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Classic, Contemporary, and Controversy: The 2022 Public Discourse Book List

Reading recommendations from Public Discourse and the Witherspoon Institute.

Editors’ note: At the close of every year, we ask the Public Discourse editorial team and Witherspoon staff to write about the best book or books they read that year. We’ve listed the 2022 recommendations below. Happy reading!

 

Nathaniel Peters, Contributing editor

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Earlier this year I finished A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume series that gently satirizes British life from before World War I through the 1960s. I found the series to be a witty, melancholic meditation on the passage of time, a study in the ways in which people pass into and out of our lives, like dancing couples on a ballroom floor. The world of Powell’s characters remains constant over time, and we watch the same characters’ virtues and vices unfold as they pass in and out of the life of the narrator. Over the two years that I intermittently read the series, it helped me appreciate that the parts of my own life that I had taken to be constant were really the set pieces for Act I, and that the curtain was rising on Act II as grandparents died and children were born. If you enjoy Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse, Anthony Powell would make a good companion for 2023 and beyond.

 

Ryan Anderson, Founding editor

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II by George Weigel

George Weigel is perhaps the most well known and influential American Vatican-watcher and public theologian. The author or editor of over thirty books, he is known best by many readers for his award-winning, best-selling biography of Pope Saint John Paul II, Witness to Hope. Now, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, Weigel turns his attention to why the Council was needed, what’s gone well, what’s gone poorly, and where we go from here. In To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II, Weigel tells the story of the most important event in the life of the Catholic Church since the 16th century, applying his deep familiarity with the inner workings of the Vatican and the fruit of decades of learning to explain why Pope John XXIII called the Council, the situation the Church found itself in at the precipice of our postmodern condition, and how the documents the council fathers left continue to show the way forward for a society based in freedom and the dignity of the human person and a Church centered in Christ’s love, with the mission to spread the Gospel and the way of truth to all people. This legacy was hard fought, and George leaves his readers with a firm grasp of the drama and debates that animated the council for years during the 1960s, and shows how the principles that triumphed there, and later shaped the core of the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, are more relevant than ever to a world that denies the truth about man, about society, and about his ultimate calling.

 

Devorah Goldman, Contributing editor

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I admit I never made it all the way through a work by Dickens until this year—I believed the myth that he was paid by the word. But at the urging of a good friend, I determined to plow through David Copperfield this year. It was worth it to make the acquaintance of Betsy Trotwood; Dickens and Christmas go together, and who wouldn’t want a stern, eccentric, loving aunt to hang out with over the winter break?

 

Matthew Franck, Contributing editor

Seeking God’s Face: Meditations for the Church Year by Joseph Ratzinger

A Grain of Wheat: Collected Sermons of Father Leonard R. Klein edited by Christa Ressmeyer Klein

Some of the most interesting books available today, at least for Catholic readers, come from Cluny Media, a relatively new publisher (in business only six or seven years) based in Rhode Island. Cluny’s books are for the most part reprints of classics in apologetics, theology, and literature—authors include Robert Hugh Benson, Etienne Gilson, Ronald Knox, Rumer Godden, Sigrid Undset, and the like—but it has also begun to bring out some new titles of its own. One I have recently purchased is Joseph Ratzinger’s Seeking God’s Face: Meditations for the Church Year, a slender volume that features the emeritus pope’s characteristic economy of expression and penetrating insights.

A second new Cluny title touches my own life quite directly: A Grain of Wheat: Collected Sermons of Father Leonard R. Klein. I knew Fr. Klein, and wish I’d known him still better. A former Lutheran pastor with a wife and children, Leonard Klein became a Catholic priest in 2006 and served the diocese of Wilmington, Delaware (in which I grew up). A decade ago he asked me to come give a couple of talks, and four years ago he celebrated the Mass of Christian burial for my mother, giving a wonderful homily while suffering a great deal already from the leukemia that would take his life less than a year later. A servant of God his entire life, Fr. Klein was an especially gifted homilist, as his widow Christa Klein demonstrates with this judicious selection, arranged according to the liturgical year. It’s a fitting Christmas gift for priests—both the good homilists and (especially) the indifferent ones! And like all Cluny’s books, this one is beautifully designed.

I haven’t forgotten the five or ten readers out there who want to embark on reading all of Shakespeare’s works in 2023. As in past years (first at First Things and now for the third year here at Public Discourse), I have updated the plan so readers can make their way through the Bard’s plays on weekdays and his sonnets and other poems on weekends.

 

R. J. Snell, Editor-in-Chief

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age by Rémi Brague

My first book suggestion will cause a storm of controversy in my own household, but for anyone who enjoys Jane Austen yet would appreciate more interesting characters and writing that is funny, Anthony Trollope is your author. The Warden is a classic, but I’m near to finishing Can You Forgive Her? in the old Oxford University Press edition picked up at the annual Bryn Mawr–Wellesley sale. Hours of delight, and Trollope delivers absolutely perfect sentences. I can already hear my children protesting my snub of Austen, but I’m confident they’ll come to agree with me in time.

Also, I thoroughly enjoyed Rémi Brague’s short book Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age. Brague is unsystematic, but his writing is always brilliant and insightful, and his take on the modern project and its misunderstanding of freedom is a good primer, and something to have the children and grandchildren read before they head off to college.

 

Elayne Allen, Managing editor

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I binged Jane Austen novels this year—some I had read before, others for the first time. The one that I’ve dwelled on most is Persuasion. This Austen novel, unlike her others, introduces an already mature heroine, Anne Elliot. After seeing her former fiancé again after seven years, Anne faces recurring heartbreak as they join the same circle of friends. Anne’s sharp mind and generous disposition, alongside her education and reading habit, give her the resources to remain poised and generous despite intense pangs of heartbreak. Usually, the most believable characters in novels are convincing because they show us the ways sin quietly takes root and taints us. I’ve never read a book that so persuasively presents a fully human yet unusually virtuous character. And, a certain colleague’s misguided opinion notwithstanding, Persuasion is of course hilarious.

