upon. For starters, The Godfather movie is arguably better than the book as it doesn’t cut out any of the good parts but it does excise the superfluous and frankly bizarre sublot from the middle portion of the book. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was much powerful than Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. And though I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see the latest film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, it’s inconceivable that it could be any worse than the source material.

David R’s list, on the other hand, is a bit different.

The Social Network: Didn’t see the movie, didn’t read the book, and I generally don’t care.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: I never saw the movie. The book does drag in certain parts, but it’s still a classic. I’ll let this one go.

And now this is where he just gets nuts:

Pride and Prejudice (2005): 

I’m probably not the target audience for this particular book, what with being a 21st-century twenty-something male. That said, Pride and Prejudice has always struck me as a pretty good story wrapped up in circuitous, indirect writing. It’s light and frothy, and entertaining to an extent, but ultimately presented in a way that prevents me from really reaching out and connecting with the characters. I’m only passingly familiar with the much-adored BBC miniseries, but am under the impression that it more or less transcribes the book verbatim.

The 2005 version with Keira Knightley, on the other hand, does a much better job streamlining the story into a vibrant, energetic romance. It still retains the story’s amusingly frivolous air, but in a way that, for this viewer at least, renders the story both funnier and more touching than the original novel. Side characters are exaggerated, losing complexity but gaining a more tangible sense of fun — particularly in the case of one Mr. Collins. Director Joe Wright manages to make the dancing and socializing so much fun to watch that you can actually understand why so many people would show up to these parties. And the movie is simply gorgeous in a way that only a movie can be.

Speaking as a fellow 21st Century male, this is heresy. As I wrote on facebook, this isn’t even the best film adaption of this story.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 

While the Harry Potter books are enjoyable for the most part, there are some notable problems with the series. One of the most obvious is J.K. Rowling’s tendency to veer off on wild tangents that derail the forward momentum of her stories. It looks like her editors were able to keep her on track for the first three books (with the third being the series’ best), but by the fourth she had become too popular for that. The Goblet of Fire— which, at 752 pages, is a whole book longer than any of the first three books — was filled with wandering storylines: S.P.E.W., the Quidditch World Cup, and plenty of other bits nearly cripple the already improbable storyline.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Mike Newell took a scalpel to the book, skillfully extracting the core plot and character threads while leaving behind nearly everything that didn’t matter. Gone are the unnecessary distractions, bringing the characters and growing menace of the story to the forefront. And the movie still retains much of the detail that makes up the world, like Rita Skeeter, the Unforgivable Curses, or the eerie world of the Triwizard Tournament. It just never gets so enamored with any of these ideas that it forgets why we came in the first place.

Kloves and Newell didn’t take a scalpel to the book; they obliterated essential sublots and cut out fun little diversions. I recognize that tastes vary, but Goblet of Fire is the best book in the series in my mind particularly because of the fun little side excursions. Yes, I might be one of the few people who doesn’t hate the S.P.E.W. supblot, but that aside the movie just falls flat. Also, as my wife has pointed out, the climactic maze scene in the race for the Triwizard Cup is completely bland, as though they just ran out of money in their CGI budget. Rowling’s description of that part of the tournament is so much more vivid than what the filmmakers came up with.

It only gets worse.


This is kind of an apples-and-oranges situation. The Iliad (not The Aeneid, like I thoughtlessly wrote earlier) is an ancient epic poem; Troy, a modern action film. They’re going after completely different things, going about their aims in completely different ways, and generally couldn’t be further apart from each other without being entirely unrelated stories.

That said, I don’t get a whole lot out of Homer’s original. The way the gods act in his text is distracting, particularly when they swoop into the middle of a battle to remove key players from the action. Homer’sOdyssey includes gods and fantastical creatures much better. Then again, the main conflict in The Odyssey is between men and gods (or at least men and fate). The Iliad’s conflict is much more between men; two nations are at war. In the film Troy, the gods were taken completely out of the story, allowing the focus to fall squarely on the war waged over petty revenge and hubris. The human element is much more important, allowing the story to resonate more for its human viewers.

This make me weep openly, as Achilles did at the death of Patroclus. Leaving aside Homer’s epic, Troy was one of the most wretched movies ever put on screen. Troy wouldn’t be  an improvement over a Dan Brown novel, let alone freaking Homer.

And for number one:

War of the Worlds (2005):

Before you burn me at the stake, let me clarify. I’m a huge H.G. Wells fan, and if you remove the different versions from their cultural context I don’t know that one is better than the other. However, War of the Worlds is one of those stories that deserves to be retold every now and then, as it can offer a lot of commentary on different periods in history. The first film adaptation was of reasonably high quality; it (like much of that era’s science fiction) pitched the story against the fears and imagery of the Cold War.

