Here are some awesome books that you should be reading, or thinking about buying, for Christmastime.
1. Everyone should own one sturdy bible that will never be forgotten or thrown away. A book that you can read and reread and return to throughout your adult life. Unfortunately, most bibles (like most books) are terribly made and don’t last. Fortunately, bible publishing is also one of the last hold-outs of good, old-school book design. For example, consider this beautiful ESV Clarion Reference Bible from Baker. It has a sewn binding, beautiful leather cover, and good text design. There are alternatives (you can find many on Amazon, or on a good bible design blog). Consider buying one. A good Bible is, in its physical form, a work of art, the beauty of which makes its use more dignified and more enjoyable.
2. Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum. Every educated Catholic ought to own this book. It is endlessly fascinating and illuminating. In the 1800s, Heinrich Denzinger was commissioned by Bl. Pius IX to assemble an anthology of extracts from important magisterial and conciliar documents, going back to the earliest days of the Church. The anthology (its title in English is “Handbook of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals”) is now in its 43rd edition, edited by German scholar Peter Hünermann. The current edition, which was published by Ignatius Press in 2012, features all the documents in their original languages, with English translations in parallel. Keep it by your bedside. Open it to random pages. You will be amazed how much it enriches your understanding of the faith.
3. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain. Mann’s sprawling, bizarre epic about one man’s seven-year sojourn at an alpine sanatorium really sticks with you. It’s a book about many things: love, death, God, desire, boredom, time, honor, and duty. But at the heart of The Magic Mountain is a scintillating debate between a progressive humanist and a reactionary Jesuit about the order of the cosmos, the meaning of human life, and the cultivation of the mind. It is the most boring, bizarre, invigorating, and profound seven hundred pages you’re likely to read in 2017, and you won’t forget it once you do.
4. Yves Chiron, Pope Pius IX: The Man and the Myth. There’s plenty of confusion and disarray in the papal court today. This is nothing new, of course—moments of confusion and corruption come and go in the Church. But in such times, one of the best things to do is to study up on the great and good figures of the past. The career of Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti (later Bl. Pius IX) is both edifying and informative. Pius IX was in many ways the first pope to try and set the terms of the Church’s engagement with post-Christian Europe. His character and insights, as described by french historian Yves Chiron, remain valuable material for reflection.
So far, Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees is delightful. I've previously read the Italian author's mind-bending, experimental second-person thriller If On A Winter's Night A Traveller and his catalogue of impossible places, Invisible Cities. Compared to those books, The Baron is the Trees is a more conventional novel, albeit one stuffed with eccentric characters and fantastical situations.
The story follows the young nobleman Cosimo Piovasco di Ronda, who rebels against his family by fleeing into the treetops. One day when the young aristocrat is a mere twelve, he refuses the snails cooked by his ferocious sister and, in full dinner costume (powdered hair, tricorn hat, tunic, breeches, and rapier) ascends a nearby tree.
Our father leaned out the window. “When you're tired of being up there, you'll change your mind!” he shouted.
“I'll never change my mind,” exclaimed my brother from the branch.
“You'll see as soon as you come down!”
“I'll never come down again!” And he kept his word.
His further arboreal adventures are narrated by his earthbound younger brother—we see him through his sibling's half-envious, half-bewildered eyes. Cosimo adapts quickly to life in the trees, finding ways to remain self-sufficient. For example, he befriends a goat and trains it to hike its back legs up on a low branch each morning so he can milk it without touching the ground. But despite his new treebound way of life, Cosimo maintains a relationship with his family and even fulfills his feudal obligations.
Perhaps there's a thematic point here about how family can be both the closest people to us and the ones we least understand. Maybe the tale of Cosimo offers some comfort for those who have converted to ways of life that have changed the way they relate to their nearest and dearest. But then again, maybe it's just a hilarious romp through the trees. I'm certainly moved to peals of laughter regularly by Calvino's wry telling of this fabulous tale.
I've been reading St. Thomas More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies, written shortly before More’s promotion to the Chancellorship of England in 1529. In a work that C. S. Lewis called “a great Platonic dialogue, perhaps the best in English,” More presents his arguments against the reformers Martin Luther and William Tyndale in a conversational, but nonetheless elegant style.
Though More’s primary focus is always on fortifying orthodoxy against its detractors, he occasionally hints at how and why, in his opinion, the reformers and their followers have been led to believe as they do. At one point, as More’s Protestant-sympathizing interlocutor defends several iconoclastic errors attributed to John Ryckes’ 1525 tract The Image of Love, More seems to suggest that a craving to appear cultivated and conversant lies behind the man’s impudence. As the interlocutor puts it,
[Ryckes] showeth full well that images be but laymen’s books; and therefore that religious men and folk of more perfect life, and more instructed in spiritual wisdom, should let all such dead images pass, and labor only for the lively, quick image of love and charity.
The interlocutor’s confusion, as More soon points out, stems from his ignorance of the fact that both words and images are signs or representations of things, and that for this reason, neither is superior to the other, except in cases where one proves more becoming of its object. We use words for theology, but crucifixes to remind us of the great and bloody sacrifice of our Lord. But why does the interlocutor forget this so easily? Because he knows he is more refined than all that, a learnt and lettered sophisticate who sees clearly where others cannot that the earthy religion of the peasantry—with its relics and odors and démodé art—is principally superstition, and of any parts that hold true, a mere child’s stepping stone to the pure spirituality of authentic Christian belief. “Images be but laymen’s books.”
More’s suspicion confirms one of my own, that even as the Protestant Reformation effected the decline and fall of Christendom, it was also a sign of Christendom’s triumph. By the sixteenth century, Europe had come very far from the days of Rabanus Maurus’ impassioned sermons against pagans’ mad howling at the terror of a lunar eclipse. By More’s time, the continent had been so thoroughly civilized that it was possible for a few unexamined theological prejudices, and a little vanity, to spark a revolution.
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