Our editors and contributors share their favorite reads of the year.
With Christmas right around the corner, it’s naturaly a time to think about books—for your own wish list, to buy as gifts for others, or for whittling away hours in airports and train stations over the next few weeks. Here are some favorites from many of the editors and regualr contributors of Aleteia’s English edition. Their picks range from fiction to history, classics to newly published favorites, and spirituality to theology—with a couple of children’s books thrown in. We hope something here piques your interest and helps enrich your Advent and Christmas seasons.
Publisher, Aleteia (English edition)
Two Years Before the Mast, by Henry Dana
The best rendering of life at sea during the era of Big Ships, and an eye-opener to New Englanders of all eras about the deeper historical roots of life in California.
A House for Mr. Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul
The best cross-cultural novel I’ve ever read. An amazing portrait of the Indian community in Trinidad and their heartbreaking fatalism.
The Common Reader, by Virginia Woolf
Some of the best literary criticism ever written, plus a transport back into a time when the literate reader was "common."
Refiner’s Fire by Mark Helprin
A novel that just keeps increasing one’s delight. Refiner’s Fire is a coming of age story—Dickens for our times. Helprin’s writing about New York and particularly the Hudson River Valley is astonishing.
The Lord, Romano Guardini
This is a classic of spiritually, a profound series of meditations on the life of Christ that trace His progress to the Cross and the Resurrection, bringing His world close and making his presence palpable.
News Editor, Aleteia (English edition)
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough
As a native New Yorker walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, the thing that always impressed me most is the great view of the Manhattan skyline. Then I read this book, on what went into building this iconic span, not only the engineering challenges (building a foundation under water, for example) but also the corruption in New York City government at the time that almost derailed the project. McCullough draws the reader deeply into the lives of Washington Roebling, the chief engineer, and others who played a part, so much so that one feels like it was a relative who built this bridge. Perhaps that’s why when I finally had a chance recently to walk across the bridge again after many years away from the city, it felt like a pilgrimage. As I approached the first tower, I almost cried.
Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, by Paul C. Vitz
Dr. Vitz recently updated his work on how some of the world’s best known atheists have lacked one very important thing in their lives—a healthy relationship with their father—and what it means for rearing children today. Their fathers were either absent, negligent, abusive, or uninterested in the lives of their children.
Transformation in Christ, by Dietrich von Hildebrand
A recently published work called My Battle Against Hitler by John Henry Crosby details this 20th century German philosopher’s battle against Nazism. But von Hildebrand, who was informally called by Pope Pius XII the "20th Century Doctor of the Church," is best known for this spiritual classic. It’s a large work, and it takes some effort to get into it, but a close, meditative reading will pay off.
The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton
Merton’s writing is crystal clear, and though he may have wandered into Zen Buddhism later in life, this early work, which was almost an instant classic, still works wonders as a thrilling conversion story and intimate look into the hidden life of monasticism.
The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster
We’ve all seen our world become more and more computerized, depersonalized and individualize: we no longer need to speak to gas station attendants, bank tellers or toll collectors; we click "like" to express our condolences or wish a happy birthday. This short story was written more than a century ago, and like Jules Verne or George Orwell, Forster—author of A Passage to India and A Room With a View—takes a fantastic view of what the world might be like in the future. You know what? He was pretty much spot on. And the ending of the story is both surprising and troubling. We think we got past Y2K alright, but read this story and think about how far we’ve come—and whether we need a course correction.
Washington Correspondent, Aleteia (English edition)
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon
I have a journalist friend who holds this book in such high esteem that he will not read the whole thing because the experience would be too humbling. I have read the whole book, and although it came out in 1991, I put it on my recommended reading list for Christmas this year because it does more than make you grasp the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri; it makes you better grasp humanity’s experience unmoored from sacramental life.
Simon, then a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, tagged along with the city’s homicide detectives while they worked in 1988. Rather than report on what he saw and experienced, he shows what the detectives think and feel. Consider this passage in which Detective Harry Edgerton informs a family that their 11-year-old daughter has been molested and killed:
Simon is best known as the co-producer of the HBO series, The Wire, but I think he deserves to be in the ranks of Charles Dickens, George Orwell, and Tom Wolfe.