In the early 2000s, Spielberg came to a realization, “I thought that this story’s time had come again.” It was a stroke of brilliance to deal with 9/11 through H. G. Wells’s century-old classic. The images in the movie arise very organically out of the story, but the specter of 9/11 hangs over the event. Missing-person posters, victims covered in dust, military trying to keep the peace. This allows Spielberg and writer David Koepp to use the text to examine the paranoia and weaknesses of our current society, and as a member of that society, this is somewhat more compelling and noticeably more relevant today than Wells’s book, while still retaining the lean structure and addictive concept that make up the core of the story.

It’s not as bad as favoring Brad Pitt’s version of Achilles over Homer’s, but it’s still pretty silly. Spielberg is a great director, but his inability to constrain his own innate Spielbergness fails to do Wells justice.

The frustrating thing is that the author doesn’t appear to be some high school kid who really hates books. He seems fairly literate, and he’s a decent writer. Yet his reasoning for most of these selections is that he just can’t deal with the long slog of reading books that have plot points he can’t relate to. Or, as one commenter put it:

This is less a post about movies that improve the source material and more about the author’s inability to enjoy a complex novel.

I can understand, and as I said, tastes vary. That being said, David R should be banned from public commentary for the rest of eternity.

Oh, I do need to address one of the comments to the linked article:

Just wanted to say that the Lord of the Rings movies are worlds better than the books for a number of reasons, but the one most worth mentioning being the total excision of Tom Bombadil from the screen.

Not only should this person be banned from public commentary for all eternity, he should be shunned by polite society and forced to live in seclusion with nothing but the Twilight books to keep him company.

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12 Responses to Because Reading Is Hard

  • Wherein you report on the “fruits” of public education . . .

  • First, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – THE movie – with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier from the 1940’s managed to develop manners, morals, virtues, character, love and ‘fun’ with a lot left to the imagination. Mind over matter. Contemporary productions aren’t for the mind. So, vehicles that could inspire just feed fashion markets, outre behavior and the viewer’s desires.

    “That said, Pride and Prejudice has always struck me as a pretty good story wrapped up in circuitous, indirect writing. It’s light and frothy, and entertaining to an extent, but ultimately presented in a way that prevents me from really reaching out and connecting with the characters.”

    Skip the character development and go for the action – third millenium culture. Reading Jane Austen prevented connecting with characters ?!

  • @PM, The BBC P&P miniseries is by far the best version I’ve ever seen, beating out even Lawrence Olivier. However, it being a miniseries (3 hours long, I believe) they had a lot more time to get into the nuance of P&P. That being said, the book is wonderful and none of the movie versions, even my favorite one, do it complete justice.

    @ Paul Zummo, the only quibbles have with you is over S.P.E.W. That was a subplot that annoyed the snot out of me. However, I was disappointed that they didn’t go more into the discrimination themes that S.P.E.W. and the whole subplots involving the house elves brought about. The plight of the magical creatures, especially the house elves, was such a recurring theme that it made it all the more important when Dobby’s big moment came in the last book. And you really miss that when you go five movies without seeing him.

  • The Lord of the Rings movie left out one of my favorite parts, the setting the shire to rights near the end of the book. A movie couldn’t do the book justice. And the Harry Potter movies cut out way too much. And most of them made me feel like I wanted to take off my sunglasses, but I wasn’t wearing sunglasses. Just because the theme is dark doesn’t mean the film should be dimly lit.

  • “He seems fairly literate, and he’s a decent writer.”

    How anyone who can confuse the Aeneid with the Iliad can be described as “literate” baffles me.

    Jane Austen should be, of all novelists, the easiest to adapt to the screen, as her technique is so largely dramatic; she develops character principally through dialogue. On the other hand, I have often wondered why anyone thought it a good idea to dramatize “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.” When the leading dramatist of his age decided to tell the story through the medium of a novel, it i a bold person indeed, who decides to second-guess him. One might as well try making a novel out of Hamlet or Phèdre.

  • Part of me would love to see Tim Powers’ novels Declare or The Stress Of Her Regard made into movies, but a bigger part of me realizes that too much would be compromised for time, and the essences of the stories and complexities of the characters would be sacrificed.

    I can’t comment on On Stranger Tides being adapted for Pirates of the Caribbean 23 or whatever part they ended on, as I haven’t seen the movie, and refuse to do so.

  • “Just wanted to say that the Lord of the Rings movies are worlds better than the books for a number of reasons, but the one most worth mentioning being the total excision of Tom Bombadil from the screen.”

    “Not only should this person be banned from public commentary for all eternity, he should be shunned by polite society and forced to live in seclusion with nothing but the Twilight books to keep him company.”

