“What should I read to get to know Chesterton?”
What a sincere question from a good friend.
To be sure, she is an avid reader who devours an eclectic mix of works ranging from Middlemarch to Michener’s Alaska, from Return of the Native to Tarzan of the Apes. And she has the patience to await their arrival from the library and the tenacity to read even the dry ones to the very last page. And now, she wanted to tackle the English journalist and Catholic convert, G.K. Chesterton.
“What should I read?”
Because I have a deep devotion and indebtedness to Chesterton (for my Catholic faith and his life-changing insights) and because I have written and spoken effusively on this intellectual, spiritual (and physical!) giant, I took this question very seriously. And it got me thinking… for a man who wrote thousands of essays, nearly 100 books, a proud collection of plays and poems and who could offer witty and wise insight on subjects as wide ranging as cheese and Catholicism, the essential question is not necessarily “what to read,” but “how to read G.K. Chesterton.”
Now, one must admit, Chesterton is overwhelming. Beyond the massive quantity he wrote, one has to reckon with Chesterton’s unique style. It is a blend of the playfully winsome and deeply wise, at one moment cryptic then the next crystal clear. To have no background on Chesterton and then to simply dive into Orthodoxy (his greatest work, in my humble opinion), would be akin to a neophyte swimmer swaggering to the end of the high diving board oblivious to the immeasurable depths yawning below. (For my personal experience of this, please read here).
So… if Chesterton is indeed so overwhelming, is he worth it?
Without question… yes.
G.K. Chesterton was alive from 1874 to 1936. His life spanned the waning years of Queen Victoria through the beginnings of King Edward VIII’s abdication crisis. He witnessed and weighed in on the wicked rise of the Bolsheviks and Fascists and the devastating fall of the stock market in 1929. He saw the ravages of World War I, the decadence of the 1920s and the increasing disdain for God. And as Chesterton matured in an increasingly shrill, self-absorbed, cynical culture, he was transformed from a nominal agnostic to a thoughtful, devout Catholic. Perhaps G.K. Chesterton’s greatest gift was his ability to see and think clearly. Page after page, it is a profound wisdom born of an uncanny common sense that leaps out at you. And reading it is worth the effort.
So how do you read G.K. Chesterton?
30 Lines from Chesterton to restore your senses in a crazy world
First, take Chesterton in small doses.
I can’t recall if it was William F. Buckley or Richard John Neuhaus who said it, but he marveled that when reading Chesterton, he could only take in a few paragraphs before he would need to stand up and walk away. And he did it if only to think, digest, consider and re-consider the many layers of wisdom found therein. I couldn’t agree more. Just consider some of these insights:
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; It has been found difficult and left untried.
“Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”
“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
“These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.”
“There are only two kinds of people, those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it.”
Second, read the account of a friend and colleague.
While there are innumerable books about G.K. Chesterton, none can touch the biography written by his friend and publisher, Maisie Ward. Gilbert Keith Chesterton achieves what all biographies aspire to: a warm and personal recollection rich in anecdotes and steeped in Chesterton’s own words. Ward (of the famous Catholic couple and publishing firm, Sheed and Ward, which brought the world Christopher Dawson, Ronald Knox, Jacques Maritain, Hilaire Belloc and Evelyn Waugh) puts Chesterton in context… no small feat when contending with a genius of millions of words and countless insights. (A runner-up is Joseph Pearce’s wonderful Wisdom and Innocence.)
Third, enjoy a Chesterton essay.
An essay that spoke profoundly to me during my journey to Catholicism was Chesterton’s Why I Am A Catholic (https://www.chesterton.org/why-i-am-a-catholic/). In this essay alone, the number of penetrating insights that upended my intransigence toward Catholicism is stunning. Other favorites of mine include The Drift From Domesticity, On Running After One’s Hat, and The Diabolist. Chesterton’s essays concentrate his raucous and wide-ranging mind without neutering his sagacity. They can be found by the thousands in The Illustrated London News (part of Ignatius Press’ Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton) or in the marvelous recent collection by Ignatius Press, In Defense of Sanity.
Fourth, spend time with those who love Chesterton.
The American Chesterton Society (https://www.chesterton.org) is a winsome group of Chesterton admirers gathering routinely to plumb the words and wisdom of G.K. Chesterton. Counted among its members are men/women religious, college professors, priests, actors, writers and world champion whistlers. This vibrant organization was my first true introduction to the wonders of Chesterton. Guided by the brilliant and puckish Dale Ahlquist, the ACS has worked wonders to bring G.K. Chesterton to a new generation and for that we are all indebted. The ACS’ Gilbert Magazine, Seton Hall’s The Chesterton Review, Joseph Pearce’s St. Austin Review, and anything Fr. James Schall writes about Chesterton should not be missed.
Finally, curl up with a good Chesterton book.
My favorite books (if one must be limited) by Chesterton are Orthodoxy, Heretics, What’s Wrong With the World, Father Brown mysteries, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Catholic Church and Conversion, and The Thing. But remember! When reading Chesterton’s books, apply my first recommendation: take him in small doses. And then read him again and again. If you struggle with his writing, keep going and then re-approach him another time. But don’t give up! To paraphrase one wise thinker, “When you’re reading Chesterton, Chesterton’s not on trial – YOU ARE.”
So there you have it: Five tips on how to read Chesterton. I hope you find them helpful.
As for me? It goes without saying that my affection for G.K. Chesterton knows no bounds. Truly, he changed my life. Humorous and holy, mirthful and measured, boyish and brilliant, whimsical and wise, Chesterton epitomized a joy that he found in an eternal Truth. And that Truth is the Catholic Faith. G.K. Chesterton found the Catholic Church. And he helped me find it too.
So, you may ask, how do I read Chesterton?