“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.” — Anthony Trollope
Compared to past years, 2012 was a relatively slow reading year for me. After knocking out 87 books last year and 108 two years ago, I only finished 54 titles this year. Granted, 2012 brought many wonderful diversions: our third child, Augustine, was born; I studied hundreds of hours for the Professional Engineering exam (which I passed!); I had several new writing and speaking commitments; I sent 12,000 CDs to Africa and promoted great Catholic speakers; and I worked on two large book projects. Considering all that activity I’m actually surprised I read as much as I did.
Yet 54 books still provide plenty of options for my annual favorites list. As with prior lists, these are my fifteen favorite books, not the most acclaimed, the most timeless, or the best-written. They’re simply the ones I liked the most, the ones I kept thinking about well after finishing.
Only about half of these books were published in 2012. But as C.S. Lewis says, novelty isn’t always good; newer books haven’t passed the test of time. Regardless, some of these older books may be unfamiliar to you and therefore “new” in the best sense of the word.
Also, this year I’m splitting the list into three parts. This year’s list ended up being over 4,600 words which is way too long for a single post.
And with that, here are my favorite titles from 2012 (in descending order):
St. Augustine of Hippo, translated by R.S. Pine Coffin
(Penguin Classics, 1961)
I had big hopes for St. Augustine’s classic, and it delivered in many ways. Augustine’s probing journey from hedonism to Catholicism is one of the first biographies ever written and one of the most compelling.
Even translated, his writing is lyrical. Augustine expresses the primordial, haunting desire that eludes him. In his hunt for its source he samples many philosophies and religions before finally settling on Catholicism, and the book takes you on the entire journey. My wife and I read Confessions together and were so moved by Augustine’s account that we named our newborn son after him.
That said, many parts of the book underwhelmed me. Maybe it’s because I’m an amateur philosopher who is fairly new to Augustine, or maybe it’s because this was my first read-through (I heard the book gets better on successive reads.) The fault is likely mine more than Augustine’s, but I found many sections dragging. For instance, Augustine’s philosophizing about time didn’t enchant me like the rest of his memoir.
This year’s film-adaptation of the book, Restless Heart, re-colored much of the book for me, especially figures like St. Monica, Augustine’s mother, and St. Ambrose, his friend and mentor. I also picked up Ignatius’ new Critical Edition version of the book, which features the translation by Maria Boulding, O.S.B., widely hailed as the best, and annotations providing helpful commentary.
While not the best book I read all year, Confessions was certainly one of my favorites. And I’m sure it will appear higher in future lists as I return to it again and again.
14. The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction about Catholicism
(Ignatius Press, 2012)
From my earlier review:
Over the last few years, I’ve had many discussions with Protestants, Mormons, atheists, and agnostics. And if there’s one thing they share in common, it’s a profound confusion about what the Catholic Church actually teaches. Venerable Fulton Sheen was right: “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.”
Dr. Christopher Kaczor agrees and in his new book, The Seven Big Myths About the Catholic Church, he clears up seven of the biggest misunderstandings. The myths include:
- The Church opposes science
- The Church opposes freedom and happiness
- The Church hates women
- The Church is indifferent to love because she rejects contraception
- The Church hates gays
- The Church opposes same-sex marriage for irrational reasons
- The Church’s abuse crisis was due to priestly celibacy
In a religiously-illiterate world, evangelization is about clarification as much as proclamation. That makes Kaczor’s Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church a real winner. It’s a valuable tool for the New Evangelization which helps clear away the biggest roadblocks people have to the Catholic Church.
(Ave Maria Press, 2012)
A couple years ago I devoured Dawn Eden’s memoir, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On (Thomas Nelson, 2006.) It was an edgy, beautiful work highlighting Dawn’s journey from promiscuous agnosticism into the purifying arms of the Church.
As good as that book was, however, I think her newest one is better. In My Peace I Give You, Dawn takes readers down a path of healing by weaving her experiences of childhood sexual abuse alongside saints who were also hurt, mistreated, and abandoned. In her search for solace, she returns to the Cross, hiding herself in the wounds of the One who suffers with us, the crowning example of compassion.
Along the way, Dawn features several probing reflections on the nature of evil and suffering. A significant turn in Dawn’s healing came when she discovered the Catechism’s teaching that God does not positively will evil, though he permits it to honor free will and to bring a greater good out of it. As Dawn said during our interview, “the greater good that I believe he’s brought through the evil I’ve suffered is the good of being able to be more closely united, through my wounds, with the wounded and Resurrected Christ.”
Despite the book’s title, it doesn’t just focus on sexual abuse. It covers many other kinds of suffering including physical, emotional, and verbal. Whatever wounds you have, Dawn’s evocative writing and the saints’ own witness will help you toward spiritual healing.
G.K. Chesterton, collected by Dale Ahlquist, Aidan Mackey, and Joseph Pearce
(Ignatius Press, 2011)
From my earlier review:
When you dip your toes into Chesterton’s massive corpus, one thing becomes immediately clear: his skill at connecting disparate ideas. Chesterton pulls equally from art, religion, beauty, politics, science, and philosophy. He was convinced that all these subjects are intertwined and that right-thinking about one led to right-thinking about the others. In one of his novels, for instance, he linked Darwinian evolution to political progressivism. In an essay, he tied the scientific theory of relativity to modernity’s favorite philosophy, relativism.
Chesterton was convinced that “thinking means connecting things” and in Dale Ahlquist’s view, nobody did this better than him. Therefore studying Chesterton is a great way to become complete thinkers ourselves.
The Complete Thinker unveils Chesterton’s expansive genius which touched almost every topic under the sun. If you want to learn how to be a complete thinker, pick up this book and learn from the true master.
Frank J. Sheed
(St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1982)
Frank Sheed, one of the great Catholic apologists of the twentieth-century, was known for presenting lofty theological concepts in simple, down-to-earth language. He was incredibly smart but knew how to write for the common man. In that way, he was very much like C.S. Lewis.
Sheed wrote several notable books including To Know Christ Jesus, my favorite life of Christ, God and the Human Condition, which Ignatius Press just republished as Knowing God, and Theology and Sanity, which Peter Kreeft considers one of the top five must-read books today. Sheed was also successful street-preacher who founded the Catholic Evidence Guild.
Theology for Beginners is probably his best-known book, and I think the ideal introduction to his writing. The book covers many foundational doctrines like creation, the nature of man, original sin, the Church, and the sacraments. It’s an introductory systematic theology that would especially help RCIA students or recent converts.
Sheed’s chapter on the Trinity is the best I’ve ever read. He handles the notoriously abstract doctrine wonderfully by proposing the now-classic threefold image of Thinker, self-generating Thought, and the Love shared between them. God’s three-in-oneness still confounds but Sheed makes it easier to grasp.
For a smart, accessible overview of Catholic theology you can hardly do better than Theology for Beginners.
What were your favorite books of 2012?