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Friday, July 24, 2009

The 40 Books That Make A Difference


©2009 Randall A. Beeler

These books make a difference—in history, in life, in our souls. These books are different enough to include in a list because they are made to talk about what ails and redeems everyone, and if any more books are going to be made that are different enough to stand out like these, they can be no different in these respects.

This list is different—and indeed, the books on this list are different—because this list is not about diversity. Our age has the peculiar notion that a list of what is truly valuable is one that is diverse. In that respect, most modern bookstores, school- and college-curricula, and “great-book” lists are prized chiefly for their spans—they must cover all cultures, historical periods, sexes, religious and political beliefs, and genres. Indeed, compilers of great book lists, like those of the BBC or the American Library Association, seem to think that “greatness” has to do with the span of the list. Common to this “spanning” tendency is that such list makers share a deficient attention span: they attend only to the demands of the current era, as if the wisdom of previous ages has been transcended by the perspective attained by our technological prowess. Truly, technology has played a role here: it has enabled the purveyors of this attention-span deficit disorder (ASDD) to span the globe in the mistaken notion that, by including every example of humanity, we have finally spanned the mystery of what it means to be human.

But, by their philosophy, Andre the Giant was the most human of human persons because there was so much of him to span. In the ASDDers minds, our modern booklists dwarf our previous conceptions of what makes a great book because today’s lists “complete the set or collection,” excluding no cultural niche/era/ethos. They assume that the mystery of the human person will be solved once we have collected every culture’s take on it, as if Andre the Giant could have mistakenly believed he would be more human by eating every human being he dwarfed. Yet, they fail to realize that, if anything is truly valuable about a culture’s/era’s/political ethos’ contribution, such a contribution will, of itself, span all ages, persons, sexes, historical periods, and religious experiences. 

Disney’s “It’s A Small World” amusement ride does not demonstrate the world as small by engorging it with every doll from every country but by showing, in its droll way, what all nations share. And though Disney has tried mightily to represent all cultures, it inevitably has left out some. Fortunately for Disney, the intended lesson of “It’s A Small World” will be neither smaller nor more worldly regardless of whether it does span every conceivable nation.

Similarly, the greatness of any book list is not measured by its span of the sampling of human persons. For a great book is great insofar as it is grateful for the truth of the human condition—not as a Native-American condition, or a womanist condition, or a nudist Buddhist condition, but insofar as being Native-American, a black feminist, or a Lady-Goddiva-turned-Buddhist (or anything else) expresses the essential dilemma of—and remedy for—being human.

The books in this list matter because they treat the element of the human condition that is one for all cultures and situations—the role of suffering amidst our freedom to choose between good and evil.

We live in an age that prides itself (or shames itself) on being an era of tragedy. But it is all a self-delusive sham, for, deluding ourselves otherwise, we live in a comic universe. Amidst our technological prowess and our ability to overwhelm ourselves with the prospect that we can destroy our planet either via nuclear armaments or environmental disaster, we have considered ourselves as tragic figures in a universe that is either pointless or tyrannized by a capricious Godhead.

But the tragic is so drab and boring—because it is overdone to the point of banality. We thirst for originality, for the power to create and re-create ourselves; yet, we miss that, behind our self-imposed façade of tragic ubermensch heroism, the Truth is winking at us. If we believe that the cosmos is a stranger to us, that our dreams are doomed to self-frustration, it is because we fail to recognize that our failures are not the end of the story but merely comic relief, a pastiche on the absurdity of our condition. We ought to graciously admit that we are no better than the Three Stooges. We should not worry that we are as bumbling as Moe, Larry, and Curly. For, the winking Eye behind our would-be self-demolition is Himself an Immolation of Love. We ought to, Oz-like, pay attention to that man behind the curtain. All our bumbling and stumbling are worth the effort, if only to find out that laughter is always the coda to tears—that it is not a coda at all, but a prelude to what awaits us beyond this veil of tears.

