Brad proposed the concept, Julie convinced me of humane over human, but I take the blame for this idiosyncratic list. Since my betters have identified so many stellar choices, I propose the somewhat obscure: books (presented in no order) that may lead an already-humane human in the direction of the holy as unexpected and inspirational, maybe mischievous and mirthful. Great? Maybe not, but possible nectar for an Imaginative Conservative.
A. Confessions of a Bohemian Tory: Episodes and Reflections of a Vagrant Career, by Russell Kirk. The least of our sage’s many books? Mere scraps off a great man’s table? Maybe, but so what. This far-ranging collection of column-length essays roams from writers and poets and painters to ruins and ghosts, to (the then little-known) Padre Pio wrestling physically with the devil. Think that you too share St. Russell’s ‘gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure’? I’ll bet you do. A treasure in dire need of reprinting.
B. Short Stories by Khushwant Singh. India’s best-loved man of letters at almost 100 and still going strong, the Sikh author is a respected historian, novelist, literary editor and political columnist as well as compiler of innumerable joke books sold on Indian railway platforms, but his short stories are among the 20th Century’s best. Read ‘Karma,’ where a servile, Anglophilic Indian gets his comeuppance in a railway station, thanks to bigoted Englishmen and a local woman with a mouthful of betel-nut juice, and you’ll be ready to march with Gandhi. Jai Hind! See a literary diamond-cutter at work.
C. Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg. Maybe our first ‘psychological novel,’ penned by an illiterate shepherd taught to read by Sir Walter Scott. After his 17th Century Cavalier half-brother is murdered, it shifts to the Covenanting minister’s diary. Convinced that he is among God’s Elect and that everything he does is pre-approved by the Almighty, does he commit fratricide? Is the suave fellow who convinces him Peter the Great travelling incognito (as he believes) or…the devil? Gripping stuff, it reads like a modern page-turner but was first published in 1824 (and sticks it to Calvinism but good).
D. The Napoleon of Notting Hill, by G.K. Chesterton. Set in 1984 and written in 1904 (before Orwell was potty-trained), England’s king is democratically selected by lottery and inadvertently sets off a return to the High Middle Ages as a romantic, reactionary youth organizes a community rebellion against the politicians, plutocrats, bankers and developers. Take notes and try this at home!
E. The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis. Welcome to Hell, or Purgatory if you get on the free, regularly-scheduled buses to Heaven. In Lewis’s allegory, George MacDonald takes the role of Virgil on a journey inspired by St. Augustine, Dante Aligheri, John Milton, John Bunyan, Emanuel Swedenborg and Lewis Carroll. Or hey, the weather sucks and there’s a queue for the bus, and you’ll probably sit next to a bore with BO – isn’t it easier staying in Hades?
F. The Masnawi, by Maulana Jalaludin Rumi. Sufi spiritualism, (educational) dirty jokes, deep psychological insights and surprising merriment abound in this 13th Century Muslim poem of 25,000 couplets: go for the most digestible bits in American poet Coleman Barks’ selected translations. This stuff inspires hundreds of millions of Muslims and explains how they are Christianity’s allies in the greater fight against atheism and materialism.
G. Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. Forget the movie versions. An orphan boy in Lahore tracks his dead father while a dashing Afghan spy draws him into espionage in the Great Game and he meets an old Tibetan lama on pilgrimage. Kim learns to love a teacher and find ‘his own (British) people,’ while discovering that opportunities for adventure and bravery abound in life – and nothing is ever quite as it seems. Vivid, moving, exciting and unforgettable.
H. Zen and the Birds of Appetite, by Thomas Merton. Turn off your Ipod, the Holy Spirit doesn’t like to shout. Cartesian reification, Merton thought, threatens the silence, reflection and mysticism of Christianity which he saw surviving in Zen and other traditions. Zen seeks to slash through the incessant mind-chatter, classification, talk and labeling that impede clear perception, so every book on Zen is a talky failure contradicting central tenets. This book is too, but the Trappist author explores pathways to silence and the unspoken without sacrificing his orthodox faith.
I. Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Around age 50, this astonishingly erudite bureaucrat penned an international, runaway, best-seller recounting his boyhood in a Bengali village circa 1900. Published but a few years after Indian Independence, Chaudhuri (never afraid of controversy) dedicated this book to the British Empire! It is an achingly lyrical paen to rural life, pregnant with political bravery and folly afoot in the background. He died in Oxford only a decade ago, more than a century old and still writing wisdom and beauty.
J. The Code of the Woosters, by P. G. Wodehouse. Bertie and Jeeves brave fearsome Aunt Dahlia, frightening Honoria Glossop, her fascist father Roderick and newt-fancying Gussie Fink-Nottle to restore a silver cow-creamer to a country house, in this classic 1938 homage to an Upper Class English world that never quite existed. Whimsy, wrote Chesterton, was just as realistic or unrealistic as the negativity that passed for literary ‘realism,’ for one can take the perspective of angels or rats. Wodehouse sides with the angels, and James Joyce thought him the best living stylist in English prose. If one occasionally reads prescriptively, to influence temporarily one’s view of the cosmos, then the Wodehousian world is most therapeutic. But beware, for his comedic local follies and domestic dramas are also reflections of The Permanent Things.
Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.