Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
I had a young man and his fiance come to me recently and ask if I would give them marriage counseling. “Absolutely not,” I responded. “I’m not qualified. But I’d be glad to meet with you and answer any questions you have.” My only condition was that they read this book, which is possibly the greatest Christian novel ever written, but is certainly the best novel on marriage ever written. Again, there may be some other great book on marriage I have never read, but I simply refuse to believe there is one better than this. There are several marriages in this book, but two are primary: that of Levin and Kitty, the paradigm of a Christian marriage, and that of Anna and Vronsky, which is not really a marriage, since they are merely cohabitating, but a mockery of marriage. What Levin and Kitty have is love, since they constantly give to one another; what Anna and Vronsky have is mutual idolatry, where they only take from one another. It is Christian marriage and its evil twin. When Hollywood got ahold of this story and made a recent movie of it, they completely left out the Christianity, which is key to this story. In fact, they subordinated the Levin-Kitty relationship to the Anna Vronsky relationship altogether, a change which Tolstoy would have reviled. Ignore the movie and read the book. It will change your life.
The best translation of this is by Louise and Aylmer Maude and it exists in a wonderful audio version read by David Horovitch. The Pevear translation is also good.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
I had a psychological block about ever even attempting this book because it was to people of my generation the quintessential long book–even though I had read longer books than this. But once you begin this book, the length becomes your friend and the fact that it ever ends an enemy. You simply don’t want it to end. In fact, I have had a number of people tell me how sad they were when they had finished because they would simply miss these characters. Tolstoy had the great gift of being a master story teller who could create an utterly real world with utterly real people. There are certain books that I can fall asleep listening to and some I can’t. I realized one day that the difference was the kind of world they created. I can fall asleep in Tolstoy’s world because it has a palpable moral order. This is a world that you can go to sleep in and feel safe. The only drawback is that you can’t live in it long enough because, as long as this book is, it is not long enough. The story’s only weakness is that it doesn’t last forever. I recommend against reading the Constance Garnett translation of Tolstoy’s books. The best translation is that by Louise and Aylmer Maude.
Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
I heard someone say that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was the greatest evocation of the Christian West ever written. Every time I read it (and I think I have read it about six times now) this judgment seems more accurate to me. Every time I read it I see some deeper insight into the human condition, which is a quest, like that of Frodo and Sam. It is a world in which evil must be fought, and where, as bad as it seems sometimes, we have to have faith in the fact that good wins in the end and that we can make a difference. I was in a discussion recently with prominent state policymakers on how to handle an important cultural issue in our state legislature. During the discussion, I realized that most of the leaders in the room were incapable of fighting because they had already given up. The first thing that came to my mind was King Denethor of Rohan, who, when Gandalf finds him, has already given up hope that Middle Earth can be saved. Only through the stern ministrations of Gandalf does he finally come to realize that, whatever the odds, he must fight for what is right. And as it turns out, it is partly through the army he leads in the Battle of Pellenor Fields, that the evil forces of Mordor are defeated. This is a book that is every bit as relevant to our times as it was to the time in which it was written. Again, the movie version of this story has many good things about it, but it doesn’t compare to the book, partly because of how much it has to leave out.
The excellent audio version of this book is read by Rob Inglis for Recorded Books. Years ago, I listened to Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy and I remember thinking, “This narrator would be the perfect person to read The Lord of the Rings.” About a year later, our library got the Recorded Books audio for LOTR. I checked it out, put the tape into the cassette deck as I was pulling out of the library parking lot, and it was him! With the possible exception of Jim Dale, Inglis is the best audio reader I have come across. In LOTR, he convincingly sings the songs (that were tragically left out of the movies) and beautifully recites Tolkien’s excellent poetry.
Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
This is my wife’s favorite book. It is the story of an old Black Anglican minister in South Africa in the time of apartheid whose son has moved from their impoverished tribal town to the city of Johannesburg and who hasn’t been heard from since. One day, he and his wife receive a letter informing them that their daughter, who is also in Johannesburg, is in trouble. He takes what little money they have saved up and goes in search of his children in the city. He finds his daughter a prostitute and addicted to alcohol, and his son a suspect in a murder case. Johannesburg in this story is Babylon, luring young people away from their tribal homes to destruction. Despite the issue of apartheid, which plays a key role in the story, this is not a political book. This is a story of faithfulness and, ultimately, redemption. It is the story about how one faithful man comes to terms with the requirements of justice, and how mercy overcomes all. It is a stunningly beautiful book, not only in its message, but its telling. Dostoevsky, making a theological point in one of his books, says, “Beauty will save the world.” If this is true, this book will play a part.
The Recorded Books audio version of Cry the Beloved Country is probably the best audio book I have ever heard. It is read by Maggie Soboil, a South African woman whose beautiful voice fully approximates the author’s beautiful prose.
Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
I believe Wendell Berry to be the greatest living American writer. He lives here in Kentucky, my home state, and he is one of the few authors I can read for no reason other than the sheer enjoyment and enlightenment of reading him. This is the story of Jayber Crow, who is orphaned as a boy, is raised by his aunt and uncle, and who, upon their death, is sent to an orphanage. He sojourns to a Bible College, thinking he is called to be a minister, but leaves when he cannot find the answers to his theological questions. After a short stint as a stable boy in Lexington, Kentucky, he learns how to cut hair, and makes his way to his original Kentucky home, Port William, and finds his real calling as the town barber. It is Jayber himself who narrates the story, and we see him as others do not. It is he who cleans the church and he who buries the town’s dead. There is a scene in the graveyard where he reflects on the importance of memory and how a community is maintained only through our remembrance of it that is, in my mind, one of the great scenes in literature. At first I was uncomfortable with the relationship between Jayber and Maddie, until the writer Anthony Esolen pointed out that she is Dante’s Beatrice. There was a moral purpose in what at first appeared to me as morally problematic. This book is one part Dicken’s David Copperfield, one part Homer’s Odyssey, and two parts Dante’s Divine Comedy. The least bookish of all my children says that this is his favorite book. I also highly commend Wendell Berry’s short stories. They are sheer delight. They are collected in two books, That Distant Land, and A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership. If you want to sample Berry, you can read his short story “Stand by Me” at the Atlantic Magazine‘s website.
The audio for this book (of which there is only one available) is problematic, largely because the reader does not know the way Kentuckians speak, and so we get some strange Louisiana-tinged accent and the mispronunciation of place names (Athens, Kentucky is actually pronounced “Aye-thens,” and Versailles, “Ver-sales”—which sounds funny to outsiders, but that’s the way we talk here). For this reason I recommend not purchasing the audio and sticking to the book.
The Talisman, by Sir Walter Scott
I just finished this book, the first I have read of Sir Walter Scott. Scott—who, with the exception of his book Ivanhoe, is seldom read today—was the most popular writer in English for a good hundred years or so and now I know why. I had always heard how hard he was to read because of his exalted, formal prose. But if you are able to read the other books on this list, you can read this one. And if you have any trouble with it, it is trouble made worthwhile by what you will gain from this book. Scott singlehandedly invented the literary genre of historical fiction in the 18th century. He was already a popular poet and wrote the Waverley novels (the first of a long series of historical novels, the first of which was titled Waverley) under a pseudonym. Word of the actual identity of the author leaked out, and he was invited by the King of England to dinner so that he could meet “the author of Waverley.” The historical background of the Crusades frames a fascinating comparison between Christianity and Islam. I have always thought, as Arnold Lunn once pointed out, that we have an obligation to judge any position by the best arguments for it, not the worst ones we can think up. There are several places in this story where two great world religions come into conflict—in the action and in the dialogue. Scott shows us the character of Western Christianity in the persons of King Richard and Sir Kenneth of Scotland—and the character of Islam in the person of Saladin, perhaps its most attractive historical exemplar. We really feel—justly, I think—that Scott is trying to give us the best arguments for both sides. And despite the fact that we feel we have been given the best representation of Islam, still we see the superiority of Christianity, and we sense that we are able to judge fairly because we have heard both sides. To judge the Crusades rightly we must know, not only how the Crusaders failed in actual practice, but what they aspired to in their intent (and these differ in the different Crusades). This is an excellent book on both. In fact, I realized after reading The Talisman the extent to which Scott is the great spokesman for Christendom, and the next time someone asks me what it is about Western civilization that makes it worth trying to save, I am going to point them to this book.