The only way we can know of self-limitation, self-imposed frailty, and self-defeat is to continually expose ourselves to freedom, security, and victory. The only reason we know about tragedy at all is because we experience it against the backdrop of what we know ought to be—a blessed, comic vision of reality. Aristotle’s comic sequel to The Poetics is not lost at all; it has never been found because we have been looking in all the wrong places: it has been in The Poetics’ treatment of tragedy all along. Aristotle’s Katharsis is better defined as “saving knowledge” rather than “emotional release.” The word, “comic” is not accidentally similar to “cosmic” because the joke is on us—the Cosmos is already a comedy. Self-imposed tragedy is cathartic only through the comic relief of realizing that we have been the stars of a comedy all along.

Each of these books operates on a comic vision of the universe, a frank admission that tragedy and suffering and evil are realities but not a credo. If some of these works have been previously classified as tragedies or have tragic elements, we only know them as tragic because of the comedy that reveals that tragedy is worth the pain, that all the suffering rolled up into one big planet is not an impediment but rather a means to the Truth. The cosmic is comic in a way that makes us look back on the suffering in the same way that we look on our previous hunger pangs as we dip the fork into the cheesecake for the second bite. If we feel that tragedies are at all tragic, we do so in the same way that we feel when we are told a joke only to have the teller die before delivering the punch line. Simply put, we don’t get it. And we won’t get it so long as we resist that saving knowledge that is the fruit of tragedy.

Catholicism is the only worldview that puts tragedy into its proper context, because Catholicism gets the punch line. Once while shopping in a Wal-Mart, I met a man in a motorized wheelchair who said in response to the crucifix I wore around my neck, “You know, son, He came down off that cross.” I suppose he was referring to the superfluity of my witness to the Crucifixion, given that Jesus rose from the dead. I smiled and said, “Yes, I know—that’s why I wear this crucifix, to remind me of the price for the joy we have.”

The Church knows the real point of tragedy. As long as we live in this broken world, we will always have our share of suffering (“ ‘The poor will be always with you’ ”); however, in Christ, all tragedy, all suffering has a meaning, a purpose. Every chapter in a book, except the last, exists in order to get us to the last chapter. Similarly, the chapters of suffering we go through lead to the last chapter, which we are only now beginning to read in the light of the Empty Tomb. Suffering is redemptive and reveals tragedy as not tragic. If we die to ourselves, to our obsession with avoiding suffering, our very sufferings then enable us to see the comic nature of the universe.

When we took the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, we hid ourselves in the Garden and covered ourselves in fig leaves to keep away the pronouncement of doom—but amidst the tragedy of that pronouncement, we failed to hear its comic coda: we are destined to crush the serpent’s head. But we cannot always tell that a snake-in-the-grass is about without first feeling the sting in the heel. Since that time, we have been running from the snake bite and not bothering to halt and say to the tragedy of the poison and the fangs, “Let it be done unto me according to Thy Word.”

Do we dare?

The 40 books on this list dare.

They dare to implicitly (and, some, explicitly) to posit that the universe is comic. The Christian martyrs dare to put their lives at stake on the gamble that, not only are suffering and death not to be avoided at all costs, but that suffering and death are the Pearl of Great Price. These great books believe in eucatastrophe—that is, a joyful, thankful catastrophe, a blessed tragedy better known as comedy. The 40 books are on this list because they meet the following criteria for eucatastrophe:

1) Difference-Making Books are usually old books because they span civilizations and eras with the eucatastrophic truth of human existence. As C. S. Lewis notes, difference-making books “correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.” These works “are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame.”

2) Difference-making books therefore steadfastly remind us of Tradition—what G. K. Chesterton calls the “democracy of the dead”: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

3) Difference-Making Books tap into Tradition to recall to us our capacity for wonder: “we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment … We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

4) Difference-Making Books remind us of what we forget—and what Tolkien remembers—that the cosmic is comic: “In the ‘eucatastrophe’ we see … [an] echo of evangelium in the real world … The Gospels contain … the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe … The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy … There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true … To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

5) Flannery O’Connor points out that 

(a) Difference-Making Books posit suffering as a condition of our existence, and 

(b) Evil does not frustrate joy but actually hastens it: 
“I often ask myself what makes a story work, and … I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world … from my own experience in trying to make stories “work,” I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace. This is not a piece of knowledge that I consciously put in my stories; it is a discovery I get out of them.”
6) Books that matter therefore reveal the comic nature of the cosmos through the eucatastrophic. Even the worst plots of the devil himself hasten the blessed Will of God.
The following books matter because they each do the six things listed above.

