The list of recommended reading which follows will not suit everyone’s taste, and is not intended to be an exclusively Catholic list. Rather, it is a short list of interesting books which the editor has personally enjoyed reading and believes you may too.
The concept of “summer reading” will vary with the kind of summer schedule you have, as well as the routine from which you are taking a break.
There are books on this list which could be enjoyed as part of a lazy beach-side reading, or forgetful afternoon on a porch hammock. Other books however are more like short intense essays, best to be read during tedious travel, sitting at airports or in the back seat when stuck in traffic. Some books may be picked up initially during the summer, but are either so long or invite slow rereading (poetry in particular) as to require an extended commitment into the fall.
Though this list is coming on-line a little late in the summer, there may still time to take advantage of what is left of the summer for new reading…perhaps you might to meet new characters, hear new verse, or encounter a new perspective. Happy reading to all!
Till We Have Faces (1956), C.S. Lewis
Unlike the other writings of C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), this novel is neither a work of apologetics, nor a series placed in a distant world. It stands alone and is captivating. Lewis recasts the Classical myth of Cupid and Psyche in terms of a fictional northern barbarian nation with distant ties to ancient Greece. There are no talking animals or “magical” creatures, but there is a powerful sense of “the gods” and how the narrator, Orual, sets out to accuse them of their wrongs. For more than one reader, the last page quickly leads back to the first page…and a fresh re-reading becomes almost irresistible!
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Willa Cather
When non-Catholic novelists take on deeply Catholic characters they usually either create a stereo-typed pious bumbler who bounces around the plot, or they somehow manage to understand and depict the work of grace—from the outside. Willa Cather (1873-1947) has succeeded in the task of telling the story of a French missionary bishop sent to Santa Fe in the 1840’s. The protagonist faces a complex world of the South West between its Spanish colonial history and its new integration into the United States of America. Cather offers a compelling portrait of a priest who always maintains a certain inner reserve (interior recollection), while engaging with all those who seek his help, and even those who don’t.
The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Where does one begin? This book is an investment…an investment worth making. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) tells the epic tale of three brothers and their moral struggles in the face of their father’s death. The dialogs between the atheist brother, Ivan, and his little brother who becomes a monk, Alexei (Alyosha), are masterpieces of the modern struggle of faith. Unlike most of the books in this year’s list, The Brothers Karamazov was not written in English, but can be read in translation from the Russian. There is an excellent translation available from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, although surely there are many to choose from. Picking up Russian literature can be daunting, but for those who like the minor key and the depths of the human heart, it is totally worth it.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844- 1889)
A British Catholic convert of the 19th century, an English Jesuit, and a modern poet of daring rhythms, fresh slant rimes, and explosive juxtapositions—Gerard Manley Hopkins is not to be missed. His poetry is of such innovation and high quality as to have been included in most major anthologies of British verse. For the Catholic reader, the power of his verse is deepened further by his deep spiritual insight into creation and the interior struggles of the soul. (“Pied Beauty”, “God’s Grandeur”, “Thou art indeed just, Lord”, “My Own Heart Let me More Have Pity On”).
After eschewing poetry at one period of his religious life, Hopkins returned to his craft when he was so moved by the death of a group of German Franciscan sisters drowned in a storm while fleeing their native land during the anti-Catholic period of the Kulturkampf. He wrote for them “The Wreck of the Deutschland” (1875-1879, publ. 1918), his longest epic poem.
PHOTO: Seamus Heaney pointing out Gerard Manley Hopkins’ name on the communal Jesuit grave at Glasnevin Cemetery, 2009, photo taken by Henri Cole
Prose Works About Literature, Poetry, Music and Art
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1970), Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald
Although I can’t understand it, I know that some people just don’t like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). They can never get past the uneasy feeling, the Southern dialect, or the contradictions in the strange characters she portrays. (For those of us who love it, these elements are part of the delight!) But things being what they are, I wish to suggest Mystery and Manners to them and to any serious reader interested in the issues of fiction writing, Catholicism, and education.
Like retrospectives of abstract expressionist painters which reveal their capacity as master draftsmen (I recall a great exhibit of Rothko at the Whitney which showed all his early work and great skill for representational figures), Flannery O’Connor’s collected non-fiction allows the reader to encounter the sober, reflective and deliberate mind behind the “Southern Grotesque”.
Conversations with Flannery O’Connor (1987), ed. Rosemary M. Magee, University Press of Mississippi
If you like O’Connor’s sharp Thomistic thought and humor, this collection of interviews transcribed from radio and published in literary journals is great. Her reticent style as the subject of investigations endears her to me more and more!
Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (1988), Josef Pieper
Josef Pieper (1904-1997), a preeminent twentieth century German theologian and author on culture, explores the relationship between creativity and love in Only the Lover Sings. As with all of his works, he presents the philosophical foundations for human greatness with boldness and clarity, while also inspiring his reader to respond. After reading this short book for the first time in one sitting, I wondered how I could have lived so long without ever having composed a single piece of music. This is a wonderful read for any student of music, connoisseur of sculpture, or simply anyone who aspires to contemplation of beauty.
ABC of Reading (1934), Ezra Pound
Setting aside the unfortunate later political tendencies of Ezra Pound (1885-1972), we should approach this work without trepidation if we have an interest in the process of reading and respect for 20th century poets. After all, Pound himself was called “the Master” by T.S. Eliot; he discovered James Joyce and facilitated the publication of his works; and he drew from a mental landscape which encompassed nearly all of English and Italian letters from Anglo-Saxon and Classical works through the nascent vernacular up to the cutting edge of his times. This little book, ABC of Reading, explores the experience of reading and the necessity of musicality for modern poetry to succeed. It is like having a world-class marathon runner describe the intricacies of walking, jogging and sprinting. Pound inhabits a world of words, and he has much to tell us about them.
“A classic is not a classic because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” (ABC of Reading, p. 13-14 in “Warning”)
Letters and Autobiographies by Saints
Finding Confidence in Times of Trial, St. John of Avila
St. John of Avila (1499/1500 – 1569) was named a doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. However, in general, he is not well known outside of Spanish-language circles. He is not some strange accidental misnaming of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross (as some have believed him to be), though he did know them both and shared the age of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Spain. This collection of his letters reprinted by Sophia Institute includes words addressed to a Jesuit dying young, to a widow in great grief, to a popular young woman who has left everything to become a religious, and to St. Teresa of Jesus (of Avila) herself. He is a gentle but firm father of souls, one whose wisdom has been recently recognized and elevated publicly in the Church. Read him for yourself to find out why.
Journal of a Soul (1964), Pope St. John XXIII
Though he was perhaps overshadowed a bit at his canonization by John Paul the Great, St. John XXIII (1881-1963) wouldn’t mind at all. His affable and steady character explains a great deal about the kind of reform he envisioned for the Church, and the work that still lies ahead. Journal of a Soul collects his personal spiritual writings from the early days as a teenage minor seminarian, up through his time as a major seminarian and young priest, and all the way through his service in Bulgaria, Paris, and Venice including his election as Supreme Pontiff in 1958. At times reading it may seem slow-going and repetitive—but herein lies its charm. To live out a life always striving for virtue and serving Christ through daily fidelity is often slow-going and repetitive! He became a saint and served the Church with great vision and warmth by keeping to the same goals of holiness and spiritual practices, year after year after year. His famous smile shines through the pages, and we can learn his key to loving and serving Christ which he made his Episcopal and papal motto: obediencia et pax (“obedience and peace”).
He Leadeth Me (1973), Servant of God Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ
Finally, I conclude the list with this book which has been so important for me and for many others. Written in 1973, He Leadeth Me offers insider reflections on the events recounted earlier in With God in Russia (1964). The American Jesuit Fr. Walter Ciszek (1904-1984) writes about the deeper reflections and lessons learned during his years in Communist Russia, from surviving solitary confinement and the gulags to becoming a “free” man serving his small flock. His humility, simplicity, and humor make this remarkable story into the living tale of a true friend who succeeded in loving and trusting God above all else. One can hear “Wally’s voice” (as he was affectionately called by his friends back in America)! He speaks right to you, and can help you to gain confidence from his testimony about the transformative power of grace. His cause for beatification has been introduced in Rome, please contact the postulator for any favors received through his intercession: Msgr. Muntone at St. Elizabeth Rectory, 618 Fullerton Ave., Whitehall, PA 18052.
Happy reading this summer and throughout the year!
Sr. Maria Theotókos Adams, SSVM
Editor for www.ssvmusa.org
Post Scriptum (P.S. — “after having been written”): In honor of a fellow missionary sister serving in Guyana who wrote to me on July 20th to thank me for this summer reading list — appreciating literature in the middle of the jungle! — I add her suggested reading which she is currently enjoying during her brief moments of free time between sessions of the girls’ summer camps. Blessings on the missionary adventure and the evangelization of culture. I think Chesterton would appreciate this!
The Ball and the Cross (1910), G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
Many editions are available including free Kindle and PDF editions online; for an introduction to this great author and friend see also the American Chesterton Society website, www.chesterton.org.