Refreshing, Rejuvenating, and Improving Our Public Discourse: 2019 Holiday Book Recommendations

Reading recommendations from The Witherspoon Institute staff.

Public Discourse is the online journal of The Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. For over a 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 the New Year, we asked them to recommend some books. Enjoy.  

John Corrales
Manager of Marketing and Communications

I love a party. But, do I love a party like Clarissa Dalloway loves a party? No. Does Clarissa Dalloway even really love a party? I’m not sure. Yet, in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Clarissa, the host of a high-society party set in post-WWI London, realizes—after painstaking yet beautiful passages that weave through joy, hate, self-doubt, and longing—that the party she’s hosting is an “offering; to combine, to create; but to whom? An offering for the sake of offering, perhaps.” Her party must reveal her: her taste, her elegance, her station. But, her party offers her guests some unexpected control; they can interpret Clarissa, and perhaps discover her, too. If you’re in the mood to ruminate over your festive season’s parties—their pageantry, their revelry, their exceptional charcuterie—do so with Mrs. Dalloway.

John Doherty
Director of Development

The thesis of Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion is simple: that the cause of all progress (or decline) of civilizations—whether technological, political, or spiritual progress—is the religious drive of humanity, even in that rare civilization—such as the contemporary secular west—that might to appearances not seem religious. In less than two hundred pages of eminently elegant prose, Dawson masterfully explains the whole breadth of human history, from early prehistory to his own day. An important corollary thesis of the book is that western civilization’s great achievements—including those favored by the admirers of the Enlightenment—were the product of Christianity; and that to the extent that the west abandons the religion that made it, it will come apart until some new religious movement remakes it—for good or ill.

Katy Francisco
Operations Manager CanaVox

I’ve read two books this year which struck different but lovely chords. The first is The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day’s autobiography. The fact her initial fame is credited to her penmanship is evident, as the book is quite easy to read. How she unfolds the layers of her life reflects her practical spirit. Living in today’s status of luxury in material goods, hers is a fresh perspective on what is important in life and to whom we are ultimately accountable. Second, I recommend Joan of Arc by Mark Twain. His own thoughts on this work: “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing.” He is meticulous in his study of her rise and martyrdom. There’s a copy with a newspaper layout that’s especially fun; fair warning, you’ll need stronger light to read it.

Matthew J. Franck
Contributing Editor – Public Discourse

Of debates about the principles of the American Founding there is no end, which is no surprise, since the character of our country has its origins in that period when the United States won its independence and established its Constitution. What is surprising is how many scholars enter the discussion with presuppositions that limit their field of vision and color even what they do see. Thus in one standard version of the American founding, the fathers of our country were all in the grip of ideas variously characterized as liberal, secular, Enlightenment, and even anti-Christian notions of political life. Evidence to the contrary then is either ignored or creatively reinterpreted to fit the scholars’ presuppositions. Mark David Hall comes to the study of the American founding without such blinders on. His new book, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, is a fresh look at the very real extent to which Christian thought and belief played a vital role in the making of our country. A veteran student of the founding with numerous books to his credit, Hall has written his latest book for any interested reader—yet his endnotes will satisfy the most rigorous demands of his fellow scholars. Hall does not counter one myth with another—there is no exaggerated case here for a “pious nation kneeling ’round the altar”—but instead shows that the American devotion to freedom, limited government, constitutionalism, and the rule of law owe as much or more to the Christian character of our founding generation as to any putatively “secular” philosophical sources. For the founders, freedom and faith were compatible, not at odds but mutually supportive. So they can and should be for us.

Susannah Keiderling
Office Manager

I would highly recommend Margaret Ellsberg’s The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins was so much more than “just” a really good poet. Ellsberg weaves together Hopkins’ poetry, letters, journal entries, and essays with her own analysis and commentary into a compelling and powerful retelling of his story. We learn that the Catholic priest who wrote “God’s Grandeur” struggled for faith his whole life, and, when he died at age 44, considered his whole life to be a failure. Yet every word he wrote—especially in the times of deepest struggle—shouts his faith in God’s goodness, no matter what.

