I am leaving early in the morning for a trip out of the country with my students. But, while I am away (buying books in my favorite haunts in the UK), my good friend Ben House will be reading. I know that because of this:
Summer plans are really shaping up. Looks like I’m in for lots of travel, meeting neat and famous people, seeing things I’ve never seen before, experiencing adventures, growing closer to God, navigating great waters, climbing high mountains, and even facing the hardships of warfare. Not much danger involved, for all of this is confined to my summer reading plans.
That ancient call to the reading chair can be heard from intriguing new books, classics, books calling for a reread, and titles quietly nudging me. Reading is the one thing that makes southern summers bearable, surpassing even air conditioning and sweet tea.
The greatest times to read in the summer are morning, afternoon, and night. Other reading times can be squeezed in at will. Great summer mornings always begin with coffee, a Bible, and a stack of books. Leave out any ingredient and the day is potentially ruined. Morning is the time to work through theology. After a bit of theology to jump-start the soul, I like to read from a weighty historical work.
Currently, I am very interested in atheism. Atheism offers some “great” answers to life’s questions. For example, consider the Holocaust and question why God allowed it. Then eliminate belief in God as so many atheists have done. Now you have the Holocaust, but no final judgment, no ultimate justice, no possible sufficient reason for it, reducing the Holocaust to a random meaningless event, along with everything else. That would certain make me quite comfortable, if I were an atheist. Let the reader understand, atheism is quite unbelievable.
I have already started reading The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World by the brilliant historian Alister McGrath. The book chronicles the great heyday of atheism that began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Revolutions were waged in the name of atheism; political ideologies were implemented on the foundation of atheism. From French Revolutionaries to Bolsheviks to Nihilists, atheists preached and practiced their faith.
A friend, Charles Johnson, highly recommended The Drama of Atheist Humanism by Henri De Lubac. This work analyzes the thought of many of the great apostles of unbelief: Nietzsche, Comte, Marx, and Feuerbach. But the dark powers of this book are overthrown by the arrival of a hero. De Lubac says, “Marx was not yet dead, and Nietzsche had not yet written his most searing books, when another man, another disturbing but more truly prophetic genius, announced the victory of God in the human soul, and his eternal resurrection.” De Lubac’s hero is also one of mine—the novelist Dostoevsky.
De Lubac’s book is an Ignatius Press publication as is another interesting summer possibility—Architects of the Culture of Death by Donald DeMarco and Benjamin Wiker. This book focuses on those great humanist thinkers who brought such noble concepts into the world as abortion, genocide, and euthanasia.
Atheists must forever mourn the apostasy of two of their finest minds: G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. I still have much to read by Chesterton and several reads and rereads by Lewis. If I were stranded on an island with only a thousand books, Chesterton’s and Lewis’ works would have to be there for me to survive. Add to that some of the excellent books about Chesterton and Lewis. One useful book, recommended by George Grant, is Lepanto, edited by Dale Ahlquist, which includes Chesterton’s poem with historical and literary commentaries about the battle and the poem.
An exciting new book that includes much about Chesterton and his spiritual contemporaries is Joseph Pearce’s Literary Giants, Literary Catholics. Pearce is doing some outstanding literary biographical studies. He has written entire biographies on Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, Tolkien, and Solzhenitsyn. His book Literary Converts is an outstanding study of British writers who came to religious faith during the 20th century. Pearce is fiercely Catholic and justly proud of the big literary guns in his church. This latest book parades the big names from Dante to Tolkien. It is an excellent testimony to the power of literary art as an apologetic of the Christian faith.
Alas, 20th century American produced some literary giants who were gifted by God, yet sadly far from Christian in their writings. My Humanities class recently explored some of the powerful writers who emerged in the decade following World War I. We read books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Reading these three brilliant men has rekindled an old interest in their works. Jay Parini’s biography of Faulkner titled One Matchless Time is a useful introduction and interpretation of the great Mississippi author. Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship by Scott Donaldson looks to be an interesting study of those two. The loss of belief and the despair of these three American writers is a point of both curiosity and sadness on my part. Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms and Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby both demonstrated stylistic genius early in their careers.
