Great Books

Below is my ever-lengthening, favorite endeavor: a comprehensive reading recommendation list. It begins with the three books that have completely turned my world upside-down (or right side-up if you will), then is organized by the profound (philosophy/theology), the professional (career-focused), and the pleasing (fiction, especially mysteries)*

Happy reading!

*Best enjoyed when accompanied by a cup of Lady Grey tea, cozy love-seat, and serene morning.

The Favorite Three: Till We Have Faces, Leisure the Basis of Culture, and Orthodoxy

The Profound

Mere Christianity,  The Four Loves, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces (and anything else), by C.S. Lewis

Over the years, these titles kept sneaking up in conversation with people I very much admired. If that ever happens, I suggest you drop everything and find out what they’re bubbling over about for yourself.

At last making the time to read them three summers ago, I nearly kicked myself for waiting so long to discover the truth, beauty and goodness in the writings of Mr. Clive Staples Lewis. Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t experience some joy– the longing sort– from a passage or idea of his that drifts forward from my memory. No “mere mortal,” to be sure. In short, if you have any desire to snap out of a lukewarm life and confront reality as the adventure that it is, there is no better place to begin than with these books. They do the best thing in literature: remind us that living a truly good life is far more exhilarating than any alternative imaginable.

Man’s Search for Meaningby Viktor Frankl

This was the first book that I knew was changing me as I read it through for the first time. Few academics ever have the chance or courage to put their convictions to the test as psychologist/philosopher Frankl did in the concentration camps. The lessons he teaches in this work are good, but even better, they are real. Stripped of all his human power and dignity, he discovers that no one can ever take away his freedom to choose his response to the circumstances, and that choosing to bear sufferings with love is real power and dignity. The book is food for our hungry minds, though the part where he speaks to our hearts remains my favorite: “For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

The God Who Loves You: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, by Peter Kreeft

Who knew that paying $2 for an Acton lecture entitled “Good, True, and Beautiful: C.S. Lewis” would begin a lifetime of admiration? Actually, it was easily the best $2 I’ve ever spent (for all you economists out there, my willingness to pay for such a discussion is an embarrassingly high amount), and it is entirely no surprise given that my favorite author, C.S. Lewis, has been the shared secret affection between many of my other great friendships. Where Lewis reached angelic heights by marrying Christ to English literature, so too, Peter Kreeft uses his gift for philosophy and theology to set the stage for our encounter with God, the Lover of souls.  Be careful, and realize the weight of truth, for if you read these chapters with your heart as well as your head, you will never be the same. I speak from experience.

Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton

It doesn’t matter who you are– when Pope Francis speaks up these days, the world listens. On his trip to the United States, the Servant of the Servants of God praised four key Americans while speaking before our lawmakers: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. I knew that the last two are more controversial, so it only took a few friends’ recommendations this time and a few months of putting it off to actually read Thomas Merton’s autobiography. Once again, I found myself asking why I had waited this long. There was the usual gleaned lesson of a solid autobiography–clarity from all the pieces falling together–but there were also something mysterious beyond that. Within the unexpectedly beautiful writing was a distinct, universal longing that I venture will resonate with every reader. “I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see what I would do when I got [there]. But you saw further and clearer than I, and you opened the seas before my ship, whose track led me across the waters to a place I had never dreamed of, and which you were even then preparing to be my rescue and my shelter and my home.”

The Lonely Man of Faith, by Joseph B. Soloveitchik

This recommendation from Dr. Otteson arose after the happy discovery of a shared love for Lewis, and upon its reading, I could not help but pass along the wisdom. Soloveitchik, or “The Rav,” utilizes the paradox of the two Adams within each of us– the majestic, creative Adam whose intellect drives him to subdue and cultivate nature, and the covenantal, faithful Adam who yearns to be consumed by Divine Love– to explain our current pangs of loneliness. The first portion of the book, containing a beautiful explanation of the covenantal faith community, may be summed up, I think, in Augustine’s immortal cry: “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” The second part addresses how we might fill ourselves up with the lukewarm religion of the modern Adam, in which “He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action but the convenience one discovers in a comfortable, serene state of mind.” The problem being that religion is actually a love affair, rather than a contract that the worldly Adam can enter into and retain a certain control over. I was initially drawn in by the sympathetic title, but my favorite takeaway became this: “That there is only one world–not divisible into secular and hallowed sectors–which can either plunge into ugliness and hatefulness, or be roused to meaningful, redeeming activity, gathering up all latent powers into a state of holiness. Accordingly, the task of covenantal man is to be engaged not in dialectical surging forward and retreating, but in uniting the two communities into one community where man is both the creative, free agent, and the obedient servant of God.”

Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton

I had the good fortune to enjoy this work as an audiobook podcast series on my recent road trip through the (invigorating) Iowan countryside. The best way I can describe it is LIVELY. Lewis was entirely correct when he likened the wit of Chesterton to the glittering from the fighting sword of truth. “There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

Centesimus Annus by Pope John Paul II the Great

Though there are many lessons to be gleaned from this incredible work, my most familiar encounter has been in relation to economics (JPII’s genius touched everything– even the “dismal science”):  “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than ‘being.’

Theology of the Body by St. John Paul II the Great

Compiled from a string of Wednesday audiences, these jewels reveal the way that God reveals man to himself– primarily through the physical body. They will forever change your life in the most practical ways, from reacting to what you see in the mirror every morning to how motivated you are at work. There is something greater at play, though. In this time of great confusion, this great Pope has reminded us that physical reality does indeed manifest objective truth, a Creator and creatures, man and woman, earth and heaven. “The human body includes right from the beginning…the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift – and by means of this gift – fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.”

Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis

Have you heard that Pope Francis is a socialist? Through reading this entire text (and his other exhortations) I’ve been introduced to the damage done when people take snippets without context. Our Papa Fransisco is no socialist, though admittedly no economist, and he has led the Church faithfully through his writings and especially his example. People from both sides tend to throw fits when important figures do not explicitly endorse their biases, but this is exactly the greatest gift that Pope Francis gives to the world– he does not care what it thinks, for he is serving another Lord. “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth” (208).

Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy, by Simone Troisi & Cristiana Paccini 

I was drawn into this story by the image on the cover– the broad smile of Chiara. In the nights that followed, the sweet story of this saintly Italian couple, as told by their best couple-friends, refreshed and inspired me. Chiara Petrillo was very much like the rest of us, until she chose to put her trust in the One who breathes “be not afraid.”

Tattoos on the Heartby Fr. Gregory Boyle

It is one thing to see into an author’s heart from his written word, it is another thing entirely to peer into his soul face-to-face. Creighton students had such an opportunity a few weeks ago, when Fr. Boyle made a visit to campus and gave a talk. “Talk” is a loose term, for this was a stream of stories with each one leaving the listener more breathless than the last. This is the kind of book that will “return you to yourself” as Fr. Boyle described the fruit of unexpected mercy. Be prepared to cry, but also be prepared to sing.

Confessions, by Augustine

Doing the Truth in Love, by Michael J. Himes

A Shorter Summa, by Peter Kreeft

Pensees, by Blaise Pascal

The Consolation of Philosophyby Anicius Boethius

The Professional


The Conservative Heart, by Arthur C. Brooks

Leisure the Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper

Politics and Poetics, by Aristotle

On Liberty, J.S. Mill

The Road to Character, by David Brooks

Defending the Free Marketby Rev. Robert Sirico

Democracy in Americaby Alexis de Tocqueville

How to Win Friends and Influence People,  by Dale Carnegie

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi

Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, by Hernando de Soto

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, by William Easterly

Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Taleb

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

Vocation of a Business Leader by Michael Naughton and others

Economics in a Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices, by Victor Claar and Robin Klay

Rethinking Poverty: Income, Assets, and the Catholic Social Justice Tradition by James Bailey

Guns, Germs, and Steelby Jared M. Diamond


The Pleasing

Destination Unknown, or any mystery book by Agatha Christie

The Art of Travelby Alain de Botton

The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyevsky

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Solzhenitsyn

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The Narnia Series by C.S. Lewis

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Salzburg Connectionby Helen Macinnes

Crime and Punishmentby Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carre

Revolutionary Characters, by Gordon S. Wood


3 thoughts on “Great Books

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