Monday, January 9, 2012

Reading Accomplished in 2011 - A Look Back

2011 was the year I rediscovered reading. Not that I hadn't ever abandoned reading prior to this year -- rather, since the birth of my first son in 2007 and immersing myself in parenthood, not to mention my job, and the perpetual distractions of blogging and "being online", I found it more and more difficult to settle down and simply lose myself in a good book. And so in 2011 one of the things I resolved was to simply read more books.

Credit in part goes to my wife's surprise purchase of an Amazon Kindle for my birthday (or was it Christmas?). She already had one, and despite her earnest recommendations I stubbornly held out -- proclaiming my preference "for real books." In the end, she won me over.

Not that I enjoy the familiar heft of a "real" book at home, but the Kindle does provide the remarkable ability to tote around a virtual library on a device no bigger than a tablet (hence the name, I suppose). This makes it emininently practical for getting a few pages read on a crowded bus or subway, standing in line at the grocery, in the waiting room for our pediatrician, or simply taking a stroll. Particularly as I have a tendency to read big books, it was that capacity alone which provided an edge.

And so a brief rundown of what I've managed to accomplish in the past year, along with some brief thoughts about each one (and/or their author). If any of my readers wish to discuss any of these at length, feel free to do so in the combox, or email me (blostopher [at] gmail.com]. Second to reading books I enjoy conversing about them. Likewise, I'm always open to your recommendations!

Books Finished

  • Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, by Tracey Rowland. (Oxford UP, 2009) -- one of the best single-volume introductions/overviews to the thought of our Holy Father. Second only to Fr. Aidan Nichols OP.

  • After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, by Fergus Kerr and A Short History of Thomism, by Romanus Cessario. Kerr provides an excellent survey of contemporary Thomistic scholarship, lending valuable insight as well into various controversies (neo-scholasticism of Garrigou-Lagrange vs. that of Henri de Lubac, SJ). Cessario is shorter -- broader in its historical scope but less in depth, however it compliments the other.

  • On Ordered Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society, by Dr. Samuel Gregg. "What does it mean to be free? Is freedom worth more than mens' lives? Why should man be free? What, if any, legitmate responsibilities accompany freedom?" -- A critique of the positions of Bentham, Mill, Rawls and Hayek by a self-idenified "Catholic Whig" of The Acton Institute, whose own position is informed by the likes of Burke, Tocqueville, Ropke, and the Thomist John Finnis. I skimmed this once in 2003, but failed then to fully appreciate then Gregg's revealing criticism of the inherent utilitarianism of Hayek. Gregg packs a lot into 120 pages -- on rival philosophies of liberty, liberty and law, the role of the family, the role and limits of the state -- but his analysis is lucid and engaging. It's precisely the kind of book I wish I had at my disposal back in college.

  • Art and Intellect in Philosophy of Etienne Gilson, by Francesca Aran Murphy (Eric Voegelin Institute Series in Political Philosophy). I found this to be a very fascinating "intellectual biography" of the French Thomist Etienne Gilson -- you can read Murphy's introduction in full here; a critical-yet-appreciative review of her book here (Theological Studies 2006). Murphy's substantial discussion of Gilson's writings compelled me to pick up Reason and Revelation in Middle Ages (a fairly quick read) and to make my way through, howbeit more slowly, Gilson's Thomism: The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas).

  • Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (Routledge Radical Orthodoxy), by Tracey Rowland. I blogged my mixed impressions of the book at some length here (5/22/11).

  • Vatican Secret Diplomacy: Joseph P. Hurley and Pope Pius XII, by Charles R. Gallagher. A study of U.S.-Vatican diplomacy through the life of the enigmatic figure of Joseph P. Hurley, an American priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, who through a series of events became the first American to serve in the office of Vatican Secretary of State under Cardinal Ottaviani, and by 1936 was the main conduit to the pope on affairs in the United States. (See "Vested in Red, White and Blue", Thomas J. Burns' detailed review on Amazon.com). Harboring anti-semitic views in his early years, Hurley evolved to become an outspoken critic of (what he perceived to be) the "soft" wartime policy of Pope Pius XII, asserting that "communism has now ceded its primacy to national socialism" as a threat and charging "the very basis of the Roman Catholic faith" compelled Catholics to challenge the "orgies of extermination" against the Jews.

  • Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, by Thomas Woods Jr. For the non-economically minded (like me), an accessible analysis of the collapse of the financial market and fingering government manipulation of the money supply via the Fed as the primary instigator. Meltdown ala straightfoward introduction to the Austrian economics business cycle theory. I'm generally not a a fan of Ron Paul, but I agree with his assessment that Woods "introduces the layman to a range of subjects that have been excluded from our national discussion for much too long ... This book is an indispensable conduit of these critical ideas."

  • Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, by Colin Duriez. There is no better example of "filial impiety" than Frankie Schaeffer's continuous besmirching of his father, Reformed Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984; on that note, see Os Guiness' review of Frankie's first book: Fathers and Sons Christianity Today). Schaeffer also played a significant role in the spiritual formation of my parents, who spent time at the original L'Abri in Switzerland -- so I had a personal interest in learning more about his life and thought. Duriez' biography, drawing on a wealth of oral history, personal interviews, offers a rounded portrayal which, while not shirking from presenting Francis' human weaknesses, effectively conveys why so many today appreciate his Christian witness and ministry.

  • Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Mortimer J. Adler dropped out of high school to become a journalist; he discovered the works of Aristotle, John Locke, St. Thomas Aquinas on his own -- going on to study at Columbia University, but failed to graduate due to his flunking the swimming test. He went on to receive an honorary degree from Columbia, founded the Great Books of the Western World program in 1952. Born a nonobservant Jew, he became an Episcopalian in 1984 and crossed the Tiber in 1998. He published a number of popular works aimed at making philosophy accessible to the common man (Ex. Aristotle for Everybody). Whenever I return to Adler, I am reminded what a pleasure it is to read somebody imbued with so much common sense.

  • Twentieth-Century French Philosophy: Key Themes and Thinkers, by Alan D. Schrift. An 80 page chronological overview of French philosophy supplemented by a hundred page bibliography of French philsophy in English translation. I enjoyed the chapters on existentialism and phenomonology -- subsequent chapters on 'Structuralism' and 'Post-Structuralism' a beneficial reminder of why they don't occupy my 'to read' list. Nonetheless this book would serve as a useful resource.

  • Indulging in some light entertainment, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks; Day by Day Armageddon, by J.L. Bourne, I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson (the original 1954 novel) and Zone One by Colson Whitehead. Sense a theme? -- Of these I would particularly recommend the latter. Zone One is less a zombie thriller than a meditation on pre-and-post-apocolyptic American culture through the eyes of a "sweeper", clearing lower Manhattan of the undead as humanity rises from the ashes. Whitehead is an accomplished New York novelist in his own right, and I expect most zombie fans may take umbrage at his attempt at the genre -- but I enjoyed it.

  • A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. Dubbed "The American Tolkein" by Time (although the characters and universes of the two couldn't be more different), this was my first foray into the author's work, spurred by the HBO adaptation of the first novel. Lev Grossman described his work thus:
    What really distinguishes Martin, and what marks him as a major force for evolution in fantasy, is his refusal to embrace a vision of the world as a Manichaean struggle between Good and Evil. Tolkien's work has enormous imaginative force, but you have to go elsewhere for moral complexity. Martin's wars are multifaceted and ambiguous, as are the men and women who wage them and the gods who watch them and chortle, and somehow that makes them mean more. A Feast for Crows isn't pretty elves against gnarly orcs. It's men and women slugging it out in the muck, for money and power and lust and love.
    Grossman underestimates Tolkien and the moral depth of his characters, resisting (ex. Galadriel) or succumbing to (ex. Boromir) the temptations of power, of which the ring was a conduit. And while Martin's universe lacks the overarching moral clarity of Tolkien (he is, at least according to this report, a lapsed Catholic) certain characters may nonetheless be admired for their virtue. And the Christian reader might appreciate the author's inclination to demonstrate redeeming qualities in the most unlikeable of characters.

Books in Process

I have oft mentioned my tendency to pick up and read more than one book at time. A brief list of those I'm still making my way through:

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