"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?
There are few people today who know G.K. Chesterton better than Dale Ahlquist. Besides being president of the American Chesterton Society and responsible for much of the renewed interest in Chesterton, Ahlquist has written many books on the twentieth-century maven including Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, and In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton (my review here).
Ahlquist's mastery is even more impressive considering how incredibly prolific Chesterton was. He wrote plays, political commentaries, novels, essays, mysteries, and theological texts. In all he completed over eighty books, hundreds of poems and stories, and more than 4,000 essays.
When you dip your toes into this massive corpus, one thing becomes immediately clear: Chesterton's skill at connecting many disparate ideas. He 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 Ahlquist's view, nobody did this better. Therefore if we want to become complete thinkers ourselves, then studying Chesterton is a great way. Ahlquist has produced a new book toward that end titled The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius press, 264 pages, hardcover).
The book is not “straight” Chesterton; it's not just a collection of excerpts from Chesterton's writings. That's good, however, especially for beginners who are unfamiliar with Chesterton's daunting style. Instead, the book is a guided tour through Chesterton’s major ideas with Ahlquist's commentary throughout.
In one chapter titled “The Universe and Other Little Things,” Ahlquist shows how Chesterton tackled the paradoxical scale of the cosmos, one that is both shockingly vast and surprisingly cozy:
“Science boasts of the distance of its stars; of the terrific remoteness of the things of which it has to speak. But poetry and religion always insist upon the proximity, the almost menacing closeness of the things with which they are concerned.”
Other chapters tie together the problem of evil, war and peace, politics and patriotism, and the limits of language. Chesterton's connections can be confusing at times, but that's where Ahlquist's commentary shines. It helps clarify Chesterton's notoriously pithy paradoxes.
Surprisingly, what I liked most about the book was the Appendix. Titled “Chesterton vs. Darrow,” it recounts a forgotten debate between these two iconic, twentieth-century thinkers. Clarence Darrow was the Richard Dawkins of his day, representing progress, science, and the triumph of reason over faith. He's best known as the lawyer who defended John Scopes in the Scopes "Monkey" Trial. Chesterton, of course, stood for religion and common sense, two things Darrow dismissed as superstitious and backward.
The topic of the debate was “Will the World Return to Religion?", and in an interview with Catholic World Report, Ahlquist explained why he chose to include it in the book:
“Well, everyone seems to be familiar with Darrow’s shellacking of William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial.” But no one knows about the time six years later when Chesterton used Darrow as a mop to clean the floor in a big debate in New York. Chesterton made the great agnostic look rather foolish, and Darrow fans would prefer to forget the incident. So I have reminded them of it.”
In the end, after hundreds of Chesterton quotes and excerpts, Ahlquist accomplishes his goal. In The Complete Thinker, he unveils the expansive genius of G.K. Chesterton which touched almost every topic under the sun. If you want to learn how to be a complete thinker, pick up this book and study under a true master.
Check out Jeff Miller’s review over at The Curt Jester.
In 1955, in a San Francisco used bookstore, Dr. Alfred Kessler, an avid collector of the works of G.K. Chesterton, uncovered a rare treasure—Chesterton's personal copy of a privately published edition of Holbrook Jackson's Platitudes in the Making (1911) with original responses by Chesterton written in green pencil between lines of Jackson's book.
One can easily imagine Chesterton, upon reception of the volume from his literary friend Jackson, settling comfortably near the fireplace, chuckling and chortling as he read and jotted down in a spirit of friendship, fun, and fairness his own insightful observations.
Chesterton and Jackson were contemporaries and friends with much in common. Both were literary critics and had written biographies of George Bernard Shaw. Their paths, however, crossed and diverged because of their literary interests and philosophical differences. Jackson fancied himself a disciple of Nietzche and Fabian Socialism while Chesterton's mind and heart took a turn toward Christian philosophy.
Since 1911, this unknown Chesterton "book within a book" has been seen by only a priveleged few. But in 1997, Ignatius Press released a beautiful facsimile edition of the marked-up book titled, Platitudes Undone (Ignatius Press, hardcover, 105 pages). The book looked as if Chesterton himself had written right in it with his green pencil, and it allowed Chestertonians everywhere to glimpse the remarkable wisdom and humor of this literary giant "at play."
But with similar luck to Dr. Kessler, I recently found a copy at a local used bookstore for just $0.50. It's such a cool book that I scanned some of the pages to share here. They provide answer to anyone who ever wondered what it would be like for Chesterton to edit his or her writing. Enjoy!
Today I have the supreme pleasure of interviewing Marc Barnes. Known online as the BadCatholic, Marc is one of the best Catholic writers today. He's incredibly prolific, writing on everything from the lunacy of the HHS mandate, to the bad idea of contraception, to praying badly. Yet his Chestertonian wit and Tolkienian wonder belie his youth: he's only 18.
Q: Chesterton popped paradoxes well into his sixties. Tolkien was 62 when he finished The Lord of the Rings. Your writing has drawn comparisons to both men, yet jaws drop when people discover that you're only 18. How has your age been a blessing and a curse?