    Or The Hunger Games series.

  • Unfortunately, some books are just not really adaptable to the big screen. Although it seems most modern novels are written with more than half an eye toward their big screen debut (the HP series seemed to exhibit this, particularly with the later books). Just finished reading Father Elijah, and although the book is good, and the basic plat seems it would make for an interesting film, so much occurs in the characters’ psyche that it would be difficult to translate to the screen. If it did, I could see someone thinking the film an improvement undoubtedly because it would have more “action” and less contemplation of big questions than the book. But to me, that would be an unfair assessment because of the differing purposes of the respective media.

  • I think LoTR could have been adapted to the screen better, but I suspect that the writer / producer / director did not share any of Tolkien’s commitments to a transcendental / hierarchical, universe, among other things. Credo ut intellegam, indeed.

    This becomes especially apparent in a scene from the extended version of RoTK where the King of the Nazgul mystically shatters Gandalf’s staff on the walls of Minas Tirith. The staff – the symbol of Gandalf’s status – shattered by a Nazgul? The staff of Gandalf – Olorin – recently elevated to the head of the enfleshed Maia on earth? What a stunning inversion!

    This article, coincidentally showing up this morning, does a very good job of describing it:

  • Comparing Troy to The Iliad “is kind of an apples-and-oranges situation”. That “kind of” may be the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time.

  • I’m thinking “Howard the Duck” maybe?

  • I’m surprised Jaws didn’t make the list. The novel was pretty much forgettable.. the movie on the other hand, not so much.

Tolstoy’s Theory of History

Tuesday, March 1, AD 2011

I’ve been really enjoying listening to the unabridged War and Peace (I’m listening to a reading by Neville Jason) as a commuting book. It’s episodic enough to be good when listened to in half hour increments, and it’s good enough to be a pleasure to hear while not so stylistic in its prose as to be make one feel as if one ought to be reading it rather than listening. However, this morning I hit one of Tolstoy’s chapter long theory-of-history sections, and was startled at how little sense it made. This is a chunk of Book 9, Chapter 1:

From the close of the year 1811 intensified arming and concentrating of the forces of Western Europe began, and in 1812 these forces—millions of men, reckoning those transporting and feeding the army—moved from the west eastwards to the Russian frontier, toward which since 1811 Russian forces had been similarly drawn. On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naive assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on.

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11 Responses to Tolstoy’s Theory of History

  • I concur, DC… wait until you get to the second epilogue… he elaborates at length on his theory of history, and it’s similarly curious.

  • Heh. I mostly remember the “diaper epilogue” as we called it when we speed read it in college. I don’t remember the other as much, possibly because I skimmed it pretty shamelessly in order to hit a deadline. At this rate, I should be there in another month or so.

  • Tolstoy proves he’s a novelist.

    Here’s one historian’s “take”: “History . . . little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Gibbon.

    Tragically, no “great leader” has learned its (history’s) lessons.

    Hard experience is a merciless teacher, but the fool will have no other.

  • What bothers me is that while Napoleon certainly had greater moral culpability, everyone who goes along with an unjust war while knowing its an unjust war is, in my understanding of Catholic teaching, also morally culpable. So while Tolstoy might be wrong in equating the two, the soldiers who followed the unjust orders are also wrong. So the decision by the bulk of his army to go along with Napoleon is relevant and is a cause of the war, even if not the main cause.

  • “The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the event seemed to hang, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription.”

    To paraphrase Orwell, only an intellectual could write something that silly. Tolstoy was a great novelist, but one of the problems with reading him is that one constantly encounters his crack brained nostrums about every topic under the sun. In fact, Napoleon was basically a free agent in regard to foreign policy and the disastrous invasion of Russia was his baby from start to finish. Alexander, imagine a Russian Prince Charles, was autocrat of all the Russias in deed as well as in theory, and he had a free hand in foreign policy likewise.

  • I actually agree with Tolstoy here, really, I do. 😉

    Tolstoy’s position, I take it, is that history–and especially history on a grand scale, princes and potentates, etc.–gives us a picture of the essential irrationality, absurdity, and incomprehensibility of human activity. There can be no “explanation” for this history because, essentially, it’s all bad–much as there can be no “explanation” for evil. This is a particularly dark account of history (and of politics), and it’s not one that Christians have to agree with, of course. But it’s not essentially different from that found in Augustine’s in De Civitate Dei in his account of the history of the earthly city; and in Tolstoy’s “fatalism” we can detect a quasi-secularized version of Augustine’s Divine Will. For Augustine, it is quite certain that history is incomprehensible from any point within history itself; it only becomes intelligible once we have escaped it.

    There are problems with this account, I grant. But I don’t think it’s as foolish or simple a position as a cursory reading might suggest.

