The best books we read in 2019
It’s that time of year again! As usual, I’ve invited the CatholicCulture.org staff to list their favorite reading of the past year, not restricted to books published in 2019. And as usual, I’ve included some other media in my selections at the end of this article.
Phil Lawler (editor, Catholic World News)
Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Day is Now Far Spent. This is a beautiful book, full of useful spiritual insights. As my colleague Jeff Mirus has observed, Cardinal Sarah strives to find continuity between the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI (who is quoted liberally throughout this book) and those of Pope Francis. He doesn’t succeed in that quest; how could he? But in the process he helps to accentuate what is essential to our understanding of the faith—and, not coincidentally, essential to our peace of mind in a troubled time.
Stephen Baskerville, The New Politics of Sex. Angelico published this book in 2017, and I had postponed reading it, probably because I had a sense that it would be devastating—which it is. This is the most frightening book I have read in years. Baskerville is relentless in showing how our society has waged war against marriage, and how little judicial protection is available today to those of us who resist the attack. I’ll be writing more on this very important work.
Samuel Gregg, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization. Samuel Gregg takes on the same topic that Pope Benedict discussed in his memorable Regensburg address: the necessary union of faith and reason, and the dangers that arise when the ties between them are sundered. Gregg’s argument is sound, his presentation is engaging. This may be the best book available for someone seeking to navigate troubled questions about church and state, science and belief.
Michael Brendan Dougherty, My Father Left Me Ireland. Dougherty’s Irish father left his mother to raise him alone in America, so that as a boy the author thought of his Irish heritage, like his father, as something that came and went, exciting but ultimately unreliable. As a young adult Dougherty made the effort to understand his relationship with both this father and his father’s country. It’s a bittersweet tale.
Geoffrey Vaughan (editor), Leo Strauss and his Catholic Readers. The enormous influence of the political theorist Leo Strauss can be seen not only in academic circles but also in the world of practical politics, where the students of his students have attained powerful positions. As a champion of the classical tradition, Strauss was a friend of Catholic thought. But his own attitude toward religious faith was problematic. Here a number of Catholic thinkers, formed at least in part by the Straussian school, reflect on his legacy.
Sohrab Ahmari, From Fire By Water. Born and raised in Iran, Sohrab Ahmari was a rebellious child, unsatisfied with the answers that Islamic ideology provided for his questions about life’s meaning. Coming to America he made his way through materialist ideologies before finding a home in the Catholic Church. His conversion story is an unusual one; his analysis of Islamic ideology is (as I mentioned in a review early this year) refreshing.
Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, The Leopard. When the Lawler clan began planning a family vacation this past summer, I suggested that everyone read (or re-read) this classic, and we set aside an evening to discuss it. It was time well spent. The Leopard has a lot to teach us about a culture that can no longer sustain itself.
Dr. Jeff Mirus (founder, CatholicCulture.org)
My reviews of these 2019 favorites are linked.
Patrick Kenny, To Raise the Fallen: A Selection of the War Letters, Prayers, and Spiritual Writings of Fr. Willie Doyle (Ignatius Press, 2018).
Gerard Verschuuren, In the Beginning: A Catholic Scientist Explains How God Made Earth Our Home (Sophia Institute Press, 2019).
Dale Ahlquist, Knight of the Holy Ghost: A Short History of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press: 2019).
Aidan Nichols, OP: Conciliar Octet: A Concise Commentary on the Eight Key Texts of the Second Vatican Council (Ignatius Press: 2019).
Luanne D. Zurlo, Single for a Greater Purpose: A Hidden Joy in the Catholic Church (Sophia Institute Press, 2019).
Annual recommendation for recreational reading of mysteries: Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series; 33 novels and 41 novellas and short stories, written between 1934 and 1975.