Nathaniel Peters
Contributing Editor – Public Discourse

With Newman’s canonization on the horizon, I wanted to learn more about the man whose theological acuity and piercing insights into spiritual psychology—not to mention exquisite prose—I had come to love. Sheridan Gilley’s biography of Newman, Newman and His Age, is less well known in the US, but he captures well the man and his place in history where other biographers focus more on his thought. Gilley helps us appreciate how influential Newman was in his own time, and on unexpected figures like William Gladstone. He also underscores how Newman charted a via media between theological liberalism and ultramontanism, an example which we would do well to follow today.

April Readlinger
Executive Director CanaVox

As a busy mom of three, my reading opportunities often turn from my personal stack of “to read” books to snuggle time and reading with the kids. This month, my ten-year old and I have been enjoying three of Charles Dickens’s Christmas stories: A Christmas CarolThe Cricket on the Hearth and The Chimes. These wonderful stories about family, love, forgiveness and hope make for great holiday reading!

Ana Samuel
Academic Director CanaVox

Over the holidays, I like to rest my brain from culture wars and domestic chores and enjoy historical fiction from other eras, particularly those that indulge my moral imagination and aesthetic sensibilities. So I recommend Prince of Foxes (1947 best-seller), a tale of historical fiction set in fifteenth century Italy. It follows the story of Andrea Orsini, a handsome, expert spy who is learning the ways of Machiavellian politics while in the service of the corrupt Cardinal Borgia. You won’t get any other work done as you flip through the sword fights, hired assassins, femmes fatales, treachery, friendships, loyalties, heroism, beauty, sanctity and answers to the ultimate meaning of life. The author, Samuel Shellabarger, is a Princeton alum from the class of 1909 and was an English Professor at Princeton from 1914 to 1923. He resided a mere mile away from the future site of the Witherspoon Institute, at 107 Library Place. If he were alive today, I think he’d be a good friend of the Institute.

Serena Sigillito
Editor – Public Discourse

My book recommendation is The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s, by Colleen Carroll Campbell. In this follow-up to her popular spiritual memoir My Sisters the Saints, Campbell tackles a little known but deeply dangerous vice: spiritual perfectionism. In today’s culture, it’s easy to become obsessed with self-improvement, constantly feeling like we have to do more and be more. Working hard and seeing measurable success gives us a feeling of control, which is an addictive thing. Campbell writes:

What other common thread links today’s Tiger Moms and Helicopter Coaches, work martyrs who won’t take their vacation days, and exercise addicts who anguish over missed workouts? What connects our soaring rates of pharmaceutical addictions and eating disorders, our escalating levels of anxiety and depression, our epidemic of credit card debt, and the explosive popularity of cosmetic surgery? Many factors contribute to these trends, yes, but a key driver is our demand for perfection.

For believers, spiritual perfectionism is an equally pervasive and insidious problem. It’s dangerous precisely because so many of us mistake it for a virtue. Spiritual perfectionism is that same obsession with control and flawlessness transposed into our relationship with God. It’s rooted in the lie that we can earn God’s love and work our way to heaven. Most of us know better than to think that out loud, and yet we often live like we believe it.

As the New Year approaches, with all its emphasis on resolutions for change, this is a perfect time to pick up The Heart of Perfection. It’s a light enough read that you won’t feel like you’re working too hard on vacation. With its readable prose and compelling storytelling, Campbell’s book is approachable and engaging, and it would make a great gift. But there’s depth here, too, and much that is worth returning to and reflecting upon.

R.J. Snell
Director of Academic Programs
Contributing Editor – Public Discourse

One side of my family were Germans who had settled near Odessa at the “invitation” of Catherine the Great. While the family did not speak about it much, and many of the details are sketchy, the “lucky” ones had already fled to Canada as their situation became untenable near the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. Those who remained suffered greatly after the October Revolution and during the purges, and one “granny” told stories of fleeing in the night, and another “auntie” had survived the camps. So it seemed I was learning something of my own history when reading Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows, an account of Stalin’s purges and starvation of the Ukraine, a horror often overlooked. More than anything, Grossman is pondering the meaning and value of interior freedom in the face of evil, and why so many are willing to abandon their own freedom—and violate the freedom of others—in the name of ideology, spite, and thirst for power. There’s little in the book that is shocking or graphic, but Grossman doesn’t flinch from a thorough examination of the human capacity for the inhuman, as well as the commitment of a few to maintain their own inner citadel.

Ryan T. Anderson
Founder and Editor-in-Chief – Public Discourse

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

Public Discourse will be reprinting some of our best Chanukah and Christmas reflections next week. 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 $25,000.

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