We are made in the image of God, and if the exploits of virtually every character in this book cannot mar the image of God in the human person, then we have every reason to believe that even the worst depravities of our era are the seeds for a comedy of God’s grace. Jacob/Israel’s story alone ought to remind us of the violence and laughter that is at the heart of every man’s struggle.

From the brick pits, come a band of motley-brown immigrants impressed into chattelry. Only God could think that such a crew of famine-fleeing progeny could ever be the means of revealing Himself to the nations. The sense of humor behind God’s choice of someone as melodramatic as Moses ought to render any of us less self-conscious of the absurdity of our position in the present age.

Job does not give in until he sees that the joke that he thought was on him was never a joke. In the midst of such hideous suffering, we all need a God Who is so unpredictable that we would dare believe He can handle even the worst whirlwind that blows our lives apart.

The Odyssey/Homer
When Odysseus converses with Athena at his homecoming on the beach of Ithaca, we witness the most poignant exchange in all of classical literature. The goddess loves him if only because, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, Odysseus has the temerity to keep flirting with Athena despite his utterly wretched position. Finally, this hideously hubristic pirate of a man is humble enough to re-order his home and plant a tree in the bedroom for a wife he has neglected for too long. The Odyssey is the template for all homecomings in Western literature.

The Allegory of the Cave (The Republic, Book VII, 514a–520a)/Plato
We so often lament that our lives are no more meaningful than a garbled shadow-mime on the wall that we fail to see that something substantial has to exist in order to cast the shadow in the first place. Let us not take Plato so seriously that we fail to see the implicit humor of our position. Otherwise, we will become as boring and self-righteous as a philosopher on a mission to convert a bunch of cave-dwellers.

The Golden Mean & The Magnanimous Man (The Nichomachean Ethics, Bks II-IV)/Aristotle
The Magnanimous Man is magnanimous precisely because he is not us. The mean is golden because it is beyond of the means of us tin men. Aristotle does not give us a model after which to strive but an understanding of how our greatest dreams of greatness barely touch the mean.

Oedipus the King/Sophocles
This play succinctly sums up what O’Connor so sagely advocates: any story worth its weight in a protagonist had better make us live out the price of restoring good in the face of evil. At the end of the play, Oedipus, in the midst of his exile and agony, utters the true purpose of every man’s existence: “I have been saved for a great and terrible mystery.” Oedipus the King reminds us that the tragic is a species of the beautiful; all of us must remember the cost of the trespass of the Gods into our lives. Although Sophocles and the Greeks had yet to figure out that that cost is born by God, they faithfully paved the way in the Western imagination for the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ.

The Poetics/Aristotle
The first explicitly non-fiction, literary-critical statement of eucatastrophe in pagan literature. Catharsis is the saving knowledge of realizing that we have never had to run from our place in the cosmos. The fall of the tragic hero is more than a mere emotional purge; it is the striking revelation that our absurdity and tragedy are the very elements of our comic resurrection. Aristotle never needed to write an explication of comedy: Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus does that for us—only because its way is paved for by Oedipus the King.

The Psalms
We eavesdrop on these intimate confessions, lamentations, and praises between the human soul and God. The Grace and comedy come in knowing that we can even lift the tongue or pen at all; what a wondrously strange God Who would create children who could dare dialogue with Him. We might as well laugh at the sheer absurdity of the hippo, only to hiccup at remembering the sheer absurdity of daring to address God as a dialogue partner in 150 lyric poems.

The Aeneid/Virgil
As Turnus’ soul descends to Hades at the hands of the enraged Aeneas, we discover that our faltering attempts at piety are simply not enough; that even the pax Romana is not enough. No wonder that Augustus insisted that this work be disseminated, despite the dying objections of Virgil. No other work better encapsulates the pagan conscience and humankind’s consciousness of our own futility. Can anyone then not understand how a Roman steeped in such poetry as Saint Augustine was would easily conceive of the doctrine of original sin? The piercing beauties and breath-taking aspirations of The Aeneid demonstrate the highest levels we can achieve on our own—and still they are not enough. Virgil’s lot would have been a tragedy had not Dante put his mentor’s amazing work into its proper context. Thank you, our dear guide, Virgil.

