This is a quirky list. I sit here with tattered old books, some new ones and my Kindle, and love them all; and offer ten that I have read in the six years since my retirement from full time teaching. Each has given me joy, and speaks to what Brad Birzer calls the “human condition.”
Booth Tarkington, The Lorenzo Bunch (Doubleday, 1936).
Although I have read Tarkington novels almost since I learned to read, this one was new to me. Tarkington is astonishingly underrated. His trilogy which ends with The Magnificent Ambersons is the definition of what happened to American cities and families in the early 20th century. The Lorenzo Bunch is about young couples in an apartment hotel in a midwestern city during the Depression, most of them from small towns, trying to make ends meet. It is about beauty and folly, original sin and redemption, class consciousness and the triumph of family. Arlene and Roy are a true American couple.
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007).
The Holy Father’s first volume about Jesus, his first full book since becoming Pope, is astonishing both in the range of his scholarship and in the gentle but insistent way he incorporates the Bible and the Church into the person of Jesus. I have never read a single book that so fully expresses Catholic Christianity, and thus directs us to the fullest sense of what makes us human.
Peter J. Stanlis, Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher (ISI Books, 2007).
Stanlis, primarily a scholar of Edmund Burke and 18th century and constitutional studies, spent almost seventy years with Frost the man and the poet. He presents a Frost whose mind worked in metaphor, as Frost always said, but also as a philosopher of dualism (as opposed to the ideological monisms of modernity), and who stands in the great humanist tradition of the West.
Thomas Fleming, The Morality of Everyday Life: Rediscovering an Ancient Alternative to the Liberal Tradition (University of Missouri Press, 2004).
Tom Fleming, editor of Chronicles, brilliant writer, all around curmudgeon, gives us the best demolition of the “ethical tradition” in the West since the 17th century, “which, for the sake of convenience, I am calling liberalism,” that I have read since Russell Kirk. Paying relatively little attention to politics and a fair amount to ideology, he identifies “universality, rationality, individualism, objectivity, and abstract idealism” as the characteristics of liberalism, and shows that they are largely incompatible with the realities of everyday life and human nature. He interweaves stories from the contemporary and ancient worlds, often centering on family life.
Richard Russo, Empire Falls (Knopf, 2001).
I seldom agree with the wisdom of Pulitzer committees, but in this case they got it right. Miles Roby is an ordinary guy living in Empire Falls, Maine, and although several of his friends and enemies think he should not be ordinary, Miles can’t seem to get it together. He runs a diner he is about to lose, has a wife who is about to divorce him, a father who hasn’t been much of one, and a teenage daughter on the precipice of being civilized. Miles is painting the local Catholic church on the side, but is terrified of heights. Most of Russo’s important characters are Catholics or hang around Catholics, which is another of their problems, along with living in seedy small towns trying to recapture lost community. Miles has to learn to be a son, a husband, and (especially) a father to learn how to be human.
The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament, Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition. Introduction and Notes by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch (Ignatius Press, 2010).
Hahn and Mitch have been producing commentaries one by one for a decade or so; now Ignatius Press has collected them into one very nicely done volume. I have been using their individual volumes in Bible Study for Catholic college students for five years, and find them thrilling. My students agree.
M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History (Crown Forum, 2007).
Of all the books on communism in the United States, Stan Evans’ defense of Joe McCarthy is the boldest. It takes on the moral and political issues straight and without apology. Whatever you may think about “McCarthyism,” forget it and read this book. It is also the first McCarthy book based on close reading of the record, which has not before been as available as Evans’ persistence caused it to be. If you are my age, this book will probably not change your mind. If you are younger, there is still hope for you to understand what really threatened the country in the 1950s.
Jon Hassler, Grand Opening (William Morrow, 1987).
I just closed my eyes and pointed to my stack of Jon Hassler novels and it came up this one. Until two years ago I had never heard of Hassler; I was directed to him by my friend Mark Maier, and have since devoured every one of his novels, all of them set in and around “Staggerford,” Minnesota. Grand Opening is about the Foster family, Hank and Catherine and Brendan, who move from the city to the little town of Plum to take over a grocery store (Hassler’s family owned one) and find in the small world a really big one. Hassler was also a (skeptical) Catholic, and the themes of sin, who is your neighbor, what is a priest, love and marriage, teaching, keep coming up. Among all relatively unknown serious American novelists, he most deserves to be understood.
Bill Kauffman, Ain’t My America (Henry Holt, 2008).
The intrepid Bill Kauffman, who has written that the “real division in America is not left and right,or rich and poor, but mobile and immobile,” lives near his hometown of Batavia, New York and roots for the Muckdogs. This book is a summary of “The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism.” Like most of Kauffman’s books, politics plays a part but not a decisive one. Most of his subjects (the book is a series of snapshots of people who want to stay home) are, in his words, “suspicious of state power, crusades, bureaucracy, and a modernity that is armed and dangerous. They are anti-expansion, pro-particularism, and so genuinely ‘conservative’—that is, cherishing of the verities, of home and hearth and family…” As good a definition of humane conservatism as I can imagine.
Chilton Williamson, Mexico Way (Chronicles Press, 2008).
The wife of Samuel Adams White (his name is mentioned once—he is afterwards the Inspector) says to him as she is leaving after twenty-five years of marriage, “I think you are the most boring human being I’ve known ever in my entire life.” The retired US Customs inspector slowly becomes un-boring after being kidnapped by Mexican drug-runners (the inspector had taken a bribe and then not delivered on his promise; it was a matter of honor), escaping, and making his way toward home, life, and (almost) redemption through the deserts and towns of northern Mexico. This little gem of a novel is not only about the human spirit, but it also gives us a glimpse of depth of the spiritual and cultural divide as we cross the troubled southern border.
These books are available in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.