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Carl Olson

1. The Bible, It is one of the first books I read (not cover-to-cover, at first, of course), and the first book I memorized passages from as a child. I cannot imagine trying to think about or comprehend the human condition without it. A few specific books within The Good Book that merit note: Genesis and Exodus, the Psalms and The Book of Wisdom, the Gospel of John, and Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

2. Confessions, by St. Augustine of Hippo. I’ve read it several times now, and I am always amazed by the depth of Augustine’s thinking and emotions, as well as by the clarity and profundity of his expression.

3. Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas. It would be a mistake to assume this seminal work of theology/philosophy is dry or merely didactic, because a careful and reflective reading reveals an understanding of man’s origin, nature, and end that has rarely been rivaled.

4. The Sonnets, by William Shakespeare. I’ve enjoyed and profited from many of Shakespeare’s plays, but am drawn again and again back to the sonnets, which express not only the depths of human love, but what it means to be human in the simple and small ways.

5. David Copperfield or Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. I first read them as a young boy and they brought to life a range of characters and aspects of humanity—the good, the bad, and the ugly—I had never seen or experienced before.

6. Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot. The Wasteland got (and gets?) more attention, but this mature, post-conversion poem is, I think, the greatest poem of the twentieth-century, and one of the most moving descriptions of life, death, and spiritual awakening ever written.

7. My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. Certainly my most personal pick, a book I first read as a ten-year-old boy, and then several more times thereafter. An aching portrayal of a Jewish boy and his struggles with faith, family, and personal aspirations.

8. The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis. My favorite book by Lewis, a short but penetrating work about the nature of man. If you want to read it in fictional form, check out Lewis’ “Space Trilogy”: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

9. Lost in the Cosmos, by Walker Percy. A bit quirky, but more than a bit brilliant, full of wit, wisdom, caustic charm, and some very challenging questions about what it means to be human in a post-Christian, post-modern culture.

10. Redemptor Hominis, by Blessed John Paul II. The late Holy Father’s first encyclical (March 1979) is essential for anyone who wishes to understand his thought and his Christ-centric understanding of humanity: “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history.” Amen.

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9 replies to this post
  1. Great list. It's sad that many people today don't know Augustine's Confessions. It was only a few decades ago that any college educated person would have read it as well as parts of the City of God.
    I would also add The Brothers Karamazov to this list (by Dostoevsky). Thanks!

  2. Would be very interesting to crate a list of non-Western contenders. Are there an "classic" Arab / Asian / Slavic / Black titles that reflect the best of Christian humanism as it has flourished in foreign cultures? I teach at an HBCU, and run up against such questions/accusations all the time. The implied criticism is that what he love and cherish is simply fruit of white and western civilization, a flavor more than a nutrient. The writing of John C Wu came to mind, though it is a bit dated.

  3. Oi! There are a number of truly great works that I would place before some on the list, though of course those on this list are very good. The first to come to mind is Dante's Commedia, considered by many to perhaps be the greatest work of poetry every written. Also, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy was THE book to read for centuries. Lastly, Tennyson's Idylls of the King are about the strongest manifestation of Christendom that one can aquire.

    In regard to JM, I would say the two works that come to mind are Things Fall Apart by Achebe, and any of the Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian.

  4. @JM — Have you read any of Rumi's poetry? While he was a Sufi, there is still such richness in his works that has a lot of correlation to the Christian experience. Especially of love. Also, the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. He is a Polish Catholic and deals a lot with how to live in a world of ruin. Very powerful and I've heard Bl. JPII was very fond of his work.

    @Carl Olson — beautiful list! These are going into my "books to read" list.

  5. JM, I also was thinking of Shusaku Endo and Takashi Nagai, two Catholics in modern Japan who wrote beautifully about the struggles of modern humanity. Of course, while somewhat still Western, there is The Gulag Archipelago which is one of the greatest chronicles of humanity amidst cruelty ever written.

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