Books are like minerals, buried and waiting to be found. They lie in dusty corners of used books shops or in the virtual nooks and crannies of online megastores or in remote library stacks¯or in unread piles at home. Not all are precious. In fact, most are more like coal than gold: useful in a workmanlike way. If you need to know something about lithography or Levinas or the Battle of Lexington, there are doubtless textbooks and monographs and multivolume studies ready to inform. But some books shine. They do more than instruct; they nourish. They become indispensable rather than just helpful.
The great books of the West are canonized because so many people find them golden. Like other college students, I was very taken by Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. The drama of faith seemed real and enticing. The Brothers Karamazov had a similar effect. I swallowed the pages by the hundreds. Reading Plato’s Republic was my first experience with a book that seemed to have no bottom. Every time I thought I had reached the foundations, I realized there was another sub-basement below.
Some of the great books of the Western canon require work and gradual assimilation. Milton wrote that “the sage and serious poet Spenser” was a “better teacher than Scotus and Aquinas.” I haven’t yet read every line of Spenser’s Fairie Queene, and I doubt that I ever will. But as I reread my favorite passages, I find myself more and more convinced that Spenser was one of the great moral thinkers of the Christian tradition. The same attention and rereading has been necessary for other late medieval and Renaissance poems. One cannot enter directly the strange dream world of Langland’s Piers Plowman, nor does one simply pick up and read Dante’s Paradiso. We must invest in order to secure dividends.
The Catholic tradition in the decades prior to Vatican II produced a number of minor classics worth visiting and revisiting. Joseph Pieper wrote Leisure as the Basis of Culture in order to remind postwar Europe that the contemplative act of worship is the true basis of civilization. The Intellectual Life by the Dominican A.G. Sertillanges is equal parts romantic evocation of the spiritual dignity of the life of scholarship and practical advice to the aspiring young intellectual. I never really understood the great debates of modern Catholic theology until I read Maurice Blondel’s History and Dogma.
Not all major or minor classics are golden. Circumstances make all the difference. Some books cannot give their gifts because, for whatever reason, we cannot receive them. I tried to read Henry James when I was younger, but I found him tedious. But I recently read The Golden Bowl and rejoiced in its misty, translucent prose. A couple of decades of adulthood, marriage, and career give me just the right amount of experience with the delicate and difficult passage down the path between moral demand and personal desire. For very different reasons, only in the last few years have I been capable of reading and cherishing St. Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God.
Circumstance is so decisive that my golden books have often been less than great. They have come to matter to me because they were the right books at the right time. They are precious to me because of their roles in my life.
Sembéne Ousmane was a Senegalese writer and filmmaker. His most well-known novel, God’s Bits of Wood, is a good book but not a great one. Nonetheless, at age eighteen or nineteen, the line that concludes this novel of the struggle for justice during a railway strike in colonial Senegal pressed upon me with nearly supernatural force: “Happy is the man who fights without hatred.” It’s a truth I could have easily received from the New Testament, but I hadn’t. It came to me there and then.
Only a year or two later, I found myself slowly coming to question the liberal pieties of my youth: commitment to the welfare state; a superior, progressive attitude toward traditional morality; the presumption that Marxism represents the most morally serious critique of the failures of modern bourgeoisie culture; a post-Vietnam tendency to regard all forms of American power as immoral, and so forth. As I began to express my doubts to professors and friends, I discovered a full inventory of rigorously enforced taboos. The more articulate I became, the more isolated I felt. At just that moment in my life, I happened to visit a friend in New York. While grazing in a used bookstore, for no particular reason I bought a copy of Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks, an account of his departure from the great moral and political consensus of the then predominant left. When I read it that weekend, I was suddenly galvanized.
A golden book need not even speak clearly. As a graduate student, I often distracted myself from the intimidating prospect of writing a dissertation by wandering the shelves of the Yale Divinity School library. One day my eyes fell on The Way, the Truth, and the Life by F.J.A. Hort. Conceived as a defense of the rational dignity of faith, the main contents of the book were originally given as the Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge University in 1871. Ever the perfectionist, Hort reworked and reworked the lectures for years before publishing them, and, to be honest, although the prose is exquisite and delicate, the resulting book produces no clear argument, which is probably the reason why it was never reissued and remains forgotten today. But that did not matter to me. As a young man of uncertain faith and uneven intellect, I was romanced by the sentiment: a scrupulous intellect in diligent service to an uncompromising faith.
The importance of circumstance should give us pause. We often want lists of important books to guide our intellectual and spiritual development. There is nothing wrong with this impulse. It is foolish to leave one’s reading to chance. But it is just as foolish to restrict oneself and measure out one’s reading by strict principles of reputation. Serendipity has a legitimate role. Allow the wind to blow where it wills.
But please be careful not to allow the sudden gift of unexpected books to deceive. I once made critical comments about Albert Camus at a colloquium. An elderly Dominican rose to defend Camus as a great Christian humanist, in spirit if not in name. I was flummoxed then, but I now see that the Dominican was confusing the important and undoubted good effect of reading Camus for the first time in 1955 with a general assessment of his lasting value for Catholic theology. Not all my golden books will suit you. Lightening rarely strikes again in the same place.
In recent years, I have found the books that matter a great deal to me are often at odds with my own beliefs. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of language, beauty, and incomparable style. I have no loyalty to the old Rome, nor do I admire duty-bound Aeneas. But even in translation Virgil’s Aeneid ravishes me. In a similar way, I worship Emerson, whose ideals repulse me, but whose prose I envy. I hold Milton in suspicion, but I am greedy for the epic lines of Paradise Lost. William Wordsworth is equally suspect. I remember reading The Prelude in order to mine it for good evidence against the smug self-congratulation of Romantic religion. The evidence was there, but so was an easy beauty of language, as well as the extraordinary literary presence of personality.
Error itself can bring insights. When I read Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker, I felt like a man compelled to lean over the railing of a high bridge. The fearful depths of Rousseau’s half-recognized self-deceptions chastened me just as a sudden swerve on the road causes a driver to slow down and steer more cautiously. The same holds for reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, a very different kind of book. It made me see the great danger of intellect without prayer, knowingness without piety, understanding without love. I count both books strangely golden.
Beware, then, reading solely for agreement. Few think their ideas to the end. Few write with the penetrating clarity necessary to see what is at stake in the beliefs we accept and reject. To see and know the full power and attraction of falsehood may be a necessary preparation for more fully accepting the truth. I do not deny that, in the end, beauty is one with truth and goodness. But in this life we are almost always a long way from the end.
Even the best books that convey the most reliable truths are not perfect. We cannot read our way to the Kingdom of Heaven. Golden books, whether great, semi-great, or unique to our strange intellectual and spiritual circumstances, are never pure. Only one book is without imperfection. But the Bible is not really a book at all. Golden books guide the mind and excite our desire for truth. The Bible does surgery on our soul. It shimmers with the living presence of the divine Word. We do not so much read as hear it. And in hearing, the sacred page does what no human book can do. It pierces our minds and hearts, cutting to the joints and marrow of our thoughts and intentions (Heb. 4:12).
Leisure as the Basis of Culture by Joseph Pieper
The Intellectual Life by A.G. Sertillanges
History and Dogma by Maurice Blondel
Journey of the Mind to God by St. Bonaventure
God’s Bits of Wood by Sembéne Ousmane
The Way, the Truth, and the Life by F.J.A. Hort
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things.