Public Discourse is the online journal of The Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. For the past nine years we’ve been publishing thoughtful and accessible essays on some of the most important questions facing our country. But we don’t do it alone. We have the backing of the entire Witherspoon Institute. And as we head into our Christmas break, we asked them to recommend some books. Enjoy. 

Katy Doran
Operations Manager – CanaVox

I recommend Ask Me Anything: Provocative Answers for College Students, by J. Budziszewski. In it, Professor Budziszewski compiles Q&A-style conversations with his students at University of Texas, Austin. He’s an avid listener, and by asking his students deeper questions in response to their initial inquiries, he aids in their own discovery of solutions to difficult issues such as sexual temptation and self-punishment in the face of sin.

John Doherty
Director of Development

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I recommend Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather, the story of a French priest who comes to the southwestern territory of the United States soon after its annexation from Mexico. Cather not only provides a moving account of the life of the priest (later bishop) and of the people he serves, but also demonstrates her mastery of English prose through her vivid descriptions of the southwestern landscape. A fictionalized rendering of the life of the real Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Matthew J. Franck
Director – William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution

I don’t believe the holidays are a time for studious or academic reading, so I recommend something that will amuse or provoke or induce some reflection.  Evelyn Waugh could do all of the above, so I suggest something of his—but not the too-often-recommended Brideshead Revisited.  Try instead Decline and Fall, or Scoop, or the Sword of Honor trilogy, or his Edmund Campion: A Life.

Robert P. George
Herbert W. Vaughan Senior Fellow 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: a plea for people of all faiths to unite against religious violence.

G.K Chesterton, Orthodoxy: a timeless classic.

George Weigel, Lessons in Hope: what the biographer of John Paul II learned from his subject.

Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment: soon to be released, this is a powerful, deeply informed critique of gender ideology.

Melissa Moschella, To Whom Do Children Belong?: a brilliant philosophical study of the nature and basis of parental rights (and duties) and the obligation of public officials to respect within broad limits the authority of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children.

Alicia Grimaldi
Director of Publishing

I recommend In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park, with Maryanne Vollers. Much like Chen Guangcheng’s memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, Yeonmi Park’s book tells the story of her life with her family living in the terribly repressive society of North Korea and her harrowing escape. Now working as a human rights activist based in Seoul, South Korea, she continues to give hope and courage to those still struggling for basic human rights and freedom throughout the world.

Kelly Hanlon
Director of Operations

Written in 1921 and first published in English three years later, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We influenced many of the better known dystopian novels from the last century, including Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Orwell’s 1984 (1949). We explores what it means to be human and to flourish together. Set in the One State, a totalitarian regime, the world and each person’s actions within it are governed by purely rational mathematical models. Amid this perfectly calculated world, the novel’s main character, an engineer named D-503, finds love—a deep and lasting human connection. Once his imagination has been awakened and he is drawn toward the other, he is no longer content simply to obey the laws of the One State. The conflicts that emerge—between good and evil, between liberty and responsibility, between the individual and the State—implore readers to plumb the depths of human nature and the possibilities of the common good.

April Readlinger
Executive Director – CanaVox

Washington Square is an insightful period piece by Henry James. Set in the New York City of the mid-nineteenth century, this short novel is a great study of the dynamics of family and love. While the story plays out in the nineteenth century, its underlying themes and moral concerns are timeless and universal. James’s in-depth character portraits are wonderful.

Serena Sigillito
Managing Editor Public Discourse

My recommendation is Lila, the 2014 novel by Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson. A prequel of sorts to her earlier novels set in the same Iowa town, Gilead and Home, Lila tells the story of the mysterious, taciturn woman who appeared in Gilead one day and somehow ended up marrying the town’s elderly widowed minister. Without sentimentality or cynicism, Robinson recounts the story of Lila’s troubled upbringing: stolen away from her abusive family by a destitute but hardworking African American woman and raised as an itinerant worker in the Dust Bowl before becoming a prostitute in St. Louis, Lila’s past leaves her fiercely independent but utterly unable to trust. Yet she is fascinated by Reverend John Ames, whose quiet kindness is the product of a life of loneliness and deep sorrow of his own. In a love story that mirrors the Biblical story of God’s unfailing love for his people in the book of Hosea, Lila slowly lets herself be healed and transformed by the reverend’s steadfast, gentle love for her, and she transforms his life in turn. At times difficult, even painful to read, Lila sends a message of a hope in the possibility of redemption for all people, no matter how deeply sinful, broken, or unlovable they may feel.

R. J. Snell
Director – Center on the University and Intellectual Life

I’ve been reading through the short stories of George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), perhaps best known as a poet and dramatist. Like much of his work, the second volume, A Time to Keep, originally published in 1969, is set on the Orkney Islands in the far north of Scotland. These are north Atlantic tales of the sea and land and religion—and a good deal on the perils of drink. Most poignant, however, is the quiet, understated exploration of suffering, particularly concerning how the steady changes of modern life alter a grim acceptance of the inevitability of suffering, replacing it with a more cheery expectation of comfort and happiness. Still, however much better the conditions, something of the poetry and joy of the earlier mode is lost, although without any sentimental longing for the old days. A book to read in the bleak midwinter, when snow is falling, snow on snow.

Ryan T. Anderson
Founder and Editor – Public Discourse 

As for my recommendations, Amazon invited me to create an entire page on their site with books that have shaped my own thinking. You can find them here.

Public Discourse will be off until the New Year. If you enjoy the essays that you read here, please do consider making a tax-deductible gift to support our work.  Any gifts made before December 31 will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to $5,000. And anyone who donates more than $100 will receive a signed copy of When Harry Became Sally.