Books That Make Us Human – The Imaginative Curator

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Here are my ten reading recommendations, from Augustine’s “Confessions” to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, including Eliot’s “Four Quartets”.

1. The Bible. This is one of the first books I read (not cover to cover, at first, of course), and the first book I memorized portions of as a child. I can’t imagine trying to think or understand the human condition without her. Some specific books in the Good Book that are worth noting: Genesis and Exodus, the Psalms and the Book of Wisdom, the Gospel of John and the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Romans.

2. confession, by Saint Augustine of Hippo. I’ve read it many times now, and I’m still amazed by the depth of Augustin’s thought and emotion, and the clarity and depth of his expression.

3. Summa theologica, by Saint Thomas Aquinas. It would be a mistake to assume that this seminal work of theology/philosophy is dry or merely didactic, for careful and thoughtful reading reveals an understanding of the origin, nature and end of man that has seldom been equaled. .

4. The Sonnets, by William Shakespeare. I have enjoyed and enjoyed many of Shakespeare’s plays, but I am drawn again and again to the sonnets, which not only express the depths of human love, but what it means to be human in a simple and modest way.

5. David Copperfield Where Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. I first read them as a young boy and they brought to life a range of characters and aspects of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly – that I had never seen or experienced before.

6. Four Quartets, by TS Eliot. The Wasteland has (and is getting?) more attention, but this mature post-conversion poem is, I believe, the greatest poem of the 20th century and one of the most moving depictions of life, death and spiritual awakening ever written.

seven. My name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. Definitely my most personal choice, a book I first read when I was ten, and then many times after. A painful portrait of a Jewish boy and his struggles with faith, family and personal aspirations.

8. The abolition of man, by CS Lewis. My favorite book by Lewis, a short but penetrating work on the nature of man. If you want to read it in fiction form, check out Lewis’ “Space Trilogy”: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

9. lost in the cosmos, by Walker Percy. A little eccentric, but more than a little brilliant, full of wit, wisdom, caustic charm and very difficult questions about what it means to be human in a post-Christian, post-modern culture.

ten. Redeemer Hominis, by Blessed John Paul II. The first encyclical of the late Holy Father (March 1979) is essential for anyone who wants to understand his thought and his Christocentric conception of humanity: “The Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of the story. Amen.

This essay was first published here in September 2011.

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Image shown is “Interior with Young Man Reading” (1898) by Vilhelm Hammershøi, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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