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Julie Baldwin

Can books make us human or are we born human?

I would like to re-word the thesis of this symposium, and present my list of books that are known to make people humane, and thus be a catalyst to make the reader an enlightened, knowledgeable, and truth-seeking missile of a human being.

People are homo sapiens, even if they lack a proper understanding of the human condition. Joseph Stalin and Mother Teresa were both human; the difference between them, however, was not the question of their biological classification, but their choices. Stalin demeaned and killed humans and Blessed Teresa cared for and defended them. For at “the Day of Judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done; not how well we have spoken, but how holy we have lived,” wrote St. Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ.

I am thus providing ten books which I believe best encapsulate and understand what it means to be a humane human; that is, sympathetic to the whole person, have a foundation in God, and outwardly show an ability to love transcendentally (opposed to hiding their candle beneath a bushel).

Furthermore, I’ve resisted including books-I-like or books-everyone-should-read if they do not fit the prompt. Aquinas’ brilliant Summa Theologica is a perfect example of this; as are Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Vile Bodies, and Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (my three favorite books). They do address aspects of humanity, but not to the degree to which this symposium prompts me to choose.

I also did not comment on any of my book selections. This was intentional. For those who know me, I am quite chatty. For those who read me, I enjoy explaining and diving into ideas. For this symposium, however, I thought it much more apt to let the books and their authors speak for themselves. Too much commentary can set up unintentional expectations, and perhaps ruin the experience of diving into a new read. All of these books have profoundly affected my character, challenged my thinking, and have prompted me to act accordingly.

All books selected were written in the not-so-distant 20th century, and remind me of something Tom Bombadil said to the hobbits: “You’ve found yourselves again, out of the deep water. Clothes are but little loss, if you escape from drowning.”

Children’s literature

1. The Little Prince by Anotoine De Saint-Exupery

“Whenever I encountered a grown-up who seemed to me at all enlightened, I would experiment on him with my drawing Number One, which I have always kept. I wanted to see if he really understood anything. But he would always kept. I wanted to see if he really understood anything. But he would always answer, “That’s a hat.” Then I wouldn’t talk about boa constrictors or jungles or stars. I would put myself on his level and talk about bridge and golf and politics and neckties. And my grown-up was glad to know such a reasonable person.”

“No,” said the little prince, “I’m looking for friends. What does tamed mean?”
“It’s something that been too often neglected. It means, ‘to create ties’… The only things you learn are the things you tame,” said the fox. “People don’t have time to learn anything. They buy things ready-made in stores. But since there are no stores where you can buy friends, people no longer have friends. If you want a friend, tame me!”

2. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Comics

3. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

35-calvin and the economy

Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation

4. Verbum Domini by Pope Benedict XVI

“Scripture tells us that everything that exists does not exist by chance but is willed by God and part of his plan, at whose center is the invitation to partake, in Christ, in the divine life. Creation is born of the Logos and indelibly bears the mark of the creative Reason which orders and directs it… Reality, then, is born of the word, as creatura Verbi, and everything is called to serve the word. Creation is the setting in which the entire history of the love between God and his creation develops; hence human salvation is the reason underlying everything.”

“The word of God makes us change our concept of realism: the realist is one who recognizes in the word of God the foundation of all things.”

Epistolary Communication

5. The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor; selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald

“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy an

d her husband, Mr. Broadwater… She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual…. Toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it. That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

“I don’t really think the standard of judgment, the missing link, you spoke of that you find in my stories emerges from any religion but Christianity, because it concerns specifically Christ and the Incarnation, the fact that there has been a unique intervention in history. It’s not a matter in these stories of Do Unto Others. That can be found in any ethical cultural series. It is the fact of the Word made flesh. As the Misfit said, “He thrown everything off balance and it’s nothing for you to do but follow him or find some meanness.” That is the fulcrum that lifts my particular stories. I’m a Catholic but this is in orthodox Protestantism also, though out of context–which makes it grow into grotesque forms. The Catholic, using his own eyes and the eyes of the Church (when he is inclined to open them) is in a most favorable position to recognize the grotesque…”


6.
Love and Living by Br. Thomas Merton, Essay Collection

“Love is the revelation of our deepest personal meaning, value, and identity. But this revelation remains impossible as long as we are the prisoner of our own egoism.”
Love and Need: Is Love a Package or a Message

“Thus, it is not difficult for the abstract and scientific doctrines of modern humanism to become means by which the individual person is reduced to subjection to man in the abstract. And as Gabriel Marcel has pointed out, this vast and awful abstractness hovers over the abyss of mass society to bring forth from it the antihumanist and irresponsible monstrosity that is mass-man. This explains, in part, why modern secular humanisms are so fair and optimistic in theory and so utterly merciless and inhumane in practice.”
Christian Humanism

7. On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs by Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

“Thus, there is an excitement in simply knowing the truth, the knowledge of things. And this excitement flows naturally into our social nature. We want to explain to others how we arrive at or came to know the things seen. We become active; we want to talk, instruct, help others see what we see.”
On Teaching and Being Eminently Teachable

“I consider utopians of every sort, therefore, to be intellectually poor, however sophisticated their systems. They are modern Pelagians who do not see any need of grace, who do not see any need of an independent truth by which they might correct their ideas about what the world should be like. And behind all these lofty theories is almost always a sinful, deviant heart bent on rejecting that conversion of soul from which all social reform ultimately derives.”
On Intellectual Poverty

Literature

8. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

“Father Vaillant began pacing restlessly up and down as he spoke, and the Bishop watched him, musing. It was just this in his friend that was dear to him. ‘Where there is great love there are always miracles,’ he said at length. ‘One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

“The truth was, Jacinto liked the Bishop’s way of meeting people; thought he had the right tone with Padre Gallegos, the right tone with Padre Jesus, and that he had good manners with the Indians. In his experience, white people, when they addressed Indians, always put on a false face. There were many kinds of false faces; Father Vaillant’s, for example, was kindly but too vehement. The Bishop put on none at all. He stood straight and turned to the Governor of Laguna, and his face underwent no change. Jacinto thought this remarkable.”

