These books all played a critical part in my intellectual development. They vary greatly in length, difficulty, and subject matter, but I’ve done my best to indicate why they have been so important to me in my time at Harvard, Oxford, and beyond.
If I had to name one book as my favorite of all time, it would be this one. Saint Augustine writes the first spiritual autobiography in the form of a prayer to God, talking about his life and relentless pursuit of Truth. This search led him from paganism to Manicheism to Neo-Platonism, and finally to Christianity, and Augustine gives a thorough account of his life’s episodes that informed his worldview and made him a saint.
Aristotle’s Ethics asks the fundamental question of human existence: what does it mean to have a good life? Aristotle answers that it is to have a happy life, which is to say, a virtuous life (marked by eudaimonia, “blessedness”). He describes the development of virtues as habitual: when we are good, it becomes easier to be good, and vice versa.
Is there anything that Thomas Aquinas doesn’t address in his Summa Theologiae? He talks about what the Trinity is, and why we should own private property, and how babies are made. The most mature work of the greatest theologian of all time, this was meant to be a compendium for Dominican novices. For the uninitiated, it can be overwhelming. Popular summaries like Peter Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa or Practical Theology can be useful forays into the material.
The Lord of the Rings
This is the greatest epic story of all time, and one of the most popular books ever written. J.R.R Tolkien tells a classic story of the triumph of good over evil against all odds. I come back to this story time and time again for encouragement and refreshment. Plus, Tolkien was a mythical genius: he doesn’t simply write in allegory, but creates a whole world complete with its own history, geography, and languages.
Till We Have Faces
This book tackles the most difficult problem Christianity faces: of God is good, why do people suffer? He answers it with a brilliant re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche’s ugly stepsister. His key insight is that we cannot make our case against God till we have faces: that is, until our lives are complete and we can see the whole picture.
Collected works of TS Eliot
Eliot’s esoteric, deconstructed poetry is notoriously difficult. However, to those who invest the time to figure out what he’s saying, The Wasteland, The Four Quartets, the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and others offer incredible insight into the alienation of modern man.
Apart from the Oxfordian nostalgia it evokes, I love this book for its philosophy of love. It begins with human, disordered affection that slowly becomes more like the real thing as the main character evolves from friendship to marriage to the love of God. However, some have criticized it as showing that the Church is destructive of human happiness. The ambiguity and brokenness make it a beautiful, if difficult, read.
Collected works of Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor once quipped, “A lot of people get killed in my stories, but nobody gets hurt.” A Southern Gothic literary giant, O’Connor’s work is blood-stained, to say the least. But her point is one made by Socrates centuries earlier: nothing bad can happen to a good person, from an eternal perspective because you can’t touch his soul.
The Brothers Karamazov
It is said that this is the greatest novel ever written, and that it contains the most serious challenge to Christianity that can be posed by an atheist. Both are probably true, which is worth the 700-page (or so) investment of time. It is the type of book that has such enormous scope -- in terms of the cast of characters, especially -- that you can’t follow a single linear plot throughout it. Instead, meeting all these people sucks you into the story, and it changes you.
Philosophy 101 by Socrates
This was the book that converted me from a biomedical engineering major to a Classicist and philosopher. Don’t say you weren’t warned! For Socrates, the unexamined life was not worth living. Kreeft shows how necessary uniquely qualified philosophy is in answering life’s biggest questions. Kreeft has written seventy-some books, all of which address these questions in different ways.
The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
Having grown up behind the iron curtain, Michael Novak is one of America’s biggest fans. He contends that a free and flourishing society is built on three pillars: capitalism, shared cultural mores (like religion, e.g. Catholicism), and (small “l”) liberal political policies.
Social Costs of Pornography
I spent a summer researching the social costs of pornography, and this was by far my most useful resource. Porn harms the brain of the individual user like a drug (see fightthenewdrug.org). It destroys marriages and families. It harms women on every level, encouraging the sex-slave trade and sexual assault. Porn is not a harmless personal vice: it is a social epidemic and needs to be addressed by social attitudes and political policy.