Literature: August 2002 Archives

Favorite Books List


Favorite Books List

I promise, I'm not trying to blog poor Kairos to death, but his very interesting post inspired my own thinking about a list of favorite books. (That's by way of saying you can blame him for this:-)) As I thought about it, I also thought that perhaps I should rank them, because otherwise the list is likely to look like that of a pretentious windbag (as though you hadn't already figure THAT out for yourself). So as I embark on my list, let me place at the very top of the list my three all-time favorite books/pieces of literature:

J. R. R. Tolkien-Lord of the Rings
Mark Twain--Tom Sawyer
Ray Bradbury--Dandelion Wine.

There, now that no one can accuse me of pretentious, the following is a list in no particular order of my favorite fiction. Nonfiction and spiritual books will have to wait for a more considered presentation.

Flannery O'Connor--Everything. An amazing, intense, fascinating, quirky artist.

Love in the Ruins --idiosyncratic, strange, nearly surreal.

The Haunting of Hill House forget the modern movie version--the 1963 Claire Bloom is closer to the book--still read the book memorable for its wonderful send-off "Whatever walks there, walks alone." Chilling and strangely sad.

The Turn of the Screw I really didn't much care for this until I grew old enough to know what it was really talking about. Now I find it one of the most eerily frightening books around.

Ulysses--Yes, the book that more people have started than ever thought of finishing, fascinating, aggravating, modernist, and ultimately a very satisfying puzzle, if one can overlook the sacrilege and very scatological humor.

Winesburg, Ohio--I love this book without reason and without apology--kind of the way I feel about Tom Sawyer--can't explain it, and will probably never read it in a way that would allow me to do so.

To the Lighthouse--I don't care if some regard her as an elitist virago, I find this book lovely beyond description with its gentle evocation of the persistence in memory of one long gone.

In Search of Lost Time--Read Alain de Boton's remarkable How Proust Can Change Your Life for a sense of why this is such a marvelous if flawed work. Talk about dubious morality!

War and Peace Skim those tedious essays on the nature of history and really savor this magnificent and interesting story.

Dune--That's right, I said "Dune." And while I'm admitting these deep dark things I may as well confess to H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, Peter Straub's Ghost Story and Stephen King's Salem's Lot (With that little revelation, my stock probably tumbled more than the entire Dow Jones over the last 18 months--oh well.)

Tom Jones--Yes following on my obsession with 17th century poetry is my obsession with 18th century novels, include here Tobias Smollet's Humphrey Clinker and Peregrine Pickle, Richardson's Clarissa, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, and Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland. (That's not to count all the wonderful age of Gothics Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolfo [and nearly anything else by Anne Radcliffe] and others)

Bleak House Who can help but admire the story of the endless lawsuit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce and the people wrapped up in it.

All of Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Dorothy Sayers, Most of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and others of their ilk. (I know, the barometer keeps falling--that's okay, you'll have a more realistic estimate of what is written here).

All of M.R. James and most of Henry James. All of Nathaniel Hawthorne and nearly nothing by Melville (Here I agree largely with Kairos--side note to Kairos--You might enjoy In the Heart of the Sea which is a nice retelling of the story of the voyage that inspired Moby Dick.

Are you sufficiently bored yet? Perhaps more telling are those writers I simply can't stand--for example, Hemingway. I know, I know, you can tell me all you want about the remarkable transformation of style as a result of his spare, lean writing, it still strikes me as so much macho heavy-handed folderol.

Okay, enough, I have presumed upon your patience too much. There are many, many, many more. But I'll talk about plays and poetry, nonfiction, and spirituality some time in the future--if I haven't alienated my entire readership. Thanks for letting me share some of my thinking.

(As Pascal said to one of his correspondents--"If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.")

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Flannery O'Connor Tribute


Flannery O'Connor Tribute

Chez Gerard Serafin,you will find a wonderful tribute to Flannery O'Connor, including:

Hers is a vision rooted in the Mysteries of Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Redemption. But she speaks of these in stories that can both stun and shine! This edition of her works is the best I know and the most beautiful to behold and touch. A treasure-house - and it has most of her letters too! These letters have had me both crying and laughing - what a noble soul radiates in these stories and letters! She once called herself a "hillbilly Thomist" and you will find in Flannery O'Connor - A GREAT ARTIST AND GREAT CATHOLIC!


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Art and God


In a comment to a post on the Catholic Novel Dylan comments:

TS O'Rama has raised the question of whether loyalty to art & loyalty to God is a zero-sum game. We can't serve them both with equal fervour. Hmm. I know what he's getting at: we can't make art equal in valence to God, but I don't think it's a zero-sum game. Neither does (if we can judge from his Letter to Artists) Papa.

