Catholic Beach Reading
By David Mills
Some people like reading books with words like “deontological,” “kerygmatic,” and “synecdoche” in them the same way other people like watching baseball. That’s their summer reading. You can see them sitting in their beach chair oblivious to the waves lapping at their feet, their white legs covered with sunscreen, a thick hardback book sitting in their laps, an old hat covering their heads (because baldspots sunburn easily).
For the rest of us, beach reading means something a little easier, usually something with a plot. Here are some suggestions for Catholic beach reading. To qualify, books have to be spiritually or theologically enriching and easily readable — not as easily as the average fat bestseller you see in the supermarket checkout line, with the disheveled woman on the cover, but easily enough that you could read it while the waves lap at your feet. You will not need dictionaries or over-liners, and you will not have to read sentences twice, unless you do it to enjoy the writing.
But the books ought to stretch you a little and be good for you to boot. (It wouldn’t hurt to have a dictionary within reach.) When you finish this kind of book, you should feel not only entertained but edified and encouraged. You should feel you’ve learned something, maybe history, maybe theology, maybe a new way of thinking about things, but maybe also how the world has looked to someone else and how they’ve lived their lives in the light of God and his grace. These are books for refreshment, not killing time.
Most of the books are classics of some sort. The classics are the books to start with, because they got to be classics for a reason. They’ve been elected by generations of people you can trust. The rest are newer books I or friends I trust would recommend as Catholic beach reading, including some almost no one knows about any more. And — let me stress this — it’s only a selection and leaves out lots of very good beach reading.
SPEAKING of those books with disheveled women on the covers, you will notice that they are usually very thick. Apparently thicker books sell better, because they give readers a lot of the details they want — especially details about how the main characters live and what they buy and consume. The books spend pages and pages talking about this watch and those shoes and this car and that expensive vacation spot.
People want to learn about worlds they don’t live in. So here are two really, really thick books that not only tell great stories but reveal in fascinating details whole new worlds. Only these books spend pages talking about this prayer and those temptations and this priest and that monastery. They tell you about worlds that are actually worth knowing about. The hottest shoe designer may not last the year, but the Faith is forever.
First, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. Set in medieval Norway, this is the story of a young woman who, as we say nowadays, makes bad choices and spends her life dealing with the results, not always well. It is also the story of how God works on souls in the circumstances of their lives and despite their resistance. The novel also shows what life was like in such a thoroughly Catholic culture, with details like the saintly monk who goes barefoot all the time (in Norway, in the winter).
Raised by atheist parents and a popular secular novelist before she started writing Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset became a Catholic in 1924, when such a thing was essentially unknown in heavily secular and Lutheran Norway. She was given the Nobel Prize in 1928, for this book and for another long and just as Catholic novel called The Master of Helviken.
One warning: you may not want to read this on the beach. I think of one scene when Kristin sees her father — a good man who loves her deeply though she has broken his heart — for what they think will be the last time. This and other scenes may leave you with tears soaking your t-shirt and people looking at you funny.
The second thick book is Henryk Sienkiewicz’s trilogy With Fire and Sword (the title of the first book, used as a title for the whole series in the paperback edition I have). Dealing with Polish history, the three books offer epic stories, memorable characters (on both sides of every conflict), brilliant battles scenes, and a complete devotion to the virtues of loyalty and courage. The last book describes Poland’s defense of Europe against the invading Turks in the late seventeenth century. They’re great boys stories, but everyone else should like them as well. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, the stories show you what unconscious faith looks like.
A noted Polish journalist of his time, Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize in 1905. He also wrote Quo Vadis, more familiar to most of us from the movies. In that book, set in Nero’s Rome, a Christian woman and pagan Roman fall in love, with the inevitable complications. St. Peter and St. Paul appear. It’s a good story, though not as exciting as the three he tells in With Fire and Sword.
Speaking of historical novels, Robert Hugh Benson’s Come Rack, Come Rope! is a much shorter book but also one that draws us into a new world, this one the world of the English Catholics after the Reformation. Catholics were imprisoned for being Catholics and priests had to go around the country in disguise, and were executed when they were caught. It’s a great, though harrowing, historical tale of people who loved the Church despite great persecution.
There’s one other very long and very Catholic book that reveals a whole new world to the reader. I bring it up because I have found, to my astonishment, that some Catholics who read books like a teenager devours hamburgers have never read it. A profoundly Catholic book, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings offers, among other things, a profound study of Providence, in the way that doing the right thing even when doing so seems foolish works out to the good.
It also says a lot about friendship, heroism, vocation, the nature of good and evil, and all sorts of other things that express Tolkien’s deeply Catholic vision of the world and the moral order. (Tolkien’s mother became a Catholic when he was young, and though a widow with two small children was pretty much disowned by her family for it.)
MYSTERIES and thrillers, of course, are the classic beach reading books. Good ones entertain you while keeping your brain working at the speed you want.