  • “only becomes intelligible once we have escaped it.”

    That is God’s prerogative not ours, which was rather the point of Saint Augustine, always bearing in mind that he was a mere mortal, albeit a brilliant one and illumined by faith, attempting to ferret out what God intends in human history. I rather doubt that it is ours to discern His plan, although Saint Augustine’s City of God deserves an A for effort, if not historical accuracy, which of course was not a concern of Saint Augustine.

  • “That is God’s prerogative”–Well, of course that’s true, but it’s also the prerogative of the elect, who after Christ’s Second Coming will no longer exist *in* history and so will be able to understand it for the first time.

    “historical accuracy, which of course was not a concern of Saint Augustine”. This begs the question in favor of one understanding of what constitutes “accuracy.” Suppose that historical accuracy depends upon one’s seeing all human events in light of the Incarnation and Second Coming. Then Augustine’s accuracy is perhaps unparalleled. I suspect that your notion of “historical accuracy” is informed by an inchoate commitment to some kind of positivism.

  • I’ll admit, it’s been a decade since I read City of God, and when I did it was on a college course deadline so I was reading way too fast, but my recollection is that St. Augustine is talking about it being unclear to us what the direction of history is in the sense of it’s purpose, why it’s happening in a final cause sense. We don’t know if the Roman Empire will last another three hundred years because we don’t know what purpose the Roman Empire has in the drama of salvation.

    What Tolstoy seems to be saying, by comparison, is that at the level of actual occurrence, history is without clear cause, and that someone like Napoleon had no choice as to whether or not to invade Russia, was not really the maker of that decision, because he was being swept along by a tide of history — no more or less the author of the invasion than a single sergeant who chose to enlist for another term in the Grande Armee rather than retiring.

  • “I suspect that your notion of “historical accuracy” is informed by an inchoate commitment to some kind of positivism.”

    Only if positivism is defined in regard to history as fidelity as close as possible to a rendition of what actually occurred in history as opposed to what we wish had occurred. Saint Augustine was writing a work of theology and was using the history of the Roman Empire for polemical purposes. Some of his positions from a historical standpoint are simply risible, including his contention that the military defeats suffered by the Republic were greater than the defeats suffered by the dying Empire he was living in, part of his response to pagans claiming that Christianity was causing the decline of the Empire. As I have said however, fidelity to the actual historical record was not a concern of Saint Augustine.

    It is of course impossible for humans to step outside of history this side of the grave. The fact that we know that at the end of time awaits the Final Judgment tells us quite a bit about how we should live our lives, but tells us next to nothing as to how to seek an accurate record of the events that took place before us.


Ten Books

Monday, July 13, AD 2009

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. 

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32 Responses to Ten Books

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • Mark,

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

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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!

  • Interesting responses! Keep them coming!

  • Only 10?

  • 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.

  • “Only 10?”


  • 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

  • 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.

  • Crud — cross-posted; jonathanjones02 beat me to it.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Of course, if one has real trouble picking, one can always post one’s whole library:

  • 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.

  • If those authors trouble you, e, I can’t imagine what my bookshelf would do to you 🙂

  • Joe,

    How does that ole phrase go? De gustibus non est disputandum?

  • 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. 🙂

  • Voltaire did some fairly good historical works on Louis XIV and Charles XII.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • I thought Candide was hilarious.

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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,…,”

  • 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.

  • 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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Book Review: The Death of a Pope

Friday, May 15, AD 2009

Out today from Ignatius Press is The Death of a Pope, a new novel by Piers Paul Read, a mainstream novelist (his survival novel Alive about a rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes topped the New York Times bestseller list when it came out 25 years ago, and was later made into a film) who has also written both fiction and nonfiction on Catholic themes. He wrote a popular history of the templars a few years back, and On the Third Day, a thriller about the discovery in modern Israel of a crucified skeleton that some allege to be proof that Christ did not rise from the dead.

I had not read any of Read’s previous books, but when Ignatius emailed me and offered me a review copy, the premise of the novel sounded interesting and I could not resist the lure of a free book. However, I did not initially expect much of it, my idea of modern “Catholic thrillers” having been formed by the likes of Pierced By A Sword, whose prose style treads that delicate line between incompetent and downright laughable.

However, I need not have feared. Read’s prose is deft and indeed literary, though the modern device of using present tense narrative to convey immediacy is not necessarily my cup of tea. Those inclined to literary snobbery will not find themselves holding their noses as they read this novel by any stretch. The less pretentious reader will enjoy the fast-paced plot, which whisks him from a terrorist trial in London, to the refugee camps of Uganda, the chemistry labs of Cairo and at last to the 2005 papal conclave.

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