The Gospel According to Saint John
Unlike the synoptic Gospels, John portrays the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection not in a merely historical context but in a cosmic one. Because John starts with a theological declaration of the Incarnation, we understand salvation history as the ultimate comedy: “And a light shone forth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.” Then John delivers on that promise. What Oedipus was blind to, what Aeneas’ piety could not achieve, what Job suffered for, John demonstrates was always worth it.

Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans
In Rom 13:8-10, Saint Paul summarizes the entire Law as “Love thy neighbor as thyself” right after illustrating that “thy neighbor” includes our enemies—even when those enemies use the machinery of the state to persecute us. The comedy is that, unlike pagan concepts of virtus and arête, Paul’s Christ-learned ethic—agapé—is based not on personal integrity and excellence but on the Faith that only by deeming ourselves worthy enough to give away to others can we dare to rely on Grace.

The Book of Revelation
If Romans is a homiletic admonition to self-giving love, Revelation is the ultimate unveiling of the cosmos as a comedy of self-giving love. All the elements of hope are here. What should we do when ultimate evil twists the highest human institutions and corrupts the very cosmos from the societal down to the natural order? Dare to give up ourselves in the same way as the Worthy Lamb Who was slain. In the end, we are merely faithful servants who receive the descent of the New Jerusalem into a realm that we thought was destined for the lake of fire.

The Confessions/Saint Augustine of Hippo
My first-born, Paul Beeler, a growing expert in Saint Augustine, once wrote that “Saint Augustine’s life is the testament of a man wrestling with his love for a broken world.” Indeed, that is the Great Doctor’s eucatastrophe—to exhaust the world only to find that the answer is not the world and the comedy that the world is a blessed means to finding the Creator of the world and the Father of us. The Confessions is one long running joke, showing the blessed travails of those of us who must try every thing in order to find the only Thing worth having.

Europe and the Faith/Hillaire Belloc; The Everlasting Man/G. K. Chesterton
Like G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, Belloc’s Europe and the Faith is a necessary corrective to contemporary notion that our view of history is the only view of history. Like Chesterton, Belloc has the attribute of writing history as if from the perspective of an alien observer, noting a curious progression of footsteps through history—footsteps that are not ours, but footsteps that show our path is shaped with a destiny in mind. Belloc’s contention is that Europe is the Faith, without which Europe ceases to be. In an age in which Europe, both in the Constitution of the European Union and its birth-control-decimated demographics, strives to disavow the Faith, Belloc’s work serves as a warning against societal suicide.

A masterpiece of baptized pagan values, Beowulf is the melding of ancient Norse virtuous-pagan values incarnated with the Person of Christ. Such authentically vigorous poetry puts to the lie Nietzsche’s assertions that Christianity is the faith of weaklings and slaves. The Christ-figure of Beowulf literally wrenching the arm off Grendel, diving into the depths of the frozen waters to dispatch Grendel’s mother, and surrendering his life in the heroic final battle with the dragon are not a Christian ethos “painted over” pagan myths of fortitude and virility but rather an illustration of how the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection raise out of pagan lore and virtue the Truth of Christ that paganism, at its best, always foreshadows and struggles toward. Beowulf is the Norse equivalent of the altar to the Unknown God that Paul points out in his address at the Athens Aeropaga in the Book of Acts.

Sir Gawain & the Green Knight
A stunning example of eucatastrophe; is it any surprise that Tolkien translated this work from Middle English? Gawain’s histrionic attempts at self-redemption, his admirable sense of honor and virtue, and his all-to-human fear of death are worthy, first, of our tears, and then, at the end, our laughter with the court of Camelot. The Green Kirtle is not a badge of shame but an emblem of grace and salvation. In the end, may Gawain laugh, too.

The Imitation of Christ/Thomas á Kempis
HOW do we live through the suffering that this existence imposes on us? The other books on this list show us that suffering occurs on the journey, but how do we meet it on a daily basis? How do we remember that it is not the final story when we are in its throes? Read a section of this good book daily; it puts eucatastrophe into an everyday perspective.

