On Recommending Books

Friend of The Scene Rod Dreher has a bleg: 3 good “Intro to Christianity for the interested irreligious reader” book recommendations.

I think that’s a great idea and I’m curious what people’s recommendations are.

But what was striking was Scene Alum Alan Jacobs’s response that, essentially, you can’t do that. It’s impossible to recommend books to people you don’t know, because nobody knows how a book will affect someone, and it might have the opposite effect. (Alan noted that he knows people who were turned away from Christianity by reading C.S. Lewis, even though he is (Anglo) Christians’ go-to apologist.)

After being snarky on Twitter, I sort of want to explore this.

There’s a sense in which this is obviously true, right? We’re all different, books are universes, and so on.

But there’s also a sense in which it’s a bit absurd. If we take it to its logical conclusion, then no one could ever make any recommendation—of anything. Gone is any sort of Great Books curriculum, or any list of books whatsoever. It looks particularly absurd when you go into non-fiction. “What are the 5 best books on the fall of the Roman Empire?” “Well, who can say? It’s a mystery.” That will not do. And this is true despite the fact that many of the books on such a fraught topic have viewpoints, editorial choices, and so on that might rub readers the wrong way. But it’s still useful for me to be able to know “Hey, here’s what So-And-So, woman I respect/whose credentials tell me her opinion is worth something/whatever, thinks are the X best books on Y.” It’s easy to make fun of “Top 20” lists and suchlike, but they actually serve a purpose in human affairs, at least in the aggregate (one Top 20 list is probably going to be useless, but a bunch of Top 20 lists together paint a picture).

I would want to make some remarks about this:

There is at least ONE Book that recommends itself to everyone. Right?

It’s possible to hate a Great Book and still get value from reading it. For example, I hated Madame Bovary. I hated the melodrama, hated the story, hated the characters. And yet, I couldn’t help but note the mastery of Flaubert’s prose, and I was still glad to be immersed in it.

Recommendations really are useful, or can be. I bought Benedict XVI’s Introduction to Christianity after reading Rod’s comments.

Recommendations are a good intellectual exercise. I’ve read a few books about Christianity, and yet Rod’s question stumped me for a while. Making a recommendation actually forces you to settle down and think about the books you’ve read, what they’ve brought to you, how someone might receive them, what they’re like, why, exactly, you’ve found them so valuable (or not so valuable), and so on.

People are grown-ups. If someone recommends a book to me, and I read it, and I don’t like it—that’s fine. Or I might not even read it because I’ll take the recommendation into account, compare it with other recommendations, and decide I want to read something else instead. To recommend a book is not to foist it upon someone. If you recommend a book on Christianity to me and I hate it, I might think “Well Jeez, this Christianity stuff really is ridiculous”, or I might think “Huh. That was really bad. Maybe there’s something else out there” or “I hated this, but So-and-So is smart and recommended it anyway, and so I’m going to try to think about why, even though overall this was bad.”

A recommendation should not just be a title and a name. I think this is the point that we should keep in mind. This is the thing that makes Alan’s point important, and the thing that might reconcile his point with recommendations. “The best book on X is Y” does not have much value. “If you’re the kind of reader who cares about A, who feels a certain way when B, and who is particularly interested in C, then the best book on X is Y. Y gives you the story of α, β and γ in such and such a way” that’s actually very useful. And remembering that People Are Grown-Ups, it both improves the odds they’re going to read a book that’s good for them and takes into account their agency.

What do y’all think?

With that in mind, here are some tentatives answers to Rod.

1. The Gospel of John and the First Epistle to the Corinthians (yes, I’m counting them as one book, if only because if I were to write “The New Testament” that would also count as one book and be bigger). Why? First of all, I don’t think it’s possible to have a good intro to Christianity without reading the actual Scripture. For many reasons. First of all, obviously, because it’s the Word of God. Second of all, because everything else in Christianity is based on it. Third of all, because Christianity starts with a (true) story about a man who lived and died in 1st century Palestine, and so the place to start is by actually reading that story. But fourth, most of all, because Christianity is not merely a doctrine, it is an experience, and to understand Christianity you have to do what Christians do, which is read Scripture.

So why John and 1 Corinthians? John because it is the most explicitly theological Gospel. It makes explicit what the others make implicit. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This is what Christians believe. And 1 Corinthians, frankly, because it includes the soliloquy “Without love, I am nothing”, which is the other core of Christianity.

2. Tentatively, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. I say tentatively, because the inquiry of Rod’s questioner came in a sort of culture-war-ish context, and Spufford actually rejects some bits of traditional Christian orthodoxy, e.g. on homosexuality. So if you want a book that will tell you, e.g. “Why orthodox Christians believe homosexual acts are sinful”, this is not the book (though Spufford is pretty fair in his treatment of the traditional view). But the reason why I want to recommend Unapologetic anyway is because his topic is Christian faith first, and Christian doctrine second, which is how Christians experience it, and how they live it, and is how Christianity is properly understood, because Christians believe that Truth is a Person, not a body of knowledge. This is the great value of Spufford’s book, in that even though he covers the “philosophical bits” of Christianity, such as theodicy and soteriology and Trinitarianism and the rest, he does so in the practical, real, human way which is not only the way Christians experience it, but the way it ought to be experienced.

3. This is a cop-out, but Joie de croire, joie de vivre (Joy of Believing, Joy of Living) by François Varillon. It’s a cop-out because, tragically, this book has apparently never been translated into English, and so it probably won’t be of much help to Rod’s questioner, but it is simply the best, most accessible treatment of orthodox Christian theology I’ve ever read. François Varillon was a Jesuit priest who actually (I believe) never wrote a book but spent most of his life giving lectures (so sort of like Jesus), and Joie de croire is a set of edited lecture transcripts on all the most salient topics of the faith. He is just great and perfect and scintillating, and the “spoken word” style of the lecture helps make the text alive, and helps sometimes complex ideas go down easier. Another disclaimer is that because Varillon was a Catholic priest, some of his stuff, especially on Purgatory and the role of works in salvation, would not be endorsed by most Protestants (though they would certainly endorse 98% of the book).

I would also add some left-field choices:

The Brothers Karamazov First of all because it’s a great book. Second of all, because it contains some great Christian theology. In Karamazov, theodicy and salvation are not given neat explanations thereof. Instead, one must acknowledge one’s sin and give oneself up to Christ. In that spirit, let me also add Kristin Lavransdatter and The Power and the Glory.

The Messiah The story of Christ, set to some of the most beautiful music ever.

The Story of a Soul by Therese of Lisieux. Again, experience matters as much as theology in understanding Christianity, and Therese had all of them in spades.

Finally, I would critique some of the popular choices among Rod’s commenters:

I would not recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I am a Catholic and I believe it is a great document, but it is a statement of what the Church believes, not why it believes it (or only incidentally). It is also a fairly legalistic document, which again is fine, but makes reading it cover-to-cover a daunting thing, and is unlikely to teach much to a non-Christian, except that Christianity is just a bunch of rules.

I would also not recommend Chesterton. Chesterton was chiefly an apologist and a polemicist. Which is great. But if you’re trying to understand Christianity from a detached perspective, being hit over the head with it might not be the best thing.

That’s my contribution. What are other people’s choices?