Faulkner’s style and genius is another story. As Parini points out, one cannot simply read Faulkner; he must reread him. The reader often wonders just what Faulkner was drinking to produce his rambling, perplexing, yet seductive narratives. Our class read The Unvanquished, which is usually considered the best book to begin reading among Faulkner’s works, both for its chronological entryway into his mythical Yoknapatawpha County and for its easy style. Critics usually regard it as a lesser work of Faulkner’s, but I think it was among his best. Among these three writers listed here, I believe that Faulkner will be the most enduring and ultimately brilliant of them all. I have little hope for his nominal faith, but his Southern cultural heritage and his Christian hangover (unlike the other kind) give much of his work universal timeliness.
Far more encouraging than 20th century Americans were the 19th century Russian novelists. Summer time calls for a fat Russian novel. Literary journeys to Russia during past summers have included readings of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov and The Idiot and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. So it is high time to tackle the really big one—Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It usually takes some workouts just to be able to lift the heavy Russian volumes. The first one hundred pages or so are like traveling through the seemingly cold and endless steppes of Russia (the harsh winters are reason enough to wait until summer to read Russian works). At some point, the landscape engulfs me. When I get to such a point in War and Peace, I’ll try to send you a card (“Having a great time. Wish you were here.”)
I have anywhere from three to a hundred different pulls on my attention when it comes to upcoming readings in history. I am a gadfly, not a true scholar. A book on one era leads to a book on a totally different era. The biography of a church father is followed by a battle account of World War II. If I could have ever disciplined my mind and studied one single topic, like tariff policies in the Colonial Virginia, I could have been the premier scholar on the topic. In a way, I am like the Athenians of Acts 17. I can easily spend my time in nothing else but going to the history section of the bookstore looking for something new.
A book that is bigger than my summer plans and yet one that must be dipped into is The Annals of the World by Bishop James Usher. This massive literary classic is in print for the first time in 300 years and has been translated from Latin to English for the first time ever. The volume is beautiful and daunting. Bishop Usher is one of the great Christian historians of all time and this work promises to be fruitful.
A modern Christian historian, Dr. Carl Richard, has written Twelve Greeks and Romans Who Changed the World as a modern counterpart to Plutarch’s classic. Along with the key figures in ancient Greece and Rome, Dr. Richard includes studies of Christians, like Paul and Augustine. In another book by Dr. Richard, The Battle for the American Mind, he surveys the worldviews that have predominantly impacted American history—Theism, Humanism, and Skepticism. Some years ago, I stumbled across his book The Founders and the Classics. That book definitively proved the value of classical education of the sort our Founding Fathers received. Dr. Richard is an e-friend of mine (we have not met, but have corresponded via e-mails) and he is a friend of classical and Christian education.
Upon the recommendation of Andrew Sandlin, I bought a copy of Communism: A History by Richard Pipes, a survey of about 170 pages. I have several volumes by Dr. Pipes and have admired his work ever since I read Russia Under the Old Regime back in the early 80s. I also picked up a copy of Pipes’ autobiography—Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger. Pipes was a Harvard professor and an advisor to President Reagan. In part, I want to read his book because historians and teachers are such incredibly interesting people.
I have already started reading Armageddon by Max Hastings. No, it does not identify the anti-Christ or link missile systems to the WMDs of terrorist nations. The book is subtitled The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945. Here America’s greatest generation joined Britain in its finest hour to form a coalition with Stalin’s Evil Empire. The good news is that they rid the world of Nazism, but the bad news was that it put Eastern Europe under Communism for a time. Concentration camps became Gulags and swastikas were exchanged for the hammer and sickle. Yet none of this diminishes the epic warfare waged by the Allied soldiers.
I have a review copy of A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen. Having taught through Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, I am looking forward to seeing yet another conservative and freedom oriented American history. When I was in college in the 1970s, conservative books were about as common as llamas in Arkansas. Now we have a wide range of books written from free market, patriotic, conservative, and Christian perspectives. Reviewing this book is one of my more enjoyable assignments for the summer.
Just this week I picked up a copy of David McCullough’s latest book 1776. His last book, John Adams, was a best seller, in part because it portrayed a Founding Father with character. This new book begins with a quote from General George Washington: “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.”
Before I can read 1776, I must finish a book about 1976, titled Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign that Started It All by Craig Shirley. Today, liberals as well as conservatives, Democrats as well as Republicans, are quick to praise the memory of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan could never have used his rhetorical skills and leadership to change the world had he not first changed the Republican Party. Had it not been for Reagan’s failed bid for the nomination in 1976, the Blue State philosophy of the last election would stretch from shore to shore.
Let the readings begin.