Refreshing, Rejuvenating, and Improving Our Public Discourse: Holiday Book Recommendations

Reading recommendations from The Witherspoon Institute staff.

Public Discourse is the online journal of The Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. For the past decade 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.  

John Doherty
Director of Development

I recommend The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos. It is hard to find a book that achieves simultaneously the spiritual depth and artistic brilliance of this one. It relates a portion of the life of a Catholic priest of the French countryside through the priest’s own diary. We encounter through his eyes the drama of the struggle between light and darkness in the lives of the people he serves, while we also see (often only by inference) the same struggle taking place within himself. Bernanos masterfully represents the mystery in the ordinary reality of the human condition and of how daily life and the transcendent blend together, almost imperceptibly.

Katy Doran
Operations Manager – CanaVox

I recommend The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Appropriate to our times, the famous theology-infused epic presents an allegory of good versus evil. As a first-time reader of Tolkien, I’m appreciative of his imaginative descriptions of fear, courage, and their devastating effects. The most humble characters are key to the success of the mission, not only in squelching their present-day evil, but in harnessing a seemingly indomitable force of its influence on Middle Earth. The characters whose wills are unswayed by the dark lord of the One Ring encounter great suffering but with real beacons of hope, hope less evident in our times and greatly needed. Throughout the book, I’m reminded of great truths, heroes and saints to look to in our times of grief, and also the true power that comes from a common purpose outside of oneself.

Matt Franck
Contributing Editor – Public Discourse

The holidays are a time to read for pleasure as well as edification. This Christmas I am returning to the great series of novels of naval warfare in the Napoleonic era by Patrick O’Brian. The twenty books in the “Aubrey-Maturin” series begin in 1800 with the first chance encounter of two men who become shipmates and friends, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, in Master and Commander, as Aubrey obtains his first command in the Royal Navy and Maturin becomes his ship’s surgeon. O’Brian’s attention to historical and nautical accuracy is legendary, and the exploits of his pair of protagonists are thrilling. The final books in the series do not, in my estimation, sustain the burst of storytelling excellence with which the series begins. But the first twelve or fifteen novels are simply marvelous. More than merely “genre” novels in the vein of historical fiction, these books are beautifully written, and the development of the characters and particularly of their friendship brings to light something of the teaching of Aristotle’s Ethics on that subject. They’re not just a “guy thing,” either, as historical war fiction so often is: I was first introduced to them by my mother.

Robert P. George
Herbert W. Vaughan Senior Fellow

For anyone who hasn’t read it, I suggest The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. This is the book that most highly influenced the great bioethicist (and former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics) Dr. Leon Kass. It is a deceptively simple introduction to moral reasoning and moral philosophy.

Kelly Hanlon
Director of Operations
Contributing Editor ­– Public Discourse

2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass and, throughout the past year, a number of celebrations and remembrances observed the occasion. One of his best-known works is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in which he recounts the horrors of slavery. Even on his darkest days as an enslaved man, however, Douglass ably reminds us of eternal truths, beginning with the most elemental right to one’s own life. He doesn’t stop, however, with arguing for his own freedom or for that of his enslaved brethren. Rather, he calls all Americans together to argue that all men are born free. Douglass reminds us of the promises made simply by virtue of being human. And, 200 years after his birth, he’s still reminding us that we’re all in this together—we have more in common than that which separates us. In this Christmas season, Douglass reminds us once more that there are eternal truths and that there is cause for hope even on our darkest days.

Maci Hiatt
Assistant Editor – Public Discourse

At Christmastime, I generally prefer fast, exciting reads, which is why I’m recommending Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. Paulsen tells the story of a teen stranded on an island after a plane crash. Brian Robeson is flying to visit his father for the first time since his parents’ divorce. While flying over the Canadian wilderness, the pilot of the two-seater plane has a heart attack, which leaves Brian to crash land the plane on his own. Miraculously surviving the crash, Brian is left stranded on the island with only a hatchet. Throughout the book, Paulsen is an exceptional storyteller. He employs imagery in a way that makes readers feel as if they are on the island too. Only a mere 220 pages, the book is a quick read, but one that fulfills a sense of survival for any and all adventure-seekers.

Nathaniel Peters
Contributing Editor – Public Discourse

January 8 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the great Lutheran Pastor, Catholic priest, and public intellectual. Randy Boyagoda’s Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square tells the story of Fr. Neuhaus’s life and work. As I wrote in a review for Public Discourse, Boyagoda’s biography is a rich read, and Neuhaus’s life remains an example of faith lived in the public square.

April Readlinger
Executive Director – CanaVox

I consider Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived a must read. This wonderful collection of speeches by Antonin Scalia is a must read for both fans and critics of the late justice. The thought-provoking and inspiring speeches, on topics ranging from constitutional interpretation to turkey hunting, highlight why Justice Scalia is widely considered one of the most influential jurists to have served on the Supreme Court.

Mark Regnerus
Contributing Editor – Public Discourse

Most of my reading is done in service to what writing projects I’m working on. In that spirit, I learned a great deal about the dismal era immediately following the collapse of Soviet Russia—something about which we Americans know little and care even less—by digesting Nobel prizewinner Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time. It’s an unusual book of firsthand accounts, and is particularly mesmerizing if you listen to the Audible cast mustered to present it.

In a quite different manner, but equally educational, is James Michener’s Poland. Like other volumes of his, this one spans centuries, concluding in the Communist era. Michener has the unique gift of conveying so much real history wrapped in a fictional set of compelling plots.

Finally, for family reading, I just finished the Anne of Green Gables series for my 10-year-old daughter. The books were on my mother’s shelf for decades, and I never imagined reading them—let alone liking it. The series ends in what is a rare glimpse (for its time) of life during the Great War era, in which parents—including Anne and Gilbert—agonized while their young-adult boys took up arms in Europe. I grieved the evening we finished the series.

Serena Sigillito
Editor – Public Discourse

In my experience, holiday reading usually takes one of two forms. Sometimes, I want a book that’s light and quick—a respite from everyday life. At other times, the holidays offer just the chance I need to delve deeply into a complex and challenging book. Accordingly, I offer you two book recommendations.

The first, I’d Rather Be Reading, is a light, fun read for book lovers. The book is a collection of essays written by Anne Bogel (who blogs at Modern Mrs. Darcy and hosts the podcast What Should I Read Next?) reflecting on “the delights and dilemmas of the reading life.” What kind of reader are you? What made you fall in love with reading, and how can you recapture that passion when it seems to have faded?

For those in the mood for something more ambitious, I recommend Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. Even if you’ve read it before, the novel is worth revisiting. Its richness yields new insights at every stage of life, with its sweeping, intricate, and realistic portrayals of love, marriage, family life, and the effects of mortal sin on the human soul.

R.J. Snell
Director – Center on the University and Intellectual Life
Contributing Editor – Public Discourse

I recommend The Age of Secularization, by Augusto Del Noce (translated by Carlo Lancellotti). If, like me, you are not entirely familiar with mid-century Italian Marxist thought, parts of this fine book will be difficult and obscure, but Del Noce is a writer of rare and unique insight, almost prophetic. He understands the inner logic of positions, so that his observations of the student protests of the 1960s foretell their inevitable sad collapse into consumerism and barren self-interest. He explains the origins and ends of the sexual revolution, why the “new” spirit in the major religions is so incapable of responding, and why Facebook (or something like it) would become the master of formerly free men and women.

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 $15,000.

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