No, it isn't a zero-sum game because, if one approaches the whole thing correctly one serves God through one's art. It isn't as though one is loyal to one's art in opposition to God--after all, beauty comes from God. The properly aligned Christian artist regards his art as a gift given and returned to God. God expects artists to use their talents to better humankind. (I direct your attention to the parable of the three servants and the "talents"). Art can become an object of worship, but a proper orientation toward art views it as a means of expressing relationship with the Creator. I do not "worship" a Monet for the art, but I am brought a "momentary taste of being from the well amid the waste" in the medium of the Creator-inspired piece of art. Thus "Impression Sunrise" isn't about a canvas but about the supreme artistic vision given by God to one of his creatures to convey to the whole world.

I look at examples like C. S. Lewis and other writers who dedicated much of their writing to the exaltation of the Creator. This is what Art is about. Art is a medium, not an end. It's products are humanly made, often divinely infused creations. They are, at their best, participations with the Creator God in the act of creation.

As a result, works that are not overtly Christian can be read by Christians to their own great profit. For example, the Drayton Sonnet I placed here at the beginning of the day is not overtly Christian, but it can be read by Christians in a way that brings them closer to God. This is because Art is a good given by the Creator for the benefit of His creation. It is good inasmuch as it reveals Him to those who are looking. It is worthwhile inasmuch as it improves the devotional life of those who look upon it.

No, properly construed art is not an end, but it is a means of serving the Creator.

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On Walker Percy


On Walker Percy

In an e-mail, one writer had this to say about Walker Percy:

It's been a while since I read it, but I thought that The Second Coming was more cogently Catholic. One of the major themes in the book had to do with how we might expect God to work in our life when we are complacent and lacking in joy, and sprouting out of that, the role of tradition and traditional culture in our lives. I might be losing my mind, but I believe that this is the book in which the main character goes into a cave in order to commit suicide and is prompted to come out by a toothache (God works in not so mysterious ways). (I don't think it was Love in the Ruins.) On the whole, though, I don't think that Percy's books are going to "wear" particularly well, for reasons having to do more with his style than his subject or content.
Thanks to BR for permission to quote.

I find the impression interesting. I don't know that I disagree exactly, its just that I think several different kinds of Catholicism wend their way into Percy's writing. Love in the Ruins is a heady whiff of highly intellectual Catholicism dealing a lot with scholastic theory and practice. For example, the whole question of "angelism" and "bestialism" seems to partake of a deep understanding of Aquinas's theory. The Catholicism of Second Coming seems much more up-front and easier to notice. As to style, the writer may be correct--that's always difficult to tell. I wonder whether the same might not have been said of Flannery O'Connor at one time.

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Catholic Novel (cont.)


Catholic Novel (cont.)
A couple of people have commented on the question of the Catholic Novel. And we make some headway. Let's start with Dylan's question:

"One might ask, Why categorize? Why impose a denominational test?"

Indeed, we might ask the question, but it seems that scholars and critics from ages past (when they were still working with the writing at hand, rather than inventing something to write about and then writing about it. {If you think I joke see most of the work by Judith Butler and others, for example, ""The Lesbian Phallus and the Morphological Imaginary." differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies(Spring 1992), 4(1): 133-171."}) had identified something called "The Catholic Novel." They were able to point to examples of this creature. Evidently it had some definable morphology and, perhaps, spirituality.

In addition, I would like to separate the Catholic Novel from other "Christian Fiction," because in my reading there is a large sensibility gap between the two forms. There are many novels with a "generic Christian" sensibility, some of them great. But the Catholic Novel, that mysterious entity we seek to define, but into whose confines The Violent Bear it Away is always admitted, has a profoundly Catholic sensibility and understanding of the world. Or does it? Is any novel by a Catholic necessarily a Catholic Novel? Are those potboilers by Father Greeley truly "Catholic Novels?" Does it matter?

I think it does. I think there is a lineage of very reputable work which, while not expressly apologetical, does serve to advance the Catholic view of the world. At one point in our history (and perhaps the point hasn't passed) such works were necessary to counteract and just-short-of-virulent anti-Catholicism pervasive in our culture. There was a time when it was wondered whether a Catholic would be fit to serve in the government-- (until we got that wonderfully comforting reversal of the great St. Thomas More--"God's good servant, but America's first").

A post of digressions, a post we might never see live, yet I revel in writing in and urging us onward to consider the question at more than a superficial level. What is a Catholic Novel? What makes a novel a Catholic Novel? And then, what are the very best Catholic Novels that fall within our definition?

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from August 2002.

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