The gold standard for Catholic mystery stories are, of course, G. K. Chesterton’s 52 Father Brown stories. The English priest solves the crimes partly through his spiritual discernment and theological insight, and many of them include striking lessons, usually in the explanations Father Brown gives at the end. The stories appeared in five books, and you should read them in order, partly because the earlier stories are by and large better than the later ones. Interestingly, Chesterton began writing the series about fifteen years before he finally entered the Catholic Church.
Several of his lesser known books are also great fun, and have deep insights to offer. In The Flying Inn, England becomes dominated by a mixture of “progressive” morals and eastern religion, which to the reader now looks more familiar than you’d think. The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond begin with Mr. Pond saying something that makes no sense whatsoever, after which he tells the story that proves him right. In Manalive, the main character does all sorts of bizarre things, like shooting at a professor, and is chased all around the world by the police, only to come home and . . . no, I won’t give away the ending.
Not particularly Catholic but good classic mysteries and fun for the Chesterton fan are John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell stories, because he modeled Fell on Chesterton. Some of Chesterton’s understanding of the world comes through, as does his personality and way of speaking. The earlier stories (you can find the list on Wikipedia) are much better than the later ones.
A little different from these books is Laurence Cossé’s A Corner of the Veil. A mixture of thriller and comedy, and a bestseller in France, it tells the story of the discovery of a irrefutable proof for the existence of God which, as it turns out, a lot of people inside the Church as well as outside it don’t want.
The English Catholic novelist Piers Paul Read (son of a famous anarchist writer and art critic Herbert Read) offers a similar sort of story in On the Third Day. An archaeological discovery in Jerusalem threatens to disprove the Resurrection. It is a theological thriller (though you know how it’s going to turn out) reflecting on the nature of faith and doubt. His newer Death of a Pope is even more a thriller, though not quite so good a reflection.
Also to be commended as Catholic beach reading mysteries are the late Ralph McInerney’s Father Dowling mysteries (don’t be put off by the television series, which neutered the Catholicism). Well-plotted mysteries, these feature a shrewd priest and McInerney’s amused view of the world and of the Church. As is usual with long series, the early books tend to be fresher and more engaging than the later ones.
Finally, here is one author I haven’t read but a priest I trust recommends: Edward R. F. Sheehan, a major journalist who wrote for most of the country’s major newspapers and magazines — Andrew Greeley without the dissent and the sex scenes. His novels include Innocent Darkness, the story of a rich American who helps Latin American immigrants, and Cardinal Galsworthy, the story of an ambitious man who rises to the top the Church.
NOW KIND of famous for writing the book (On Stranger Tides) on which the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie was supposedly based, American Catholic novelist Tim Powers writes books blending fantasy, science fiction, and religious reflection in a way pretty much unique. He describes himself as “a conservative Catholic who’s also fascinated with stuff that’s grotesque and weird and funny and dramatic.” He is, I will warn you, one of those writers people either love or hate.
In his twelve novels, most of them bestsellers, he mixes real history with a supposedly secret and often supernatural history behind the history, with main characters who are often pursuing redemption or forgiveness. In Declare, for example, he tells the story of the Soviet spy Kim Philby and the supernatural history of the West’s battle with the Soviet Union. The time-travel story Three Days to Never deals with a powerful secret weapon invented by Albert Einstein, and argues (as did Einstein) that God does not play dice with the universe.
Like Powers, Dean Koontz is a Catholic writer whose books become bestsellers, and might even be found with the disheveled women books in the checkout line. He became a Catholic in college and says that “As a Catholic, I saw the world as being more mysterious, more organic and less mechanical than it had seemed to me previously, and I had a more direct connection with God.”
The Faith in the books is implicit, as it is in Powers’ books (and in Tolkien’s) but his books have gotten more Catholic in recent years, for those who have eyes to see. One Doorway from Heaven addresses the kind of bioethics in which the ends justifies the means, for example, and the recent Odd Thomas series reflects on the effects of humility in peoples’ lives.
Writing in the same history-bending way as Powers and Koontz is Michael D. O’Brien, who in his “Children of the Last Days” series writes about the end of the world, or rather the beginning of the end of the world. In his first and most famous novel, Father Elijah, the young priest is given the task of confronting the Antichrist and bringing him to repentance.
Another writer of this sort was Robert Hugh Benson. His Lord of the World offers another look at the Anti-Christ and the way the world might welcome him as a savior. It is a theological thriller and a political commentary — the world he helps creates begins offering euthanasia to old and sick as a “humane” action once the repressive Christianity is suppressed, a modern development he spotted way back in 1908. In some ways it is a more prophetic book than Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Though not a Catholic, the Anglican C. S. Lewis’s The Hideous Strength gives a satirical and frightening look into the way certain popular ideas about man and society can develop.
AND THEN there are the more directly religious books that are still such good stories you can zip through them with your feet dangling in the water. Of these there are, blessedly, many, but here I want to flag just one, partly because over the last several years literally more than a dozen friends have said either “You’ve got to read this” or “What? You haven’t read it?”
Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede is a story about cloistered nuns that even secular readers have praised, not only for the quality of the writing but for the writer’s insight into human life — nuns are people too, and redemption and sinfulness may mix and battle even more starkly in a convent than in the wider world. It is also at times very funny. The book was made into a movie starring Diana Rigg, of all people.
Godden, another convert, also wrote books on India, where she had lived, two moving authobiographies, and a lot of children’s stories. Her Five for Sorry, Ten for Joy is also set in a convent, and is almost as good though nearly as widely read.
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is another great Catholic story, this one of an aristocratic Catholic family whose lives go wrong, and the way God brings each of them back. None of them end well in a worldly sense, but the book ends with one of the most beautiful images of hope I know.
Other books of this sort might be too intense to qualify as beach reading, but I want to mention two anyway, because they give us some insight into our priest’s lives, and how difficult is their calling. The first is George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, the fictional journal of a new, idealistic, and faithful young priest in France in the thirties. The people of his village try him in all sorts of ways, and he feels himself a failure, but we come to see that he is really a saint.
Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, tells the story of an alcoholic priest starting again in a new parish and rediscovering his love for God and the priesthood, while dealing with the usual array of fallen humanity, some good, some bad, most middling.
Ron Hansen, a permanent deacon, became famous for his The Assassination of Jesse James, made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. That’s also a good book, but not exactly beach reading, and nor is Mariette in Ecstasy, the story of a cloistered nun who seems to have received the stimata, and Atticus, the story of the love of a father and son. For a lighter book, his offers a satire of American life in Isn’t It Romantic?, the story of, among other things, Parisians dropped into a small Midwestern town.
FOR THE same reason people like long stories about worlds they don’t know, many of us like fictionalized biographies. It’s a tricky form to get right, because the writer has to tell the subject’s story and get the subject right while filling in the details and dialogue enough to make a story people will read as a story, and to avoid writing propaganda.
Most readers want sensation and scandal, because we’re drawn to read about sin, but in fact the struggle for sanctity is really a lot more interesting. The stake are higher so the drama is more intense, and even the thinking alone is more interesting because it’s complex and insightful. An entertaining book about St. Catherine of Siena, say, is not something you’ll find a major publisher today putting out, but she led a truly fascinating life.
Louis de Wohl did this, in sixteen stories on saints from the early centuries of the Church to Pope Pius XII. Wohl’s books include The Living Wood about Constantine, St. Helena, and the true Cross; The Last Crusader, the story of Don Juan of Austria and the Battle of Lepanto, where the Christian fleets defeated invading Moslems; Citadel of God, St. Benedict’s story; and Lay Siege to Heaven about St. Catherine of Siena.
Before he started writing seriously as a Catholic, Wohl was, of all things, an astrologer — he worked for British intelligence during World War II because they thought he might predict the dates Hitler would think lucky. He had made his name before the war writing novels, but as he became serious about his faith, a cardinal told him when he began writing more Catholic works, “Let your writings be good. For your writings you will one day be judged.” It is a lesson every writer should remember.
Set at the same time as Benson’s Come Rack, Come Rope!, Evelyn Waugh’s Edmund Campion tells the moving story of a vastly talented young man who could have risen to the very top of his society, but chose to become a Catholic and a priest, and was eventually tortured to death for it. (Waugh was yet another convert.)
You may also enjoy another of Waugh’s biographies, this one of Constantine’s mother St. Helena. Helena tells the story of a woman who pursued her calling in the midst of court intrigues, eventually found Christ and the Church, and then went off to look for the true Cross. Waugh writes amusingly about the people she deals with and movingly about Helena.
SOME NON-CATHOLIC writers have written books of spiritual or theological insight Catholic readers will enjoy.
The Anglican C. S. Lewis, obviously, but there are others. Lewis’s friend Charles Williams, another Anglican, wrote supernatural thrillers like Descent into Hell and All Hallows Eve that some people love. The Anglican Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter mysteries The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night offer complex mysteries along with shrewd insight into human behavior, as well as entertaining views of an English country town and an Oxford college, respectively.
The Presbyterian Marilynne Robinson is another. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, an elderly minister writes a long letter to his very young son, reflecting on his life and life in general. I must admit I avoided reading it because the description did not sound inviting, but it is a moving and wise book. Her companion novel Home reveals the life of a dying man, his dutiful daughter, and his scoundrel son, and is also moving.
Finally, friends suggested a lot of good stories that are Catholic but aren’t exactly beach reading, or not what many readers will think of as beach reading. It was a long list, but among them are Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories and her novel Wise Blood; the novels from Graham Greene’s Catholic period, especially The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair; Francois Mauriac’s novels Woman of the Pharisees, The Desert of Love, and especially Viper’s Tangle (these, I’ll warn you, can be harrowing, but then he was French); Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy; and Gene Wolfe’s science fiction series The Book of the New Sun and Latro in the Mist.
Even in the restrictive category of “Catholic beach reading,” we are blessed to have many, many more good books than those I’ve listed here. If you want to sit at the beach, or at a cabin, or in your yard, and know that you’re not only being entertained and refreshed but instructed and formed, these are the books for you.
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Catholic Beach Reading” appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Lay Witness.