By Claire Bordelon
I recently came across an intriguing book titled All Good Books are Catholic Books released by Cornell Press in 2013. A survey of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward the social, cultural, economic, and political developments of the twentieth-century, it makes some claims I’m not sure I agree with but are nonetheless thought-provoking. To that end, I began thinking about the books that feed spiritually, artistically, and every way in between. Below is the list of books that came to mind first – while they’re not necessarily based in Catholic theology (though some are), they certainly feed the Catholic soul.
Consider this my Summer Reading List:
- Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
Published in 1945, Waugh’s Bideshead Revisited explores the personalities and stories of a flawed but intriguing Roman Catholic aristocratic family. Dealing with divine grace and its effects on various members of the story, Brideshead presents a colorful, varied, and rich discussion of the rejection and acceptance of faith and the movement between those two poles.
- The Woman of the Pharisees – Francois Mauriac
The Woman of the Pharisees–one of Mauriac’s most accomplished novels–is a penetrating evocation of the moral and religious values of a Bordeaux community. In Brigitte, we see how the ideals of love and companionship are stifled in the presence of a self-righteous woman whose austere religious principals lead her to interfere–disasterously–in the lives of others. One by one the unwitting victims fall prey to the bleakness of her “perfection.” A conscientious schoolteacher, a saintly priest, her husband and stepdaughter and an innocent schoolboy are all confronted with tragedy and upheaval. But the author’s extraordinary gift for psychological insight goes on to show how redeeeming features inevitably surface from disaster. The unfolding drama is seen through the discerning eye of a young Louis–Brigitte’s stepson–whose point of view is skillfully blended into the mature and understanding adult he later becomes.
- Leaper: The Misadventures of a Not-Necessairly-Super Hero – Geoffrey Wood
A fun and fast read, Leaper chronicles the reluctant hero, James, who suddenly discovers (or maybe imagines?) hitherto unknown superpowers. What kind of good can James do with his abilities? What is “good”? Humorous and poignant, Geoffrey Wood asks these questions and more in his unexpected and vastly entertaining debut novel.
- The Complete Father Brown Stories – G.K. Chesterton
Fans of Agatha Christie, rejoice! The Father Brown mysteries combine a bit of Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells” with Chesterton’s eye for detail and rich prose in the quiet, witty, and genial character of Father Brown.
- The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
A moving recounting of the affair and aftermath between Sarah Miles and narrator Maurice Bendrix, The End of the Affair is as unexpected as it is painfully beautiful. The intimacy of the narrative voice paired with the enigmatic movement of the plot follow Bendrix as he chronicles his journey from obsessive love to hatred for Sarah, her husband Henry, and finally to the God whom he is forced to recognize, even amid his darkness and confusion.As a side note, the last forty pages are some of the most heart-wrenching and beautifully written passages I’ve read in a long time.
- The Moviegoer – Walker Percy
“The Moviegoer“ is Binx Bolling, a young New Orleans stockbroker who surveys the world with the detached gaze of a Bourbon Street dandy even as he yearns for a spiritual redemption he cannot bring himself to believe in. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he occupies himself dallying with his secretaries and going to movies, which provide him with the “treasurable moments” absent from his real life. But one fateful Mardi Gras, Binx embarks on a hare-brained quest that outrages his family, endangers his fragile cousin Kate, and sends him reeling through the chaos of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Wry and wrenching, rich in irony and romance, The Moviegoer is a genuine American classic and must-read.
- Everything that Rises Must Converge – Flannery O’Connor
Short stories make the perfect interlude for a rainy summer afternoon, and if you’re going to read them, you may as well start at the top. Everything that Rises Must Converge exemplifies O’Connor’s understanding of the beautiful and the grotesque, and once you’ve read a few of her stories, you’ll recognize her voice anywhere.
- Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold – C.S. Lewis
Lewis’ last novel retells the story of Cupid and Psyche through the eyes of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Persuading her sister to look upon the forbidden face of Cupid, Orual is left to plunge into a deep and illuminative contemplation of suffering and the human soul. The book is a creative vision of Lewis’ own philosophy and imagination – if you’ve read and admired other works by Lewis (especially Surprised by Joy), this is a must-read.
- The Chronicles of Narnia -C.S. Lewis
The world-building powers of Lewis are at their finest in Chronicles of Narnia, which chronicle the world of Narnia from its first moments through its self-defining moments and troubles. Fantasy enthusiasts should be ashamed if they’ve not yet ventured into Narnia.
