When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes. — Desiderius Erasmus
In the years prior to the pandemic, the Christmas season would involve travel to far-off family locales. With food crammed into coolers and presents piercing the walls of repurposed grocery bags, our Toyota Highlander offered little remaining room for anything other than our most basic luggage. That is why, every year, as I was forcing my last duffel bag full of books into the car, my wife would give me The Look. The Look spells out what I have heard from her since we began dating. Wordlessly, it asks, “Do you really need all of those books? Do you seriously think you will even read a fraction of them?” I smile because my wife just doesn’t understand.
For a true bibliophile, there is no angst like being in the mood for a particular book and not having access to it. It is a difficult thing to crave Hamlet and only have recourse to John le Carré. Now, don’t get me wrong, the master of espionage is more than a worthy read — but not when you are in the mood for the ingenious soliloquies of the brooding Dane. It is hard enough to want to immerse yourself in the genius insight of Benedict XVI when, instead, you only have a book full of the sardonic observations of H.L. Mencken on hand. To be sure, Mencken is a wry and devilish read, but not a good substitute for the penetrating theology of a future doctor of the Church. And that is why you bring a bag filled with dozens of books on almost every vacation. One, after all, needs a book for all seasons.
This year, alas, we are staying home. And I have the good fortune (and dilemma) of drawing from the expanse of my overfull library. So here, by category, is what I am finding on this year’s Christmas reading list (and, if I am persuasive, perhaps some of them will soon be on yours, too):
• The Priority of Christ by Bishop Robert Barron
This book is the seminal work of Bishop Barron and serves as a sumptuous intellectual and theological feast. If you are a fan of wise but approachable theology that offers a rich rebuttal to beige and dumbed-down Catholicism, this book is unquestionably for you.
• An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent by St. John Henry Newman
Newman’s masterpiece on how we think and arrive at truth explores concepts such as propositions, inference, and assent. In case your eyes are glazing over, realize that spending time with Newman’s Grammar will soon make you ask, “How did this guy get into my head?”
• A Defense of Nonsense, and Other Essays by G.K. Chesterton
Who can do anything but delight in the genius essays (essays being his best form outside of Orthodoxy) of G.K. Chesterton? Fresh insights, turns of phrase, and paradox litter this collection. His essay “A Defense of Rash Vows” is alone worth the price of admission.
• Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts
Roberts’ masterpiece lives up to its reputation as the best single-volume biography yet written on the incomparable British Bulldog. Sweeping in drama, rich in anecdotes, Churchill comes to life in a way that only William Manchester and Paul Reid achieved in their three-volume Last Lion collection. Once again, Churchill’s life will not fail to inspire and mesmerize.
• A. Lincoln by Ronald White
From his days in the Kentucky wild to his assumption of the helm of the Civil War, from his entrancing wit to his captivating Second Inaugural Address, White makes Lincoln spring vividly off the page. One can never get enough of our nation’s most consequential president.
• Hamlet by William Shakespeare
To know Hamlet is to know the deep complexity of man. Assertive and indecisive, rash and reflective, Hamlet is both inspiring and maddening. If you don’t see the best and worst parts of yourself in this tragedy, then you aren’t reading closely enough. Next to King Lear (in my opinion), this is Shakespeare’s greatest work.
• A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Who doesn’t love a ghost story with a deeply redemptive narrative? The more often you read A Christmas Carol (and watch Reginald Owen’s brilliantly portrayal of the miser in the 1938 film), the more deeply textured the story and its characters become. If you want to see man painted in full and rich color, Dickens will never disappoint.
• Finding the World’s Fullness: On Poetry, Metaphor, and Mystery by Robert Cording
In my forthcoming review for Dappled Things, I describe what an extraordinary meditation this book is on the transcendent nature of poetry. Not only have I enjoyed my introduction to Cording’s poetry, but I have also learned from his wide-ranging consideration of the works of Wallace Stevens and John Keats, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Browning. This is easily one of my favorite books of the year.
• Negative Capability: The Intuitive Approach of Keats by William Jackson Bate
Keats died tragically from tuberculosis at the age of 25, but not before giving us “Ode On a Grecian Urn,” “To Autumn,” and the concept of “Negative Capability.” Negative Capability describes great thinkers as “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In the highly data-driven, übertechnical world we live in, the vital and humanizing role of common sense, intuition, and wonder cannot be overstated. Bates’ 1939 book-length essay on Keats and his concept nails it.
• Modern American Poetry/Modern British Poetry edited by Louis Untermeyer
Not only is this book an extraordinarily comprehensive collection ranging from Frost to Eliot and Hopkins to Yeats (the British side dwarfs the American), but it also happens to have my mother’s handwritten markings in it. She was an English teacher in her younger days, and it is heart-warming and ennobling to read young Merida’s insights on Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and A.E. Housman’s “On Wenlock Edge.” Poetry is one thing. Poetry through your mother’s discerning eye is quite another.
• Gallimaufry by Joseph Epstein
Another outstanding collection by one of my favorite erudite essayists. The lead-off essay, “The Bookish Life,” is not to be missed.
• George Steiner at the New Yorker edited by Robert Boyers
George Steiner offers a mind bubbling with insight and steeped in culture. As a young Jew fleeing France upon the 1940 Nazi invasion, Steiner never forgot how his parents impressed upon him the value of fierce intellectual honesty in an age of screaming, unbending ideology. Steiner’s writing betrays an exuberant love affair with culture that never slides into pompous pedantry. It is hard not to compare these essays with the insightful works of John Lukacs, Jacques Barzun, and Gary Saul Morson — good company indeed.
• The Crooked Timber of Humanity by Isaiah Berlin
The author of the famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” offers a book of essays that grapples with the nuances of human nature. Berlin’s work has informed some of my favorite living essayists,
• The Essential Scalia edited by Jeffrey Sutton and Edward Whelan
It is hard to find a mind so engaging, a wit so sharp, and a heart so large for the law as Justice Scalia’s. Along with Scalia Speaks and On Faith, this is yet another incomparable collection.
• The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
Wondering about what the Constitution really says and means in an age of partisan misinformation? Why not read from the ingenious sources themselves? Dive into the collection that, according to Antonin Scalia, no high school student should ever be able to graduate without having read themselves.
• Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd
What informed the mind of the master director who brought us Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, and Rope? Dive into this beauty from Peter Ackroyd.
I am sure that if my wife were to read this article, she would once again catch my gaze and lovingly give me The Look. “Do you really need all of those books? Do you seriously think you will even read a fraction of them?” And again, I would smile because my wife just doesn’t understand.
As the great Winston Churchill once wrote,
If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them — peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.
Well said, Winston. Well said.