The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy is a book everyone—even non-Catholics—should read. Tolstoy had a way of cutting right to the heart of human matters. The name “Ivan Ilyich” may not seem like an everyday name for those of us on the Anglo-Saxon side of languages, but in Russia, it was pretty much the same as “John Smith”. The novel is a novel about “everyman”… all of us have these questions to answer about the small choices we are going to make in regard to the morality and ethics, expressed in how we treat the other people in our lives. We must choose to be kind instead of cruel, even to those who are cruel and unkind towards us. I recommend this book to anyone who finds herself calloused over… it will help turn your heart from stone back into flesh again.
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams… what’s that doing on this list, you say? It’s quite a profound story, an example of the best children’s literature found in a relatively short tale. I cannot find a better allegory for the transformative power of Christ’s love, in short form. Without giving spoilers for those unfamiliar, suffice it to say that it shows how love is not always the glorious and perfect ride we may have been sold in many modern romantic comedies. In fact, it seldom is. Much more often, it wears us out. However, it’s always worth it.
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is a great peek at how evil works in ways we might not expect, even hijacking our virtues by encouraging our arrogance about having them. Lewis famously said, ““Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” Writing the letters was “dry and gritty going. At the time, I was thinking of objections to the Christian life and decided to put them in the form ‘That’s what the devil would say.’ But making goods ‘bad’ and bads ‘good’ gets to be fatiguing.” Not understanding that the letters were satirical, one clergyman quit his subscription to The Guardian, the publication in which they originally appeared as serials. Don’t let that scare you away… many have benefited from this unorthodox perspective on evil and the ways it messes with us the most.
Speaking of what is and what is not orthodox… Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton is a fantastic rebuttal of the errors of the modern world. Modernism, scientism, materialism, nihilism, atheism and agnosticism have bombarded us from the earliest ages of our youth, in subtle yet powerful ways. We are taught to question everything, but sadly, we are seldom taught about true beauty through classical art, theatre, and music. Our minds are over active with data, yet our hearts and souls are asleep and starving for that which transcends. Though circuitous at times, the acquired taste of Chestertonian thinking lingers on the mind long after it is read. Also, the man was not without his passions, or a sense of humor: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”
Lastly, the autobiographical classic The Story of A Soul, by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, is a must. It offers a look at our existence and the spiritual realm through the eyes of a saint of our modern times, and a way to grow in holiness for all of us… not just those endowed with numerous talents and great discipline. I remember being startled—and even scared—a bit by the Little Flower’s abandon into the arms of Heaven, at many moments throughout her short life, and especially in her death. Reading her work is not some long and boring exercise in discipline… it is a joy, and one that can be put down and pondered from time to time. I highly recommend it.
And there it is… the five books I believe worthy of every Catholic’s attention. Do you have a list? What are your top five?