Books, Arts, and Culture: Christmas Reading

In past years Crisis has asked some of its readers for their views on neglected Catholic classics, new and old. This year we simply asked what people were reading that they would recommend — the responses were varied and interesting.

Heather Higgins

The challenge of any such list is not just recalling what books one has read over the course of the year, but reflecting on how many of them aren’t worth recommending. Some are just wrong, silly, pretentious, or pernicious. Then there are many more that make a valuable point, but the point doesn’t warrant wading through a book, particularly if, as I suspect, your readers are as short of time as I. But there are a few books I encountered this year that were especially valuable:

Rock the House by Grover Norquist (Vytis, 1995) is punchy and insightful; Grover is the most creative thinker I have met on the political scene, and its cleverest tactician. If Republicans had five Grovers the Democrats would just give up and go home. This book is a wonderful read — at times over the top, but always original, fresh, and persuasive.

The Death of Common Sense by Philip Howard (Random, 1995) is a paradigm-shifter; he lucidly and vividly shows that both left and right have it wrong, in that the very process of regulation is itself destructive, demoralizing, and debilitating. While I don’t think Howard goes as far as his own observations should take him, he makes a compelling case, one which should have real resonance in both the public policy debate and with populist sentiment.

The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (Harper, 1993) is quite a sensible little volume, full of useful insights and observations, particularly about how to set the right priorities. It’s not that it tells you something you don’t know; rather, it causes you to reevaluate how well you apply what ought to be obvious. Another book that does much the same thing is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey (Simon & Schuster, 1990). While it too focuses on priorities, the most useful section for me was Habit number 5, which explains how to make people feel listened to — something that can be at least as important as listening. That insight alone is worth the price of the book.

Heather Higgins is president of The Randolph Foundation.

Gregory J. Wolfe

Having completed a biography in the spring (a project that required reading along a rather narrow bandwidth), I’ve spent most of the year enjoying a thoroughly eclectic course of reading. A tip from the editor of Crisis introduced me to Alice Thomas Ellis, a British Catholic novelist who is like Muriel Spark, only meaner and more devastatingly ironic. I’ve also read several novels of ideas, including Nicholas Mosley’s neglected classic, Hopeful Monsters (Vintage, 1993) and the ever-relevant Saul Bellow — Mr. Sammler’s Planet (Penguin, 1984). My most exciting discovery in poetry is the work of Edward Hirsch, especially his latest collection, Earthly Measures (Knopf, 1994), which manifests a wise and humane vision in our increasingly ideological age. Though I often disagree violently with his political views, Robert Hughes writes the sharpest art criticism around today, as evidenced by his recent collection, Nothing If Not Critical (Penguin, 1992). To feed my own understanding of the role of art and the imagination, I recently returned to Jacques Maritain’s The Responsibility of the Artist (Gordian, 1972), a book that is less well known than his Art and Scholasticism (Ayer, 1977), but which serves an important addendum to the earlier book. Lest you get the wrong impression, I should say that not all my reading is this heavy: I have a weakness for certain strains of science fiction, particularly the better novelists in what is known as the “cyberpunk” genre. At their best, writers like William Gibson — Virtual Light (Bantam, 1994) is his latest — and Neal Stephenson — Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (Bantam, 1993) — transcends clichés about computer “hackers” and have much to tell us about what life will be like in a digital age. Unfortunately, most of these cyberpunks have concluded that the book will not be around much longer; I guess that will soon make me a crusty old anachronism.

Gregory J. Wolfe is editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.

Mary P. Nichols

For readers of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, there is good news. Three recent literary analyses demonstrate that the American mind — and the liberal or the modern mind more generally — is closed to neither philosophy nor poetry. Catherine Zuckert’s Natural Right and the American Imagination (Rowman & Littlefield, 1991) shows that American novelists, such as Hawthorne, Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner, have participated in an ongoing dialogue between philosophic understandings of human life and the natural rights principles expressed in our Declaration of Independence. The “American mind” had been — and can be — enlarged through such reflections on our foremost poets. Similarly, Diana Schaub’s Erotic Liberalism (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), an analysis of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, demonstrates how the classical liberal doctrine of rights is open to the erotic and poetic dimensions of human life. Finally, Mera Flaumenhaft, in The Civic Spectacle (Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), explores the different kinds of community fostered by dramatic performances, from the religious festivals of ancient Greece, the aristocratic dramas of the Italian Renaissance, the more democratic presentations in Shakespeare’s England, to the private dramas of contemporary movies. All three books, written with clarity and elegance, have implications for the relation between liberal political orders and poetic expression and are perfect gifts for citizens of liberal democracies and lovers of literature.