 

Kelly Hanlon, Contributing editor

Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck

I grew up traveling from Kentucky to the New Jersey shore to spend the summer with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. As we got older, my parents would occasionally drop my sister and me off at the shore and return to pick us up several weeks later. Then, at sixteen, I had the chance to drive across country with an older cousin as she moved from New Jersey to Nevada. What a trip that was for a newly licensed driver! Although traveling has always held a special place in my heart, it proved more difficult than usual during Covid. Coupled with the pandemic, we’ve celebrated the birth of two children in the past two years and traveling with little ones brings its own challenges. So, this year, I journeyed with John Steinbeck across mid-century America in Travels with Charley in Search of AmericaAs contemporary political commentary swirled around issues like freedom, inflation, and race, listening to stories about driving across country and meeting folks in what we now call “middle America” was a real treat. Steinbeck has such a way with storytelling that you could nearly hear the sounds of his rickety camper and smell the coffee in the diners where he shared meals with truckers and locals alike. For anyone searching for a little getaway from the modern busy-ness, slow down with Steinbeck as he takes you on a tour of America when nearly all still looked to the future with a hopeful expectation.

 

Micah Watson, Contributing editor

The Second World War volumed by Winston Churchill

Every night for the last few years I’ve read to my wife as she falls asleep. One needs a particular sort of book for this closing ritual of our day: something interesting enough for me to want to read, but not so interesting that it intrigues my wife and keeps her from drifting off. Winston Churchill probably did not have us in mind when he wrote his six volume The Second World War, but it fits the bill perfectly. I am mid-way through the third volume, having absorbed and no doubt forgotten untold minutiae about the disastrous Norway campaign of 1940, the mind-numbing details about raw tonnage and shipping logistics, diplomatic maneuverings in the cabinet and within the British commonwealth, and telegrams back and forth between Churchill and commanders in the field. Even those details—and that’s just the surface and excludes the appendices—hold interest, though scattered throughout the unfolding story are gems that one won’t soon forget: Churchill honoring Chamberlain as his health failed and he stepped down from serving in the cabinet; Churchill’s telegrams back and forth with President Roosevelt with a mix of poignant persuasion and realpolitik; the last-ditch, desperate offer to the French, when the German triumph was nigh, of creating one English-French nation-state so as to continue the fight from afar; the speeches and visits amid the Blitz when Britain and her empire stood alone against the Nazi menace. Those interested in that particular war, in this magnificent but flawed man, or in the very best and worst of our crooked human nature, will find much to slowly savor in these volumes.

 

Patrick Brown, Contributing editor

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl Trueman

The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz

I would be remiss in not joining two other recommendations from last year and applauding my EPPC colleague Carl Trueman for writing one of the best recent books understanding the intellectual trends that got us to where we are now. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution explores how the personal became political, the political personal, and how cultural ideas and technological advances have shaped the way we live. But I’ll also offer an endorsement of a very different interrogation of the culture of the twentieth century and how it was indelibly changed by technology and liberation. Last year’s documentary, “Get Back,” the surprisingly engrossing look into the creation of The Beatles’ penultimate album, Let It Be, sparked something of a moptop renaissance (not that they ever really went away). For those too young to know Beatlemania as anything other than Facebook photos of our parents at Paul McCartney tours, Bob Spitz’s The Beatles: The Biography is a mammoth work, cinematic in scope. He traces the Fab Four’s journey, from the backyards of Liverpool to being smuggled out of screaming, frothing stadia in the trunks of police cars—and in so doing, helping to create youth culture, fandom, and the idea of global celebrity. Whether or not you said you wanted a revolution, we all got one.

 

Serena Sigillito, Editor-at-Large

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Like his earlier Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s newest book, Cloud Cuckoo Landfeatures a broad-ranging cast of characters whose lives initially seem disparate, but are eventually revealed to be intricately connected. Unlike All the Light, however, the characters are not bound together primarily by a historical time period, event, or geographic location. Instead, they are linked by a book: an ancient (fictional) Greek codex written by Antonius Diogenes.

From a young orphan girl living through the fall of Constantinople and a member of the oncoming sultan’s army to a Korean war veteran in rural Idaho and a young man drawn into the plot of online eco-terrorists: all of these work together across the centuries to preserve the text that will change the course of a futuristic interstellar mission to leave earth and colonize a new world. Blending and bending genres, Cloud Cuckoo Land is a beautifully rendered affirmation of not only the power of the written word but, more importantly, the infinite worth and unknowable impact of the life of each and every human person.

 

Jamie Boulding, Contributing editor for special projects

The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise by Cardinal Robert Sarah

From Pseudo-Dionysius’s ancient vision of God’s “hidden silence” to Wittgenstein’s modern insistence that philosophers “must pass over in silence” what more properly belongs to the mystical, the need for silence and solitude has been recognized throughout theological history. Yet the pervasiveness of modern technology and the contentiousness of our polarized political culture mean that it is harder than ever to seek out—or even to think to seek out—moments of silence. One of the most profound correctives to this careless neglect is Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, which suggests that silence is fundamental to both divine and human expression. He explains that silence is the language of God, silence is inscribed in our being, and so it is only through cultivating silence that we can find God. Silence is necessary for entering into prayer and the liturgy, since it expresses God’s mystery more deeply than words. While Cardinal Sarah focuses on the importance of true inner stillness in recognizing God’s silent presence, readers—including those who do not share his theological commitments—might also find value in his account of silence as the wellspring of creativity, artistry, love, and devotion.

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