Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
A couple of months ago I explained why fellow mothers in my situation in life (lots of little kids, lots of mundane tasks) should make an effort to exercise their brains through reading books on a regular basis. And while I was targeting moms in that post, all Christians need to take seriously the call to form our minds and seek truth. Yet, most of us do not realize the immense value we can draw from reading good literature in the form of novels and short stories.
I have always been a lover of novel reading, but as my reading has been largely self-directed I have always had trouble choosing good books to read. I came across a list of novels compiled by John Senior, a great professor of the humanities, which he called “the Good Books List” in the appendix of his book The Death of Christian Culture, and it is from this list that I have drawn most of my reading choices of late. Through reading these good books I have been slowly discovering how a novel forms one’s moral sense by allowing a reader to enter into various scenarios and seeing how characters are affected by those choices. This is helpful because we can learn so much about sin and the human condition through our imaginations to help us form our consciences without muddying our souls.
In a recent Fountains of Carrots podcast the hosts Haley Stewart and Christy Isinger with their guest Jessica Hooten Wilson, a professor of literature, discussed the importance of reading scandalous/challenging novels in the Christian life. Wilson discussed in the podcast her article on how authors that show us the nitty-gritty of human nature help us to face our own weaknesses and seek redemption. She focused on authors such as Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Flannery O’Connor--all authors worth reading. But I have found that great and challenging novels are not limited to the brilliance of these authors. I have compiled a short list of novels, many of them from the Good Books List, that I personally recommend and that have stood the test of time, and help one understand more deeply good, evil, truth, beauty and the human condition. I am listing them in a rough order of what I consider to be the easiest read to the most challenging.
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
My family listened to this book on a recent car trip, and while it is very child oriented, it is a beautiful work about the innocence of children affecting hardened adults. It has particularly beautiful passages about God’s love, emphasizes the beauty of nature in the Swiss Alps, and demonstrates human love and devotion.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson had the brilliant ability to combine adventure, noble characters, and the worst of characters using the setting of pirates seeking treasure under the command of well-bred gentlemen. He contrasts good and evil showing how a well-formed conscience guides one in difficult situations. This is also a family friendly story though there is a bit of violence.
The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper (The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, The Prairie)
Natty Bumppo is the noble, rustic hero of these five tales by James Fenimore Cooper most of which take place in the late 18th century in the unsettled regions of what is now Upstate New York. The books tell of his exciting adventures on the edge of civilization and the untamed wilderness and his experience of living between the two worlds. He is a model of virtue who stands in contrast to the evils of European and Native American societies.
In This House of Brede by Rumor Godden
This book is one I probably could read again and again. It tells of the inner workings of a Monastery of Benedictine Sisters in a way that gives you a feel for the rhythm of the monastic life. The sisters are very human, but also lead one to see how a life serving God is the most fulfilling life.
Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
Cather, while never converting, had a deep interest in Catholicism. These two novels are her most Catholic works. One follows the life of the (real) first Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico and his dangerous missionary work in the far West. The other is an account of a fictional settler in Quebec City, Quebec and the hardships endured there in the long winters between contact with France. Both show the great resiliency of humanity and the importance of faith and sacramentality.
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
All of Percy’s novels are worth reading, but this is the first of his that I read. My husband recommended it to me when we were in college. The antics of Dr. Thomas More show how he strives to overcome the modern condition of the divide between body and soul. Yet, as composites of body and soul, it is unnatural to separate one from the other. Percy has great insight into our modern experience in which the material world seems to have no meaning beyond its utilitarian purpose but we all still experience the longing for something immaterial beyond ourselves.
Silas Marner by George Eliot
I found this short novel to be absolutely beautiful. Eliot’s novel Middlemarch is considered by many to be one of the greatest British novels, but I think that I liked the simplicity of Silas Marner even more. Eliot has a way of telling a story which embodies her characters, and the main character Silas Marner in his honest, simple-minded ways is shown perfectly. Without giving away the plot, this book shows what it means to love another person through willing their good.
The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc
This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, containing what will become inside jokes to all who read it, shows the value of good companionship and the joy of traveling through old familiar places. When my husband and I read it we spent a lot of time laughing over the silly incidents.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
If I had to pick a favorite Austen novel and heroine, this would probably be the one I would point to. Anne Elliot in Persuasion is the most mature of Austen’s heroines, and the one who had to exhibit the virtue of constancy the longest in her young life. She lives a life of selfless service of others, is love by all for her virtue, but holds out for the man that she loves even when all hope seems lost.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
I have read many Dickens novels, but even after several years I still think about Bleak House with all of the typical Dickensesque farfetched connections between every character, but also the deep insight into humanity in all of our weaknesses and failings as well as our capability for good even in our weakness.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
If you are like me, you have had this book recommended to you again and again, and if you have not read it, you really should read it next. This book has a deep reflection into so-called Catholic guilt, or perhaps one should see it as the indelible mark of Baptism. No matter how much the Catholic characters tried to get away from their Catholic upbringing, they cannot. It also shows the universality of the Catholic Church in that no matter what one’s temperament or past, there is a place for each and every person in the Church who is willing to live according to the truth.
Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope (The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framely Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, The Last Chronicle of Barset)
I wish that someone had told be about Trollope earlier in my life, but perhaps I would not have appreciated him then as I do now. These Chronicles centered around the doings of the people in the fictional town of Barchester are just delightful. The Anglican clergymen and the battles between those of the high and low church are central, but there are also non-clergy characters which will win your love. The characters in these novels find themselves in very human situations. Those who have formed themselves toward virtue are able to live a life of virtue, improving themselves, and those who are vicious, fall deeper and deeper into their vice. Trollope shows well the importance of self-reflection and the need to humbly seek change from bad habits and is realistic about what happens to those who don’t.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy is another author with great insight into the human condition. He presents men and women in all their weaknesses and failings, but also shows the nobility that they are capable of when they submit to their vocations in life. While the poor choices of Anna Karenina are important to learn from in this novel, the other main characters such as Kitty and Levin could have a very important impact on the reader.
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Having read several other Dostoyevsky novels such as The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, I personally found The Idiot to be the most accessible. Dostoyevsky had a brilliant ability to show the fallen man as well as the one striving for redemption. He showed the difficulty of living the good, and the corruption throughout society from its heights to its depths. He takes a lot of time to read well and carefully, but the insights into yourself and humanity are well worth the effort.