Mary P. Nichols teaches political philosophy at Fordham University.

George Sim Johnston
The pens of most hagiographers are 1 dipped in treacle, often leaving the reader with a spiritual toothache. An exception is Abbe Francois Trochu, whose biographies of Saints Bernadette and John Vianney put great scholarship at the service of the Catholic sacramental vision. Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (University of Notre Dame Press, 1991) is an intellectual feast that has been responsible for numerous conversions. One of its lessons is deeply Catholic and yet difficult for “spiritual” people: the enormous extent of the causality and efficacy that God concedes to his creation and to man in particular. Henri de Lubac’s The Splendor of the Church, written in the early fifties, is still the best guide to the real “spirit of Vatican II.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity (Ignatius Press, 1991) is a profound “personalist” reading of the Trinity and especially of Jesus Christ. Think about it: God is he who does not cling to himself but is pure relatedness; incarnate, he was simply a “being from” the Father and “being for” others; nothing was, or is, kept back. Finally, John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility (Ignatius Press, 1993), originally published in 1960, makes an airtight philosophical case against artificial contraception. Paul VI read it before he wrote Humanae vitae, which I also recommend as one of the prophetic documents of the age.

George Sim Johnston is a contributing editor to Crisis.

Graeme Hunter
The funniest book I have read this year is the collection of David Stove’s cultural criticism entitled Cricket Versus Republicanism, published by the Quakers Hill Press. It contains some vintage Stove — “A Farewell to Arts” and “So You Think You Are A Darwinian?” — together with several new pieces. Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-Moralization of Society (Knopf 1995) is a brilliantly written indictment of contemporary “values” by an acknowledged Virtuoso of Victoriana. It is the ideal tonic for nostalgics whose nerve is beginning to fail. If you like to keep track of what the atheists are doing, one of the most erudite and gracious of them, John Kekes, has just published Moral Wisdom and Good Lives with Cornell University Press. And in the unclassifiable category, Philip Koch’s whimsical study, Solitude, from Open Court, will send you down the road not taken — alone, of course. Among recent contributions to the field of useful reference books, none has yet topped David Lyle Jeffrey’s Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English (Eerdmans, 1992).

Graeme Hunter teaches in the department of philosophy at the University of Ottawa.

E. L. Fortin, S.J.
For Christmas, I would recommend the following three books:

First, St. Augustine’s Confessions (Oxford, 1991), is the story of a man who had more than his share of riot and high summer in the blood and whose restless heart finally found its rest in God. The classic of the spiritual life in the West until it was replaced (but not surpassed) by the anti-intellectual and much more individualistic Imitation of Christ in the sixteenth century. Properly understood, it dwarfs everything else.

A second choice would be Josef Pieper, An Anthology (Ignatius Press, 1989), which features short excerpts, selected by the author himself, from the works of one of the most popular Catholic philosophers of our century on topics of vital interest to all of us: faith, freedom, virtue (now in style again, at least in speech), leisure, contemplation, beauty, purity of heart, asceticism, and the like. As calm and smooth as the Rhine on a peaceful summer day — and a lot more profound. The effect is tonic in every way.

My third choice would be The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald (Vintage Books, 1979). This book records the heroic struggle of a brilliant, terminally ill young Roman Catholic novelist (she died at 39) to gain clarity about fundamental issues. An outstanding example of courage in the face of adversity and of unflinching devotion to the truth in a confused and deeply troubled age. All the more edifying as it makes no attempt to be edifying.

E.L. Fortin, S.J. teaches theology at Boston College.

James D. Johnston

Here are three diverse suggestions for Christmas giving/reading:

Appropriate for Christmas — or anytime — The Gospel of Life by Pope John Paul II (Times Books, 1995) reminds us that we are “one great family, in which we all share the same fundamental good: equal personal dignity.” With some sympathy for legislators working to limit harm in a culture of “ethical relativism,” the pope notes that morality cannot be determined by majority vote and “democracy stands or falls on the values which it embodies or promotes.” In this rich and powerful encyclical, he tells us, “There is no true freedom where life is not welcomed and loved,” and that the “natural law written in the human heart is the obligatory point of reference.”

Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Other Stories (Bantam Books, 1982) chronicles the struggle of Captain Vere over the conflict between “natural justice” and temporal duty. In “Benito Cereno,” an “Other Story” in the volume, Captain Delano is blind to the violence of an unjust law that made man and woman “objects to be used.” His vision was inadequate to cope with the “ethical relativism” of his day.

Recording the triumph of the human spirit over poverty and prejudice, Having Our Say by Sarah and Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth (Dell 1994) is highly relevant to understanding our own times. Calm Sadie and feisty Bessie, sisters whose father was born a slave, produced this book when both were past their one hundredth year. Two of ten children — all became college-educated professionals — didn’t always agree on tactics, but on virtues and values they sang from the same hymnal. “It was religious faith that formed the backbone of the Delany family,” they say, and add, “God never let us down.” Each of these books addresses the question Cain raised with God, and in the pope’s words, “Yes, every man is his ‘brother’s keeper,’ because God entrusts us to one another.”

James D. Johnston is a former vice president of General Motors Corporation.

Ian Crowther

The current revival in communitarian modes of thought should not be wholly unwelcome to true conservatives, for whom social order implies at least some semblance of moral community to underpin it. The semblance, though, is all we are likely to get as a result of idle liberal-leftist chatter about “domination-free” new Jerusalems. Any idea that virtue and civic order can be restored without pain or coercion is castigated as social romanticism by the contributors to a book whose social realism is encapsulated in its title, This Will Hurt (National Review Books, 1995). Traditional values also loom large in Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Trust (Free Press, 1995). Some of us have long argued that capitalism cannot supply itself the values — trust, honesty, truthfulness, loyalty — on which its viability and acceptability depend. No one can read Fukuyama’s book and still believe that the market machine is self- winding.

One of the strongest bonds unifying European and North American societies has been the common set of cultural referents embodied in our literature. Harold Bloom passionately defends and celebrates The Western Canon (Harcourt Brace, 1995) that has educated and enlarged the sensibilities of Western man. His book is a masterful work of reconstruction.

Ian Crowther is literary editor of The Salisbury Review and author of Chesterton.

Michael Platt

Readers of Crisis will by now already know of most of the great Catholic books, from their experience, from Fr. Schall’s fine guide a few years ago, or from more recent issues. I’m especially grateful for the tips on The Little Colonel and Alec Guinness’s autobiography, and happy that Guardini’s The Lord was properly ranked. The author I wish to suggest to fellow readers was not a Catholic, but she, I believe, more than any other American author has portrayed good Catholics, ones you might like to meet or become or have your children imitate. I refer to Willa Cather, and I think of her Antonia in My Antonia, her Bishop Latour in Death Comes to the Archbishop, but also the Catholics in other works including Neighbor Rosicky in the story of the same name, and Cecile in Shadows on the Rock.

Willa Cather never wrote a bad sentence; many name a defect or hindrance so exactly you just might avoid it next time; many more name some part, or morsel, or glint of the good so affectionately you will recognize it next time you are about to pass it by. Even more than Shakespeare, and quite as much as Tolstoy, does Willa Cather describe the desiring soul, its adventures, its discoveries, its love, and above all, its happiness.

Michael Platt teaches at the University of Wyoming.

Deal W. Hudson

When not reading about the culture wars, I have been reading books about golf. My father prompted me by sending Michael Bamberger’s To the Linksland (Penguin, 1993), the story of a journalist who quits his job to caddie on the European PGA tour. Beautifully written, Bamberger illuminates the moral and aesthetic quest of those who love the game. A Good Walk Spoiled by John Feinstein (Little, 1995) offers a series of portraits of the great and unknown in the world of professional golf that leaves the reader in awe of those who have fought their way onto the Big Tour through the terrors of the qualifying school. Best of all, The Legend of Baggar Vance by Stephen Pressfield (Morrow, 1995) is a delightful novel about the 1931 match between Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. This story is so engrossing it is only slightly marred by its ersatz metaphysics, which is also true of the now well-known Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy, soon to be made into a movie with Sean Connery portraying the philosopher-golfer Shivas Irons. Irons, like Baggar Vance, is a Platonist — I’m left wondering when someone will make the case for golf in the tradition of Aristotle.

Deal W. Hudson is editor of Crisis.

MENU