Looking for a Good Read? Consider ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Recommends Joseph Pearce

In ‘Twelve Great Books,’ Pearce writes, “The lesson that A Christmas Carol teaches is that our lives are not owned by us but are owed to another to whom the debt must be paid in the currency of self-sacrifice.”

(L-R) Charles Dickens’s 'A Christmas Carol' was first published in December 1843, with coloured engravings by John Leech. A second edition featured John Leech with steel engravings by John Barnard (1846-1896) entitled 'A Christmas Carol in Prose.'
(L-R) Charles Dickens’s 'A Christmas Carol' was first published in December 1843, with coloured engravings by John Leech. A second edition featured John Leech with steel engravings by John Barnard (1846-1896) entitled 'A Christmas Carol in Prose.' (photo: George Routledge & Co. / Public Domain )

Twelve Great Books 

Going Deeper Into Classic Literature

By Joseph Pearce

Ignatius Press, 2022

226 pages, $17.95

To order: TWELVE GREAT BOOKS - Going Deeper into Classic Literature | EWTN Religious Catalogue


I am not sure if anyone else has this habit, but whenever I am invited to someone’s home, I examine the books on their shelves. I’ve always believed that a set of books provides a window into the hearts and minds of their owner. Thus, when I received a copy of Twelve Great Books, I immediately opened to the Table of Contents to see what was on Joseph Pearce’s shelf — so to speak.

I am pleased that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has an entry in the book. Though the story is almost universally famous, it is largely known through plays and screen adaptations rather than through the original book itself. I have seen A Christmas Carol professionally performed in Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio, and Orlando, Florida. I have also seen at least half a dozen screen adaptations. Notwithstanding the excellence of these productions, as the saying goes, “the book was better.” 

Pearce notes that while much of academia considers other Dickens’ works as superior, he considers A Christmas Carol to be Dickens’ greatest work. He writes, “The lesson that A Christmas Carol teaches is that our lives are not owned by us but are owed to another to whom the debt must be paid in the currency of self-sacrifice.” I wish this chapter had been a bit longer and walked the reader through some Dickensian styles and techniques that might be missed. 

Here is the full list: St. Augustine’s Confessions, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, A Christmas Carol, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Power and the Glory and Brideshead Revisited

It’s an intimidating errand to narrow down “Great Books” to 12; in fact, it invites interrogatives. 

Why these 12 and not others? My son might ask, “How did Don Quixote fail to make the list?” My wife might ask, “Where is Pride and Prejudice?” Why Romeo and Juliet instead of Henry V? For that matter, are Shakespeare’s plays — properly speaking — considered books in the first place? How did Dante’s Divine Comedy fail to make this list? What sort of Great Books list does not include anything by C.S. Lewis? For that matter, why just 12? Why not 100 or 500?

The short answer to all these questions is that the book is a collection of Pearce’s revised previously published material — simply organized into one volume here. Though he affirms that these 12 are indeed great books, Pearce himself does not consider these to be the 12 best books. In his introduction, Pearce clarifies that “Dante’s Divine Comedy is an objectively ‘great’ book, perhaps objectively the greatest book.” 

I make the clarification in fairness to Pearce, because it might otherwise be natural to conclude, simply based on the book’s title, that this is his list of the 12 best books. I also make that clarification in fairness to potential readers. Unless this book is read as an anthology, it seems awkwardly organized. For instance, the book contains 11 works of fiction, but only one work of nonfiction. Further, 1,200 years separate the first entry (Confessions) from the second (Romeo and Juliet). That void may be confusing in the mind of the reader; after all, this period of 12 centuries misses the entire epoch of history that historian Warren Carroll deems The Glory of Christendom. It also gives rise to a further question: If nonfiction books of any Christian age are fair game, where is St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle or The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena?

Perhaps what Pearce is presenting here is an argument to read some important and influential books that you may have missed along your academic and post-academic journey. In his book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom writes, “Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read.” Essentially, since there is not enough time to read them all, Pearce is making the case for these 12 — and providing a Catholic perspective to each.

As noted above, Shakespeare’s plays occupy a third of the book’s entries, and Pearce has valuable literary criticism of the individual plays. What I also found interesting in this section was the emphasis on how Shakespeare’s own perspective shaped his writing. For instance, when discussing Romeo and Juliet, Pearce reminds us, “As the father of a twelve-year-old daughter, Shakespeare’s own perspective is that of a parent.” Pearce also observes that Shakespeare’s Catholic faith had a profound effect on his writing, especially considering that the Catholic faith was under terrible attack during his lifetime. Pearce notes that both William Shakespeare’s father and daughter were fined for practicing their faith in England. Thus, while Shakespeare could make universal observations about such attacks on religion, he disguised his messages in his plays. Pearce writes: “All of Shakespeare’s plays were written under this law of censorship, which is why they are set in the past or in foreign countries, separated from the hot topics of Elizabethan and Jacobean England by the dramatic distance or time or space.”

Beyond Shakespeare, Pearce comments that “all literature … should be read through the eyes of the author.” Sadly, that is not always a pleasant exercise. Pearce notes that Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, lost her mother when Mary was only 11 days old. She was raised by an atheistic father who was “an advocate of the dissolution of the institution of marriage.” As a young teenager, Mary ran away with Percy Bysshe Shelley, who abandoned his own family for Mary. Mary delivered their baby, but the baby died just a few days later. During that same time, two of Mary’s close relatives committed suicide. Pearce writes, “The eleven months during which she was working on the novel were almost as macabre in real life as was the unfolding of the plot in the teenager’s fevered imagination.” Indeed, some people make it very easy to write about monsters.

Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, also had a tumultuous start. Pearce notes that “by the age of six, Emily had suffered the loss of her mother and two of her sisters.” Despite that, Bronte’s own life — from the limited amount we know—seemed to be much more peaceful in contrast to Shelley.

One of his Pearce’s best entries in the book was for Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. I read this book as a junior at Christendom College and kept thinking that this would have been an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone. A portrait of the handsome title character is painted, and Dorian immediately develops a love-hate relationship with the painting. On the one hand, it illustrates just how beautiful Dorian is; on the other, Dorian is forced to recognize that while the painting will never grow old, Dorian will. Thus, he envies the painting. But Dorian makes an impromptu pact — perhaps with the devil: What if the picture grew old, but Dorian remained youthful and handsome? The wish is granted. But that provides for some very curious changes in the painting —changes that reflect uncomfortable realities about who Dorian is and what he is doing to his conscience. 

Pearce provides some thought-provoking biographical detail about Oscar Wilde, for the real Oscar Wilde was not entirely unlike the fictional Dorian Gray. That biographical glimpse, as well as the other biographies in the book, is a particular strength of Pearce’s work, as the authors are discussed in detail along with their works.  

The most obvious audiences for Pearce’s book are those who already admire his previous writings and books and those English literature majors looking for a reference book. It’s certainly something that I would have used in college. But it’s also a book for those who are looking to go back and read the classics they missed, or those seeking a deeper understanding of works they have previously read. 

And thanks to Joseph Pearce for giving us a look at his bookshelf.