My age allows me to address topics in a way that the EWTN world refuses to. It allows me to manipulate powers unfairly granted to teenagers and denied to adults—sarcasm, exaggeration, provocation, and, above all, humor. The virtue of humor is that which will make a man listen, no matter how much he disagrees. (The only time you're given the license to call another man's mother fat is when you can make him laugh while doing it.)
Laughter is the great disarmer. No man will listen to you telling him that contraception is sinful, but if it comes as a joke, his heart will be more open to the fact than a year of preaching could ever achieve. The end result of using this style is that I don't really have to moderate myself; I'm given the leeway to write as I actually think as a teenager.
Which is the problem. Being 18, I fall to valuing style over content and cheap humor over real philosophy. I make wide assumptions, crude caricatures, and I have a general lack of sensitivity to the complexity of my readers.
Plus there's the fact that—and this has more to do with character than age—I'm a hypocrite. Writing is easy, living is hard, and I haven't written a post yet without a twinge of self-ridicule: "Yeah, you tell those people to develop a strong prayer life, to stop sinning, to transform lust into love, and to live out the call of Christ. Just keep telling 'em."
Also, I suppress an average of six curse words per blog post. And being 18 allows my critics/opponents/flaming heretics an easy way out of an actual argument—"Oh, but he's young: he'll learn the truth about life when he's older."
Q: Many people, me included, have likened your style to everyone from Chesterton to Tolkien, Flannery O'Conner to Walker Percy. Can you talk about how these and others have influenced your writing?
Such comparisons are well-intentioned insults to great writers. I do not know whether their influence comes across in my work—after all, it takes an onlooker to tell you that you have your mother's eyes—but I do know they've moved my writing away from pretentious disaster. A more fitting way to say "Mr. Barnes sounds like Mr. Chesterton" would be "Mr. Chesterton prevents Mr. Barnes from sounding like crap." But I'll tell you what I've learned from each you've mentioned.
Walker Percy taught me that you just as easily prove God's existence by showing those who fail to live up to his commands as showing those who don't. He demands that I be comfortable living in the ruins (the world's gone all to hell, but I will not be saddened) and he introduced me to the existentialism of Kierkegaard, for which I simultaneously hate and love him.
Ms. O'Connor taught me that sometimes putting it grotesquely is putting it best.
Chesterton taught me that if you're not having a fantastic time arguing, debating, thinking and writing, you should be doing something else. And not to fear paradox. And he made me Catholic.
Tolkien taught me that being Catholic is a battle and a romance.
Q: On your blog, you write a lot on what John Allen Jr. calls 'the pelvic issues'--abortion, contraception, marriage, and pornography. How can Catholics battle the so-called 'culture of death', which stands against true life and love?
Catholics are in the remarkable situation of being the only group of people with the desire to separate sex—in all its transcendent beauty—from the murder of infants, the sterilization of our brothers and sisters, the utter objectification of men and women, and the freaky-weird passion with which the world wants to get involved with everyone's sex lives.
This makes Catholics awesome. We are promoting the good—that sex is sexy—while the world promotes the bad. We stand for the positive argument—that babies deserve life—and not the negative—that sometimes things are so tough you just have to murder. The moment we get negative or defensive is the moment we've lost the battle. For why on Earth should a man defending Goodness, Truth and Beauty be anything but shining, affirmative and joyful?
Q: Another favorite topic of yours is Beauty. Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said that "beauty will save the world." Why is beauty so important and how can we harness its power?
It's very simple, actually. There are three Transcendentals, three infinite goals that man naturally strives for. He strives for Goodness (that which he should obey), Truth (that which he should believe), and Beauty (that which he should admire.)
To the Christian worldview, these three Transcendentals, in their perfection, are God Himself. God is goodness, truth and beauty. (This, by the way, implies that goodness=truth=beauty (Keats was right!) but I digress.)
In their imperfect form—that is, in all man's pitiful attempts to be Good, to know Truth, and to reach Beauty—God is pointed to. They are each images of God. Now our culture got rid of the Good with the introduction of moral relativism—it has been limited to the self, to the I Am The Arbiter of My Own Morality. It got rid of Truth with the public school system—my truth is not your truth, and I promise that statement is true. So we're left with Beauty as the our last hope to avoid damning ourselves to a delightfully vague and relative Hell.
Beauty, though many deny it, still strikes man rudely and objectively. Beauty has the flavor of dogma. Beauty will save the world, because it's the last Objective Infinite we admit to, and thus the last icon pointing to God.
Q: As a fellow book lover, what would you recommend as your top three must-read books?
Q: Last question: Suppose the Pope invites you to St. Peter's Basilica. He ushers you to the central balcony, and gives you one minute to address the watching world. What do you say?
First, "Let's hear it for the guy before me!"
"Write this down! Tiny.cc/badc."
"Alright everyone, we're gonna pray that I get to Heaven! Ready? Remember, O Most Gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known, etc."
For more imaginative brilliance, be sure to follow Marc through his BadCatholic blog at Patheos. There you'll find articles like The Glory of Being Shut Up, Priests and Pokemon, and On Being Made for Infinity. You can also connect with Marc on Facebook and Twitter.
What do you think about Marc's writing? What's your favorite BadCatholic post?
(Image Credit: Session Magazine)