In no particular order.
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. I discovered this gem while on retreat at a Trappist monastery in Oregon. At the time I was discerning priesthood, so it had a special meaning in that regard. But beyond that, Greene’s monumental work did something vitally necessary in our day and age: It put a human face on martyrdom. Churches, museums, and pious prayer books are filled with statuary and images depicting men and women dying for the Faith. Yet few of these depictions show a real humanity, and instead portray Christians blissfully smiling as they’re tortured and killed. I have no doubt some did die in such a way, yet I suspect a great many wrestled with their fate all the way to the end. Greene’s work tells a story of one priest’s reluctant walk towards and ultimate embrace of martyrdom amidst his own struggles as flawed man.
Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. Berry is a man deeply convicted that people can (and ought) to grow connected to the land in which they live. As a result, every place, even the quietest and most obscure corners of the country, have a story. This is one story in a long narrative about a place in rural Kentucky. It’s told from the perspective of the town barber, Jayber Crow. It’s also full of some gem wisdom, one of my favorites being this:
“He was also a son of the depression. He was born in 1932, right in the bottom of it, and before it ended he had grown into knowledge of it. He got what he thought was the point: national prosperity, and especially the prosperity of the nation’s farmers, was not permanent; it was not to be depended on; the predictions and promises of politicians and their experts were not to be depended on; if it all had come to nothing once, it all could come to nothing again.”
All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. Power, populism, corruption, and a great story based in part on the actual story of Louisiana’s Huey Long.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. If you only read 1 western novel in your life, this ought to be it. It’s gritty, and as a friend once remarked, McMurtry is brutal with his characters. He endears you to them and then kills them off. But the stories he tells with those characters are perhaps beyond compare in their humanity. McMurtry wrote Lonesome Dove before co-writing the adapted screenplay for that tragic celebration of deviant sexual behavior “Brokeback Mountain.” Moreover, the Lonesome Dove sequels and prequels McMurtry wrote afterwards paled in comparison to the original masterpiece. They say wisdom comes with age. For McMurtry, it seems to have worked the other way.
Lewis and Clark among the Indians, by James P. Ronda. Ronda is one of the finest historians of the American West and the premier Lewis and Clark scholar. I first became acquainted with his work when studying under TIC editor Brad Birzer at Hillsdale, and had the pleasure of meeting him in 2001. Like many historians, Ronda made the case that exploration is a fundamentally human activity, but he went on to illustrate something most historians of Lewis and Clark’s endeavors overlook: The men of the Corps of Discovery were themselves objects of exploration by the Indians whom they encountered. Journal accounts of the Corps’ first winter encampment at Fort Mandan in the Dakotas demonstrate that exploration was mutual. The Mandans, Hidatsas, and others were equally–if not more–curious about the men of the Corps, their tools, hunting, lifeways, etc. “Exploring the explorers” was how Ronda phrased it, and his work on the subject is eye opening, thought provoking, and a refreshingly human look at western exploration.
The Psalms. Joy. Sadness. Contrition. Suffering. Mercy. Redemption. Sickness. Conflict. Praise. Despair. Thanksgiving. Triumph. Defeat. The full range of human experience can be found amidst these pages. Read them. Meditate upon them. Immerse yourself in them. Chant them (find a monastery or religious community with public access to the Divine Office). Few translations do the Psalms justice, but my preference is the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. Avoid “dynamic equivalence” and neutered language like the plagues they are.
1984 and Animal Farm, by George Orwell and Brave New World, by Alduous Huxley. I lump these together because their tragic plots hold timeless lessons about man, his relationship with the state, and the natural law. It seems not a day goes by without a news headline that could have come straight out of these pages. My guess is most frequenters of TIC have read these, but if not, make a point of it!
Books mentioned in this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.