There is an excellent audio version of this book read by Robert Whitfield for Blackstone Audio Books.
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas
Some of these books I have read and some I have listened to (and some both). When I looked at the length of the recording of Dumas’ great book (52 hours) I wondered about whether it was really worth all of that time (the fact that I listened to it mostly while driving helped convince me to do it). The other reason for my hesitancy in reading Dumas comes from a disparaging remark I read C.S. Lewis make about his books. But I found that assessment to be wrong. And, once again, don’t let the length of a book fool you. In fact, fool you will feel yourself when, halfway through the story you can’t stop reading. If it weren’t for the existence of The Lord of the Rings, I would consider The Count of Monte Cristo as perhaps the greatest Christian adventure story ever written. It continues to amaze me how a book written in the 19th century can speak so directly to a reader in the 21st, but this book does. It begins with the protagonist Edmond Dantès, an aspiring young merchant ship’s officer, who is tragically caught up in the politics of the Napoleonic wars and is mistakenly suspected of treason. It sets off a whole chain of well-plotted events which are largely motivated by his own desire for revenge on those who cheated him of a marriage to the girl he loved and the life of his father. As the reader you want vengeance for the wrongs committed against Dantès every bit as much as the character himself. But in the end you are far more satisfied by the redemption that eventually comes. The plot twists in this story are astounding. What a great Christian epic!
The audio book read by John Lee for Blackstone Audio is very, very good.
The Violent Bear it Away, by Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor is famous mostly for her short stories. But before her early death at the age of 34 from lupus, she wrote two novels: Wise Blood, and The Violent Bear it Away. I have not yet read all of her short stories, but I have read many of them, as well as both novels, and I believe (barring the reading of some even more astonishing short story of hers I may read in the future) this novel to be her greatest work. It is about a boy, living with his great uncle in a forest in Georgia. His great uncle, Old Tarwater, kidnapped the orphaned boy from his uncle years earlier and is raising him to be, like himself, a prophet. When I teach this book and we read the first paragraph, my classes always break out in laughter at the implicit humor in her description of the death of the old man at the breakfast table. It sounds morbid, and O’Connor will seem morbid to those reading her for the first time. The first thing you must do in reading O’Connor is to understand her impish sense of humor (which you can do by reading her letters published in The Habit of Being). You get a taste for her sense of humor when she says, “a lot of people get killed in my stories, but nobody gets hurt.” Once you “get” O’Connor, you will never let her go. She is trying to shock the modern reader out of his secular lethargy by confronting him with stark characters and a sometimes absurd plot. In this book, the boy is caught between his seemingly crazy great uncle who thinks he is a Christian prophet and his equally secular, scientistic uncle who thinks he can save the boy by convincing him that his great uncle’s crazy religion is a sham. In this contrast, O’Connor captures the two extremes of the modern personality–and the modern world. She takes a character with whom we are, at first, completely unsympathetic, and forces us to accept the fact that, ultimately, he is right. He is, says Buford Munson, the Black man on the farm next door, “deep in Jesus’ misery.” The scene in which his uncle Rayber follows the boy one night after sneaking out of his house to a Pentecostal church and looks into the window as a young girl preaches a frightening apocalyptic sermon has to be one of the great moments in literature. I had a class of seniors one year who were, for some reason, the most cynical students I have ever had. I was teaching them several nonfiction Christian works, none of which seemed to be reaching them. Finally, finding myself with a couple of weeks to spare in the curriculum and getting desperate, I had them read O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People.” Somehow this story—about a traveling Bible salesman who steals a lady’s wooden leg (if you don’t see the humor in that, think again)—reached their souls in a way that the three other great Christian authors we read didn’t even touch. I can’t explain it. I only know that it’s true.
The audio is read by Mark Bramhall for Blackstone Audio and is very good.