- How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization – Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
For a break from fiction and a history lesson, take a look at this survey by Thomas Woods, which outlines the integral and defining role the Catholic Church has played in the development of Western Civilization.
- Space Trilogy – C.S. Lewis
This is another must-read for fantasy and sci-fi fans. Lewis’ trilogy follows Dr. Ransom, a Cambridge academic who is abducted and taken to the planet Malacandra and the various adventures and discoveries he makes not only about this new world, but also his own “Silent Planent.” Tinged with Lewis’ philosophical touches and brilliant manipulation of language and world-building, Space Trilogy will appeal to any looking for a different and engaging side to the Lewis they loved from Narnia.
- Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
Inman is a disillousioned Confederate soldier who has failed to die after being seriously wounded during the last days of the Civil War. Longing to be reunited with his beloved, Ada, Inman embarks on an odyssey through the ruined South he once new. This is a Hero’s Journey story for the Civil War buff, and represents a beautiful addition to the American canon.
- The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton
In a fantasy London, police hero Gregory Syme cannot reveal fellow poet Lucian Gregory is an anarchist. Elected undercover into the Central European Council of anarchists, Syme must avoid discovery and save the world from bombings by anarchists named after the days of the week. Buckle up for a different Chesterton than the one you thought you knew – The Man Who Was Thursday requires and then rewards immersion into this fantastic and hyper-realistic world.
- My Life with the Saints – James Martin
If you’re not usually keen on the lives of the Saints, Martin’s episodic narrative of his various encounters with the saints offers a spiritual memoir that reminds the sleepy Catholic of his friendship with the saints and the rich and vibrant lives we can share with them.
- Left to Tell – Immaculee Ilibagiza
I read this book in one sitting. Equal parts horrified and inspired, I couldn’t stop myself from turning page after page of Immaculee Ilibagiza’s harrowing story of the 91 days she spent hiding in a bathroom during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.
- The Road – Cormac McCarthy
If you’re looking for a light, inspiring read, this is not it. The Road follows a father-son pair through a post-apocalyptic America in which a pistol, a cart of scavenged food, and each other are the only defense they have against not only the barren landscape but also the lawless bands that stalk the deserted roads. The stark language mirrors the setting and offers an excellent introduction to readers looking for a taste of some excellent dystopian fiction.
- The Diary of a Country Priest – George Bernanos
In this classic Catholic novel, Bernanos movingly recounts the life of a young French country priest who grows to understand his provincial parish while learning spiritual humility himself.
- Letters to a Young Catholic – George Weigel
Another non-fiction interlude in this list, Letters to a Young Catholic is George Weigel’s tour of the Catholic World and helps us understand how Catholicism fosters what Flannery O’Connor called “the habit of being.” Taking the reader by the hand, Weigel embarks on a journey to Catholic landmarks as diverse as Chartres Cathedral and St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Not just for the young!
- The Poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins – G.M. Hopkins
G.M. Hopkins is an excellent introduction for those disinclined to like poetry. Accessible and meditative, take these to prayer, read one in the morning, or read them all in one fell swoop. You won’t regret it.
- Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather
In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour comes as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico. What he finds is a vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. Latour spreads his faith in the only way he knows–gently, although he must contend with an unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. One of these events Cather gives us an indelible vision of life unfolding in a place where time itself seems suspended.
- East of Eden – John Steinbeck
I tried to limit myself to a single Steinbeck on this list, so I picked my favorite. Grapes of Wrath is always the popular choice, but forgive me, East of Eden is, as they say, where it’s at.Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence
- The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
I told my students once that if they hadn’t read this book, they were only living a half-life. They disagreed, but I still stand firm. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is both incomprehensibly sophisticated and completely engaging. Chronicling the journey of the One Ring via the Ringbearer, Frodo, Tolkien’s story is best advertised in the words of the writer himself:”The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work. Unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
- The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
- Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor
It is a story of Hazel Motes, a twenty-two-year-old caught in an unending struggle against his innate, desperate faith. He falls under the spell of a “blind” street preacher named Asa Hawks and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter, Lily Sabbath. In an ironic, malicious gesture of his own non-faith, and to prove himself a greater cynic than Hawkes, Hazel Motes founds The Church of God Without Christ, but is still thwarted in his efforts to lose God. He meets Enoch Emery, a young man with “wise blood,” who leads him to a mummified holy child, and whose crazy maneuvers are a manifestation of Hazel’s existential struggles. This tale of redemption, retribution, false prophets, blindness, blindings, and wisdoms gives us one of the most riveting characters in twentieth-century American fiction.
- Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky
Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.
Comment below with book suggestions – what are your must-reads?