Senior Editor, Aleteia (English edition)
My first two recommendations are primarily for children:
The Animals’ Merry Christmas, by Kathryn Jackson, illustrated by Richard Scarry
The first edition appeared in 1950 and was treasured by my entire family. The 1972 edition—which became an all-time favorite of my five young’uns—features 68 (big) pages with 21 charming little stories, all wonderfully illustrated by the incomparable Richard Scarry. But then he had great characters and plots to work with, like the Hedgehog Family, the Terrible Teddy Bear, the Snowshoe Rabbits, the Bare Polar Bear, and the Christmas Tree Lamb. It’s been harder and harder to find copies for the grandchildren, but thankfully Random House has reprinted this classic (minus a few of the stories). This could be the best twelve dollars you’ll ever spend on the kids. It’s great for ages 3 to 7-8 for boys and 9-10 for girls (depending on how sophisticated the children are). A 10-year-old girl would still enjoy reading the stories. Boys less so (they’re into science, nonfiction, sci-fi, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, jokes).
The Littlest Angel, by Charles Tazewell
This book has been published in several editions with different illustrators—in 1946, 1975 and 2008, a testament to the enduring popularity of this lovely story that a fourth generation of my family now enjoys. It’s not theologically accurate, but neither is it upsetting (no mention of death). The littlest angel (a typical pre-school boy) is having a tough time adjusting to life in heaven. He misses his little box of treasures (a shell, a feather, a robin’s egg, a smooth stone…) under his bed back "home." Soon after he’s allowed to fetch them, it’s time to present gifts to God the Father to mark His Son’s birth in Bethlehem. I won’t spoil the spectacular ending. The Littlest Angel would be best for ages 5 and up.
And here’s one for grown-ups:
Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy by Sigrid Undset
This is the beautifully-told story of a passionate, strong-willed woman living in 14th century Norway. A friend who recommended it years ago warned that I wouldn’t be able to put it down, so I bought the Penguin Classics edition (three paperbacks—The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby and The Cross), rather than lugging around a heavy single volume. You’re drawn immediately into the story, admiring Kristin’s determination to live life on her own terms, but those terms have disheartening consequences that she should have foreseen. Her strong faith and sense of duty carry her through sorrow, remorse, and penance. By the end, Kristin is transformed into a figure of luminous holiness and humility. The Tiina Nunnally translation is said to be more faithful and easier to read than the earlier translation.
Contributor, Aleteia (English editor)
Jesus: A Pilgrimage, by Fr. James Martin, SJ
One of my favorite new books of 2014 was this one by Father James Martin SJ, best known for his good-humored television appearances and bestsellers like Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. Drawing on the places he visited during a recent trip to the Holy Land, Fr. Martin’s Jesus is part travelogue, part Scripture study and part Christological retreat. His chapter on Gerasa and the man possessed by an unclean spirit is worth the cover price by itself. Readers will emerge from reading the book with a deeper appreciation for the time, place, and cultural context in which the Son of God was born, lived, died, and rose again.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
Every winter for the last ten years, I have read Alfred Lansing’s account of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which launched in 1914 only to founder in the Weddell Sea when the ship Endurance became locked in the ice and was eventually destroyed. Shackleton and his 27-man crew survived on drifting ice, open water, and unimaginably hostile islands, without supplies and out of touch with a world that had descended into war. Nearly two years after leaving England, and having lost none of the original crew, Shackleton and his men were rescued. This year, Lansing’s 1959 classic was republished in a handsome hardcover that makes the perfect gift for young adventurers or couch-bound seniors.
Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Healthcare, Deficits, and More, by John C. Medaille
In this book, Medaille demolishes many of the myths that sustain modern economics: that capitalism and free markets are synonymous, that economics is a science akin to biology or geology, that the only alternative to socialism is capitalism, that Distributism itself is necessarily agrarian or unworkable in the modern world, and more. Along the way, Medaille–an adjunct professor in theology and business at the University of Dallas and himself a former businessman–demonstrates that Distributism hews more closely to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching than either capitalism or socialism, while holding the potential to provide what families want and need the most: the economic freedom that comes from ownership.