James T. Majewski (host, Catholic Culture Audiobooks)
Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, ed. Erna Putz. The release of Terrence Malick’s new film A Hidden Life led me to read the real-life correspondence between Bl. Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian soldier who was martyred for refusing (on religious grounds) to swear the oath of loyalty to Hitler, and his wife, Franziska, whose support was instrumental in Franz’s unwillingness to compromise his Catholic faith. Though I unfortunately cannot recommend purchasing from this edition’s publisher, Orbis Books (they have published some dissident and heterodox texts), the letters themselves are sublime witnesses of heroic virtue and Christian marriage.
Eva Le Gallienne, The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleonora Duse. A biography of the legendary Italian actress, Eleonora Duse, who has been regarded by some as the greatest actress of all time. Though far from living a virtuous life herself, Duse nevertheless held the Catholic Church in high regard and was known to have carried with her an edition of the Prayers of St. Thomas Aquinas translated by A.G. Sertillanges, OP (who wrote another personal favorite, The Intellectual Life). Duse gave particular attention to Aquinas’ Sixteen Precepts for Acquiring the Treasure of Knowledge—an especially useful list for intellectuals and artists alike.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I have long loved Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I had not in fact read the books themselves until this year. Though I have not yet completed the final book in the series, The Return of the King, I have been pleased to find that my thorough acquaintance with the movies has so far done nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the books. Quite the opposite, I found myself all the more struck by those elements in Tolkien’s writing that did not as successfully survive translation into the films. For example, Tolkien’s depictions of kingship, particularly in the figures of Theoden and of Aragorn, had me reflecting on Christ’s kingship in new ways (not unlike my response to St. Newman’s sermon on Christian Reverence, which was featured this year on Catholic Culture Audiobooks).
Mike Aquilina (host, Way of the Fathers)
Kenneth Garcia, Pilgrim River, reviewed at Church Life Journal.
James Matthew Wilson, The Hanging God, reviewed at Dappled Things.
Tom Holland, Dominion, reviewed at Angelus.
Ryan Marr et al., The Oxford Handbook of John Henry Newman, reviewed at Angelus.
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, Jesus Becoming Jesus, reviewed at Angelus.
Thomas V. Mirus (host, The Catholic Culture Podcast)
Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority. What is it about French Catholic philosophers, anyway? We moderns have problems with authority. This book helped me tremendously in understanding what it’s all about. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P. joined me on The Catholic Culture Podcast to discuss this classic of political philosophy.
James Matthew Wilson, The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Beauty and Goodness in the Western Tradition. My two-part interview with Wilson about this dense masterpiece, which argues for beauty’s place at the center of the Western and the conservative tradition, will be published in January.
Sophocles, The Theban Plays. Re-reading Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus this year, I was struck by the spiritual wisdom to be found therein. In the first play, I was impressed with Oedipus as a figure who pursues the truth no matter the consequences for himself. And while any work of Greek literature features gods and the divine, Oedipus at Colonus may be (along with some of the myths related by Socrates in Plato’s dialogues) the only one that, for me, truly evokes a sense of the holy.
Xenophon, Oeconomicus. Xenophon was a contemporary of Plato who also wrote dialogues starring Socrates. In this oddly inspiring work, Socrates mostly listens to a gentleman farmer explain the art of household management.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. No comment necessary.
Samuel Hazo, The World Within the Word: Maritain and the Poet. Former Pennsylvania poet laureate Sam Hazo recently published his forty-year-old dissertation on Maritain, which includes a preface by the subject himself. It’s a great introduction to Maritain’s philosophy of art, but interviewing Hazo was itself a wonderful treat, resulting in one of my favorite episodes yet.
Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth. This is the catalogue for a recent, historic exhibition of Tolkien’s visual art, maps and manuscripts, which I was able to visit multiple times in New York. I haven’t read the whole book, but it includes more works than actually made it into the exhibit itself, and will increase any reader’s appreciation for an artist who was as utterly unique in his creative process as in the stories that resulted. I interviewed the exhibit’s American curator.
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Sense of Mystery: Clarity and Obscurity in the Intellectual Life, trans. Matthew K. Minerd. I wouldn’t recommend this highly technical work of theology to the average Catholic reader. That said, Garrigou-Lagrange’s rigorous distinction-making advanced my understanding of a number of theological issues, especially the necessity of maintaining a clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural. I thoroughly enjoyed discussing Garrigou’s thought with translator Matthew K. Minerd.