Memoir

9. Pages from an Oxford Diary by Paul Elmer More

“What saved me from moral and emotional paralysis in this pseudo-philosophy was, I think, a deep-seated interest in humanity. I could not reason myself into believing that men are only machines; I could not smother in logic the sense of mystery that broods upon the world, nor find any place in the network of blind chance and fate for the human will.”

“Curious, is it not, that purpose is the only basis of a reasonable life, yet purpose as an hypothesis of creation leads to an irrational premise. Must we conclude that “reasonable” and “rational” are not convertible terms? that rationalism is unreasonable?”

Poetry

10. The Robert Frost Reader: Poetry and Prose; edited by Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance Thompston

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
–from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not done their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
–from “The Lesson For Today”

Honorable Mention: Our Town by Thornton Wilder (play)

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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9 replies to this post
  1. I was going to cry "FOUL" and "GIMMICK" after reading your intro, but you "BROUGHT IT" strong with your choices.

    Aside from #6, I have no qualms with your selections and I will throw you a pass on #6 due to the ingenious choices of #2, #3, & #8.

    Well done!

  2. Dear Miss Robison, what a splendid person you are.

    Adding perhaps to St Thomas a Kempis, the Talmud notes that we shall be judged on all of God's licit pleasures which we have denied ourselves.

    Stephen Masty

  3. Joseph- Thomas Merton's book is fabulous and I am not quite sure why you would have qualms with it, but I am glad you gave me a pass, because I stand by my selections! I literally sat with stacks and stacks of books around me while deciding, prowling through them. Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos was heavily considered as well.

    Mr. Masty, thank you for sharing that! I should read the Talmud. Do you recommend a translation? You are a wonderful person as well; always a pleasure to have such fantastic readers!

  4. Cartoon strips had a wonderful life from the 30s-80s, but like so many things that depended on the daily appetite for holding paper in one's hands, they are as gone as the telegraph as a means of conveying ideas. I never, as they say, "got into" C&H (don't like the drawing, for one thing), but have loved Pogo and others over the years, having grown up in cartoons' heyday. Some of them were indeed even "humane."

    Good job, Julie.

  5. Miss Robison, I've never found much of a translation even after asking former yeshiva students. Maybe one of our contributors can recommend one, ideally an abridgement since the whole of it sounds very long indeed.

    Stephen Masty

  6. Julie:

    Merton always gives me pause. I read some of his work and was informed by someone of his "charism", if you will, and some problems with it as he slipped more and more into an Eastern philosophy. It is not to say that all of his works are tainted, but I live by this rule: with so much Catholic everything available to us, I'd rather pick something solid as a rock than worry about cutting the "fat" off of something that has good and bad. Since Merton's later works are so questionable, I just wonder if there was a change, or a gradual decline.

    This of course is my opinion. It is sort of like newer prayer practices like Centering Prayer, Labyrinths, etc… The Church hasn't said explicitly "No" to these things but they have spoken on their place… and to me there are things much more worthy of my time. Merton is the forerunner to Trappist spirituality that has produced the questionable Centering Prayer movement and Labyrinths. It wasn't HIM per se, but again if we look at his spirituality as a Charism, one can connect some pretty close dots. Again, in my opinion.

    When it comes to spirituality I'd rather read St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Athanasius, Fr. Dubay, etc… If you take Merton out of the Catholic "context" his works are probably greatly beneficial to a humanist, but that isn't the case here. Again, for me, it the equation is this: I have a finite amount of time to read, and I choose to read things I know will lead me to Christ on a straight and narrow. I want any stumbling blocks to be my own, and not from the tools I use.

    I wasn't trying to attack your choice, it was simply to initiate discussion. I am glad you stand by your choices, I think that it is important that when things profoundly affect us we should be willing to do just that. Yet, that being said, I did want to point out that Merton is not someone that all Catholics find to be the most reliable writer of spirituality.

  7. Jospeh, I certainly understand what you are saying. There are so much wonderful Catholic resources, Merton may not be someone's first pick. He was one of the four most prominent American Catholic writers of the 20th century, though, and I think his "dabbling" into Eastern religions strengthened his Catholicism and added further insights to God. That is my interpretation from reading him and about him, at the very least.

    I certainly do not take any disagreement as an attack, so no worries there. I was more intrigued by the comment and use of the word "qualm." In this symposium specifically though, the topic revolves around humans and not just Catholics (the whole square/ rectangle argument), which is another reason why I was curious. Personal preference aside, Thomas Merton is a wonderful writer, humanist, Catholic and, most importantly, human!

    Thanks for the comments! I always appreciate them.

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