Author & Professor of Architecture at University of Notre Dame
Religious Poverty, Visual Riches: Art in the Dominican Churches of Central Italy in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, by Joanna Cannon
Despite the vow of poverty of the Dominican friars, their church buildings have often been ornately decorated and furnished. This book by Joanna Cannon (Courtauld Institute of Art) depicts the frescoes, paintings, liturgical elements, and stained glass that were commissioned in late medieval Dominican churches, and the relationship between the friars and the laity within the church building.
Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, by George Weigel with Elizabeth Lev and Stephen Weigel
The book chronicles an ancient Roman pilgrimage to the Station Churches during the seasons of Lent and Easter. The text speaks of architecture, liturgy, and church history and is a wonderful book to inspire Catholic pilgrims.
Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life, by Ryan N. S. Topping
This book offers a path to restore Catholic culture through principles found in the Cathechism of the Catholic Church. Topping shows how one can help build a civilization grounded in Catholic truth, beginning with one’s own life and family. The book, without any illustrations, is printed by Sophia Institute Press.
Author & Artist-in-Residence at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts
I recommend two small books as great stocking stuffers (which just happen to be co-written by yours truly):
The Little Oratory, A Beginner’s Guide to Prayer in the Home, by David Clayton and Leila Marie Lawler
The book includes eight color icons made at sizes you can frame, with instructions on how to create and pray in the domestic church.
Sacred Heart of Jesus Coloring Book, by William Fahey and David Clayton
At only $7.00, this is a great way to teach your children—and maybe yourself—this beautiful Catholic devotion.
Fr. George Rutler
Author & Pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City
Washington: A LifeandAlexander Hamilton, both by Ron Chernow
Both of these books are superb insights into the two most estimable Founding Fathers, and lessons in natural virtue. They are good winter reading, add up to nearly two thousand pages, and will make you angry at Jefferson and Adams.
In the Days of McKinley, by Margaret Leech
Margaret Leech published this in 1959 and it won the Pulitzer for history. Joseph Pulitzer was her father-in-law but she would have got the prize, anyway, I am sure. McKinley was underestimated, and a remarkably Christian gentleman. This covers a neglected part of our national saga.
Wilson, by A. Scott Berg
This is an account of Woodrow Wilson, a complex (who is not complex?) figure who attained unprecedented adulation and opprobrium. He gives the lie to the dictum of Kings Charles II, that Presbyterianism is no religion for a gentleman. Wilson could be liked only by the sort of person who likes someone like him, but his honesty and integrity and eloquence make one weep when compared with the cynical incompetents running our great institutions today.
Truman, by David McCullough
The ever reliable David McCullough opens whole new portals into a man whose greatness was not in politics but character. But even in politics he surpasses his immediate predecessor and really meant it when he said he wanted to do as best he could what he thought was right. He’d die a thousand deaths if he could see the courtly extravagance and abuse of power in Washington today.
Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790, by Jonathan Israel
In over one thousand pages, Jonathan Israel describes the intellectual revolution which, for good and ill but mostly good, shaped the philosophical assumptions with which we live today. One could play a game of matching the leading characters with some of our contemporaries.
The Mississippi Flows Into the Tiber, by John Beaumont
In our age of big books, John Beaumont has written a veritable encyclopedia of a thousand pages, giving brief but illuminating biographies of "notable" American converts to the Catholic Church. It is a spiritual and historical tour de force which should humble many today whose Catholicism is poorly informed and casual.
Rev. James Schall, S.J.
Author & Former Professor at Georgetown University
First, I cannot pass over two books of my own:
Remembering Belloc and The Classical Moment: Essays in Knowledge and Its Pleasures, both from St. Augustine’s Press, which are not ponderous at all.
Five books of more than ordinary intellectual importance, demanding books each, but essential to the revival of Catholic intelligence are:
Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, by Edward Feser
Redeeming Economics, by John D. Mueller
Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on Law, by J. Budziszewski
A Not-So-Elementary Christian Metaphysics, by Peter Redpath