Abigail Rine Favale, Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion. Feminism is an increasing blight on our society, and is confusing and misleading even many otherwise faithful Catholics. Those who think the Church needs to adopt or adapt this ideology might be well served by reading Favale’s well-crafted memoir which follows her journey from an evangelical childhood to a “Christian feminism” which ultimately led her out of Christianity altogether—before a sudden, eucatastrophic turn to Catholicism. I hope this book will help many Catholics who have the luxury of not having lived Favale’s journey to realize that looking outside the Catholic faith to secular ideologies is neither helpful or necessary. (Contains some profanity, unfortunately, but otherwise an excellent book.)
St. Thomas More, The Four Last Things. The first book I have read by my patron saint is his first prose work. In this unfinished treatise, More combines his reflections on the Last Things with a discussion of the seven deadly sins, showing how meditation on the former is a sure way of overcoming the latter.
Anthony Esolen, The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. This book-length poem/cycle of poems is centered on dramatic monologues taking place at the time of Christ; you can hear some of them in my interview with Esolen. He has long been a treasured cultural critic, and I am glad he has now begun to publish original poetry.
Dana Gioa, 99 Poems: New and Selected. I haven’t read the whole collection yet, but what I have encountered so far is truly excellent. I’m particularly fond of “Nothing Is Lost”, which you can hear along with other poems in my interview with Gioia.
Susan Tassone, The Rosary for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Known as “the Purgatory Lady,” Tassone has compiled a number of very edifying books of meditations on Purgatory. There is a very deep spirituality to be found in reflecting on Purgatory and giving succor to the Holy Souls—something more Catholics ought to appreciate. This Scriptural Rosary demonstrates that the Bible has more verses applicable to Purgatory than one might expect.
Mark Christopher Brandt, The Butterfly. A new Brandt album has made it onto this list every year. The difference with this one is that I played piano on it—but I’d include this beautiful work here even had I not enjoyed that privilege. The title suite, a new classical work for string quartet and piano, is a spiritual allegory of conversion.
Arthur Lourie, Sinfonia Dialectica. Lourie, a Russian convert to Catholicism, was a friend of Jacques Maritain and one of the philosopher’s favorite composers.
William Byrd, works. One of England’s greatest composers, Byrd was a secret Catholic working as a musician in the court of Queen Elizabeth. You can hear some of his music in the two-part interview I did with Byrd scholar Kerry McCarthy.
Jan Dismas Zelenka, trio sonatas. This Czech Baroque composer is known as the Catholic Bach. I’ve been listening to Ensemble Zefiro’s recording of his engrossing trio sonatas for oboes and bassoon. Look out for a podcast on Zelenka in the coming months.
Wes Montgomery, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery. I don’t know what it is about Wes that makes his note choices so perfect, but they are.
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life and A Hidden Life. Both Malick’s acknowledged masterpiece and his newest film about a Catholic martyr, Bl. Franz Jägerstätter, are profoundly affecting works. I discussed A Hidden Life in a podcast episode with James T. Majewski.
Brideshead Revisited (1981 miniseries). Just like Evelyn Waugh’s great Catholic novel, this old British miniseries lives up to the hype, captivating from the first moments of Jeremy Irons’s bleak opening monologue. (Contains a small amount of nudity.)
The Daily Poem. This podcast transformed my relationship with poetry in a very short time—I am no longer intimidated by it, I simply enjoy it. Listen to great poems read aloud and I believe you will have the same experience.
I must also mention Catholic Culture’s two new podcast offerings, Way of the Fathers with Mike Aquilina and Catholic Culture Audiobooks. In the former, Mike introduces us to the Fathers of the Church in an engaging narrative. In the latter, voice actor James T. Majewski reads works by the Fathers, St. John Henry Newman and more. My favorite audiobooks thus far have been Newman’s sermon on Christian Reverence, St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Romans, the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, and the Letter to Diognetus.
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