“The Five Ways of Proving that God Exists” (Summa Theologiae I a, q. 2, a. 3)/Saint Thomas Aquinas
The revolution of Saint Thomas’ Five Proofs is the comedy of realize, in our weary age, that faith is reasonable. In an era in which we view scientific knowledge as the only basis for any inference, Saint Thomas’ Proofs offer refreshing and irrefutable arguments as to the basis of any knowledge.

The Divine Comedy/Dante Alighieri
The greatest poem ever written. The pinnacle of all the epics. The closest that merely human speech comes to Divine Revelation via Scripture. Dante’s magnum opus is the literary summation of eucatastrophe, the comedy of the proper ordering of human desire. The difference between the Pilgrim who stands entrapped by the three beasts in a dark wood of confusion at the opening of Inferno and the Pilgrim who witnesses the Beatific Vision and the Trinity is proclamation of the Good News—a Light has shone in the darkness, and, thank God, our darkness does not overcome it!

Hamlet/William Shakespeare
Does Prince Hamlet achieve saving knowledge, some katharsis, by which we might see the path to salvation? Hamlet’s tragic flaw leads to his demise but nonetheless offers a means of defeating the Claudiuses of this world. Although late, Hamlet does finally entrust himself to a Will beyond that commanded by his obsessive intellect and therein dies to his self-will. Hamlet is fatuously known as the “play in which everyone dies at the end”; but the death of the old regime members—noble and ignoble—figures the purging of Hamlet’s (and therein Denmark’s) soul. We can start anew—with action that is tempered by the caution of Hamlet’s story, as related by the renewed Horatio—the only truly comedic figure in the drama. Horatio persists from the play’s beginning to it’s end. He is the witness—he is us. He will tell the story truly to all the invading Fortinbrases—who will listen, as the end of the play recounts. Though our world can seem conquered by Fortinbras and usurped by Claudius, all our Elsinores really are Globe Theatres to the universe.

Much Ado About Nothing/William Shakespeare
Benedick’s closing words are the perfect repartee to Hamlet’s “we defy augury”:
if a man will be beaten with brains, a' shall wear
nothing handsome about him. In brief, since I do
purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any
purpose that the world can say against it; and
therefore never flout at me for what I have said
against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my

Man’s giddiness is our comic status that God delights to work through. The thesis of all of Shakespeare’s work are the sage words of Saint Paul:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1Cor 1:25-29)
Penseés/Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal has the gift of writing a great book in every thought.

The Declaration of Independence
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” A more succinct synopsis of the comedy of our nature has never been written. We are made to freely choose good and resist evil; therein lies the pursuit of all happiness.

Emma/Jane Austen
Emma is a parable of how God woos the human soul. Each character reflects an aspect of the nascent Emma who grows the more beautiful and lovely to George Knightley even as she suffers the humiliation of discovering that she is not the center of the universe.

Moby Dick/Herman Melville
Call me Ishmael. I’ll call myself Ishmael, as I walk after hearses and fear that the universe is against me or am terrified that a savage will arrive in the dark to cannibalize me. Is the universe a shark attack, a floating squid, a shoal of mother whales nursing their calves? Or are they all subsumed in the thunderous joy of Moby Dick, whom Ahab cannot abide? Will we be Ahab, limping about, setting up the universe to maim us? Will we be Queequeg, the pagan midwife who births Dagoo from the head of leviathan? Or will we be Ishmael, borne from the flood on an ark of the covenant that is our coffin, a symbol of the death-to-self that is the path to new life.

Crime and Punishment/Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The chapter in which Sonia and Raskolnikov read aloud the raising of Lazarus from the Gospel of John may be the most hope-filled, redemptive sample of novelic fiction ever written. As Emma is the story of how God woos the human soul, so Crime and Punishment recounts the journey home of the human soul, beset by sin but not deaf to God’s summons.

The Story of A Soul/Saint Therese of Liseux
Saint Therese labors in the mission field of the everyday contrivances of our lives. She leads us to find Grace in the most everyday of sufferings and the kiss of Christ in every communion with God.

Orthodoxy/G. K. Chesterton
As a young man, Chesterton sets out to devise the one true philosophy that can explain the cosmos and, when finishing the task, is surprised to find that he has discovered the Catholic Church. No wonder, then, that he calls Orthodoxy (or “right teaching”) the only true adventure for humankind.