The Thanatos Syndrome, by Walker Percy
After reading this book–which I read after reading a few of his other books–I realized how great a thinker Percy really was and to what high place we should exalt him in the pantheon of 20th century Christian writers. Like many of the authors above, Percy does not shy away from portraying the world in all its sins and imperfections. His characters, although many are good, are not perfect. His stories are like a prism through which we see the good, not in the light itself, but in its refraction. Almost all of Percy’s stories are satirical in some sense: They show us how crazy our world is by telling us a story which at first we think is some absurd product of his own mind, only to realize halfway through that this seemingly absurd world is really our own. This book is about a psychologist who has just gotten out of prison and has been allowed to practice again under the supervision of several former colleagues. He discovers a plot being perpetrated by a government agency that is introducing drugs into the local water supply that accentuates people’s animal desires while rendering them harmless to their fellow humans. The question he asks is this one: If we could find a way to satisfy every human desire and at the same time render everyone peaceful and harmonious, would we do it? Percy knew that you could do this only at the cost of humanity itself. Percy is the great 20th century defender the human–not humanity as we would like it to be, but as God has made it–in all its imperfections. This book is a sequel to the hilarious Love in the Ruins, in which the same doctor has invented a device called the “ontological lapsometer,” which not only diagnoses your spiritual malady, but cures it. The only problem is that the government gets ahold of it and uses it for its own sinister purposes, threatening to bring about the Apocalypse. And don’t miss The Moviegoer, as well as his priceless Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.
The audio needs someone who can do the accents of the native Louisianans in this book, and David Hilder is not really suited for it, but it is passable. Christopher Hurt , the reader for The Moviegoer, on the other hand, is outstanding in this regard.
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I have disappointed a number of people by preferring the writing of Tolstoy to that of Dostoevsky. They are often pitted against each other because they are considered to be the two great Russian novelists. The advocates of Dostoevsky point to his more orthodox theology, and Tolstoy’s relative heterodoxy (many of Tolstoy’s beliefs seem more akin to freemasonry). But Tolstoy always seems to rise above his bad theology in his books, and in any case good theologians don’t necessarily make great writers. Nevertheless the flaws in how Dostoevsky writes are more than made up for in what he has to say. The Brothers Karamazov is rightly considered one of the great Christian books. In it he tells of three brothers, the sons of the dissipated Old Karamazov. Like O’Connor’s book above, we have here what literary critic Alan Tate called “the double retreat from the moral center” expressed in the nature of the characters themselves: Ivan the rationalist, Dmitri, enslaved to his passions, and Alyosha, who is a balance between the two. It is the story of a murder which drives each character to his ultimate and proper conclusion. In Dostoevsky’s books, the whole is sometimes not that much greater than the parts: The story in its entirety is not necessarily better than the parts that make it up, but the parts are so good that you end up with something great anyway. The story of the Grand Inquisitor alone would make this book great, but there is the previous chapter, “Rebellion” which is one of the most harrowing confrontations with the problem of evil ever written. And the confrontation between Ivan and the Devil, in whom he professes not to believe, is brilliant. I should qualify this by saying that this book may not be the first work of Dostoevsky to read. I frequently advise those new to his writing to begin with Crime and Punishment, since it is told from inside the mind of one person, Raskolnikov. It is much easier to manage than the more sprawling Karamazov and will familiarize the reader with Dostoevsky’s philosophical approach to literary art. My personal favorite is Notes from Underground, but you have to have read a few other Dostoevsky books in order to fully appreciate some of his philosophical points there. I selected Karamazov over these other books for purposes of this list because it is more comprehensive in its vision than Crime and Punishment and because this is a list of novels and Notes from Underground is really a more purely philosophical reflection.
I have not found a good audio of this book. I listened to Frederick Davidson’s version and really wished I hadn’t.
There are other books I thought of putting on this list but didn’t. I chose those books in which the Christianity is palpable.There are also a number of other books, such as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Robert Penn Warren’s All the Kings Men, but the Christianity in them is mostly the result of the culture in which the author was writing (and, because of this, assuming), and because the Faith is simply less integral to them. They are inarguably great books which every Christian should read, but they are for another list.