While I recognize that literature is a high art form and a tremendous source of intellectual, spiritual, and moral enlightenment, I make recourse to literature largely for the purposes of therapy or entertainment. Janet Smith discusses her favorite authors.
While I recognize that literature is a high art form and a tremendous source of intellectual, spiritual, and moral enlightenment, I make recourse to literature largely for the purposes of therapy or entertainment. When I find the burdens of life nearly unbearable (say, my email has stopped functioning), I turn to the works of P. G. Wodehouse and allow his sublime nonsense to float me above the tidal waves of disaster that occasionally threaten to overwhelm me (say, my forehand has collapsed as well as my email).
For just general escapist reading, I love Anthony Trollope, just love him and am tempted often to confine my leisure reading to his huge corpus. As Mae West once said, "Too much of a good thing, is still a good thing." Yet for the sake of variety, I read around and not always the best stuff.
The not infrequent experience of being stranded in an airport and bored with what reading I have brought with me, has led me to develop an appetite for the works of John Grisham (though mysteries are a mystery to me; see below) or Jan Karon (you will enjoy her if you can stand some cotton candy along with a fortifying meal). I was the first on my block to purchase Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full and was as blown away by it as I was by his earlier works (reader beware; it has its raunchy portions).
I suppose my nomination for the most profound, absorbing, and enjoyable novel ever written is Tolstoy's War and Peace (rivaled by his Anna Karenina) and given the time, I would be happy to reread it every year of my life.
Yet, because I love all things Catholic, I turn to Catholic authors, composers, filmmakers, etc., whenever possible. Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos is profound nonsense from a Catholic perspective. Because of its philosophical profundity, I have used it in my philosophy classes although I was distressed to learn that my students are as incapable of discerning side-splitting irony as they are of grasping fine metaphysical distinctions. One of my dear evangelical students, Brandy, was most offended by his treatment of evangelical Christians, although they are arguably the heroes of his story.
For beach reading, I am a fan of Bud McFarlane's books which, while not great literature, are full of fascinating and believable characters, gripping story lines, and drenched in a Catholic worldview. They are an effective evangelizing tool for college students. For some reason, the apocalyptic vision of Michael O'Brien doesn't fully engage me, though I surely appreciate his efforts to provide us with contemporary Catholic novels and will keep reading him.
Generally I find myself incapable of following the complexities of mysteries, even the ones as engaging as those by Tony Hellerman. Certainly the enjoyably lighthearted mysteries of my buddy Ralph McInerny are must-reads. His novels give a great education on the state of the Church today and since I think I can identify some of his antiheroes, I experience a particular (vindictive?) delight. I found Malachi Martin's Windswept House offensive and couldn't finish it.
Reading such books as Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, his The End of the Affair, Evelyn Waugh's Bridehead Revisited, and Francois Mauriac's Viper's Tangle were very important moments in my life, for each captures something special about Catholicism. I am very disposed to Flannery O'Connor and found the collection of her letters, The Habit of Being, one of the more absorbing reads of my life. Nonetheless, I generally find her stories and novels too bizarre and the Catholic message of them too subtle or too Southern for me. James Joyce is definitely beyond me.
My choice for the best Catholic author? Right now if I were asked which Catholic author I wanted to read more, again, and about, I would say Sigrid Undset. (I just left this essay and via internet purchased from Ignatius Press Deal Hudson's book on Undset). Since it has been decades since I have read any of Sigrid Undset's novels, I feel uneasy choosing her. I wish I could remember more; I wish I had had time to reread the trilogy before I wrote this essay. Yet, if my memory serves me correctly, I believe her epic vision and literary skill rival that of Tolstoy.
Perhaps I find her Kristin Lavransdatter so compelling because a good chunk of my life's work is bound up with the stories of women who make bad judgments about men or at least about how to deal with men; most all of them include beginning a sexual relationship before marriage and even before one knows the fellow well. This is an age old tale how many lives haven't been severely impacted not to say marked forever by the choices one makes regarding sex and marriage? I remember the saga of Kristin Lavransdatter being a dark tale of the enduringness of love, passion, commitment, and guilt. I recall it as a story that depicts the maturing of a marvelous woman smitten by a dashing man, dedicated to her sons, husband, and ultimately her faith.
The lives of few of us are of much interest to those beyond our families or our immediate circle. Epics are generally written about fantastic deeds in battle or about the conflict of nations. Yet, as Undset demonstrated, the inner journeys of all of us have the potential of being epic tales if the story of the temptations, triumphs and defeats were truly told with the drama worthy of the struggles involved.
Smith, Janet. "Favorites." Catholic Dossier 5, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 47-48.
Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.
Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She is the author of Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics, Beginning Apologetics 5: How to Answer Tough Moral Questions–Abortion, Contraception, Euthanasia, Test-Tube Babies, Cloning, & Sexual Ethics, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later and the editor of Why Humanae Vitae Was Right. She has published many articles on ethical and bioethics issues. She has taught at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas. Prof. Smith has received the Haggar Teaching Award from the University of Dallas, the Prolife Person of the Year from the Diocese of Dallas, and the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. She is serving a second term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family. Over a million copies of her talk, "Contraception: Why Not" have been distributed. Visit Janet Smith's web page here. See Janet Smith's audio tapes and writing here. Janet Smith is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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