The Wasteland/T. S. Eliot
Eliot’s poem puts us into the character of a Robinson Crusoe, trying to make sense of the flotsam after the shipwreck of our culture. But these are more than mere fragments stored against our ruin. Da, Datta, Dayadhvam—give, give everything, give ourselves. We are shorn up against the ruin of ourselves by daring to let our leaky ships be ruined by the floods of Grace that thunder into our self-made deserts.

The Man Who Was Thursday/G. K. Chesterton
The protagonist, Gabriel Syme, is exactly that—part angel, part simian. He is us, he is Job. And Sunday is both God and Master Anarchist. At the end of Gabriel Syme’s journey, his questions are finally answered by a question, “ ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’ ”

The Great Gatsby/Robert Scott Fitzgerald
This gem of novels is about Nick Carraway, a veritable seed of a man rather than about Gatsby. Even though everything about Gatsby reeks of scandal, vanity, and fatuousness, his ability to dream, to strive for nobility, even under the seemingly merciless gaze of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, leads Nick out of the self-consuming materialist despair of Tom and Daisy. When Nick declares to Jay Gatsby that Gatsby is worth the whole lot of them, he has committed himself to the same dream as Gatsby has. When Gatsby sinks into the baptism of his own blood, so Nick dies to himself and is properly equipped to return to the Midwest and see it not as a dead-end but as a living myth. Rarely has the price of restoring good from evil been told so unflinchingly.

Perelandra/C. S. Lewis
From the paradise of the floating islands, to the hades of the underwater cave and the enemy Un-Man, to the ascent up the Purgatory mount, to the caves of ice, to the singing beast, to the emergence of the human person as we were always meant to be, Perelandra offers a completely unique and heart-longingly beautiful retelling of the salvation story.

The Lord of the Rings/J. R. R. Tolkien
Amidst wizards, kings, nazgül, and elves, the humble wisdom of Samwise Gamgee alone offers the only authentic response to suffering even in the midst of suffering: to paraphrase, “My, Mr. Frodo, what a song they will sing of our adventure.” What more comic take can one have on tragedy, in the very midst of tragedy? Lesson learned: suffering gives way to a deeper reality of blessing.

All the King’s Men/Robert Penn Warren
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men could not put little Jackie Burden together again. But Grace, working through redemptive suffering does. Amazingly, Robert Penn Warren combines the melancholy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabelle Lee” with the rise and fall of a tyrant will to mend Jack in a metaphorical parable of how the self-alienated soul is restored. As each character represents an aspect of Jack’s wounded self, so his reconciliation with each marks his journey to wholeness.

Collected Short Stories/Flannery O’Connor
Simply the greatest short-story writer of all time. For a modern audience who has given up any hope that the cosmos has any meaning, O’Connor crafts a world that speaks to us in every fiber of its being. She pulls no punches because she is dedicated to the extremity of Grace and will, by God, show us, even if it takes the gun blasts of a mass murderer to bring out Grace in the midst of our unworthiness.

Address to the United Nations/Pope John Paul II
In the wake of the Bosnian-Croatian and Rwanda Genocides, this courageous Polish native who stared down Nazism and Communism addresses a world on the brink of an even worse evil—a ruthless materialistic totalitarianism. His Holiness reminds us that human rights are not privileges granted by states or rulers but living signs of objective truth; even if we despair of the world having meaning, we can find the Truth in our very existence—the dignity of the human person to embrace good and resist evil.

Father Elijah/Michael D. O’Brien
Father Elijah is one of the most unique characters ever created in fiction: a former Polish Hasidic zadik whose family is slaughtered in the Warsaw Ghetto, a Zionist operative and attorney at the Nuremburg War Trials, David Schaeffer (Father Elijah), loses his Israel wife (with child) to a terrorist bomb. He retreats to a Carmelite Monastery and decades later is sent by the Pope as an emissary to convert a rising world leader who may be the antichrist. It may sound like a cliché, but once this book is picked up, putting it down is impossible.

Address at Regensburg/Pope Benedict XVI
Far from a salvo against Islam, this admirably written and amazingly clear analysis of the relationship between Faith and Reason offers a ringing and compassionate challenge to a Western Civilization on the brink of renouncing both Faith and reason.

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