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Twenty 20th-Century Books for Young Autodidacts

Photo by Alfons Morales / Unsplash
(Actually, there are 33, if you count the honorable mentions)

Joseph Epstein is arguably the best essayist alive. He’s urbane, funny, self-deprecating. He’s a fine stylist, and he’s remarkably well-read.

I remember William F. Buckley marveling at Epstein’s erudition and wondering how Epstein could have so many anecdotes and references at his disposal. Coming from a guy of Buckley’s learning, that’s high praise.

So it was with great interest that I turned to his essay, “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan” and his attempt to respond to a recent college graduate’s question: “What books should I read?” This question, Epstein said, was nothing less than asking, “How do I become an educated person?”

Epstein used the question to launch his essay, but he didn’t provide a list of books. He suggested that a person always have a classic going: Cervantes, Tocqueville, Montaigne, Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Plato. That’s thumpingly good advice, especially for someone like Epstein (and me), who always has two or more books going at once. It keeps one’s reading life varied.

But what about a list? Epstein said there is no dispositive list, and he’s right. The canon of Western civilization alone is neither settled nor static, there isn’t enough time to read everything in one lifetime, and everyone’s situation is different.

One list won’t fit all.

Still, I think a list is possible, and here’s mine.

The list doesn’t include any classics (Epstein’s advice to keep a classic going at all times stands) and it ignores the Bible (which should be a mainstay if you’re Catholic). Every book was published after 1900.

Although the list is geared toward young men and women, maturer adults would also benefit from them as well.

I won’t argue that it’s the best list, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with the list, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve omitted a few that should’ve made it. But despite its potential shortcomings, I highly recommend every book on it.

The List

James Schall, Another Sort of Learning

This is my lead book because it’s full of reading lists. Indeed, Schall introduced me to many of the books listed here. It channels a person’s reading and one’s intellectual life (a crucial thing, since many youngsters have no idea where to start or how to proceed, and today’s lame college educations aren’t helping).

Added bonus: I recently discovered that Ignatius Press has issued it on Kindle.

Tomas Spidlik, The Spirituality of the Christian East

After reading this book a few years after it came out in 1986, I thought it would become a modern classic. It hasn’t.

But it’s perfect for understanding our brothers in the Catholic/Orthodox east. In the process of gaining that understanding, you’ll also understand the western spiritual tradition in general. Related and also recommended: Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Most of Lewis’ books should be read, but this one in particular helps a person think like an intelligent Christian. I also recommend The Screwtape Letters. For commentaries on Lewis, try Gilbert Meilaender’s A Taste for the Other and Peter Kreeft’s C.S. Lewis: A Critical Essay.

Montague Brown, The One-Minute Philosopher

This book’s easy prose provides a coherent explanation of virtues and vices. There’s no need to read it front to back; just pick it up and read the entries that seem interesting. Highly recommended for high schoolers.

The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas

Okay, technically, this isn't a 20th-century book, but Joseph Pieper (see below) put it together in the 20th century, plus it's stunning: I'm not sure I've ever seen so much wisdom packed into such a small volume and such short passages. Each aphorism can be pondered and pondered and pondered some more. It's just $2.99 on Kindle. A steal.

Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind

This is not a handbook about becoming a good little Republican. It’s a parade of biographies that illustrate how to apply the highest truths to societal and cultural issues. Another great Kirk book: Enemies of the Permanent Things (paperback just $7; collector edition just $1,470 . . . 1/28/23).

I just discovered you can get TCM on Kindle for just $4.99. That might be the steal of the decade.

Robin Daniels, The Virgin Eye

Catholicism laced into the practice of mindfulness, spiked with a bit of Jungian psychology. Parts of the book absolutely captivated me, prompting me to put it down and just ponder for minutes. I bought copies for my four oldest children.

E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed

A great way to begin to understand some of the highest (and mystical) truths of our existence. This might be "number one" on my list. It was out of print for awhile, so I bought extra copies in case I ever loss my primairy copy.

Thomas Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization

There are a lot of good Catholic histories out there, but this one is probably my favorite. It doesn’t purport to be a survey of western civilization, but you’ll come away feeling like you’ve just taken such a course, with a whole new perspective. Another excellent Woods book: The Church and the Market.

Henry Veatch, Aristotle, A Contemporary Appreciation

This is an excellent introduction to Aristotle’s thought, and it will help a person learn how to think. Although it’s an introductory book, it’s not written at such an elementary level that it’s painful to read.

Herbert A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine

This book isn’t nearly as narrow as the title implies. The titles of the first two chapters (“The Theology of Fallen Man” and “The Psychology of Fallen Man”) signal its broad scope.

Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain

The questions with which Merton struggled and the answer he found (the monastic life) are relevant to any Christian in any age.

Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

These are the collected letters of Flannery O’Connor. They will give insight into writing, religion, and how to live.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Chesterton is not easy to read, but the effort of getting used to him will be amply rewarded. He was a powerful thinker who grappled with the heaviest issues lightly. At least spend sixty cents to get a Kindle version. All of his other books are also highly recommended, especially The Dumb Ox (Kindle: 99 cents) and The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic.

Josef Pieper, Leisure, The Basis of Culture

This is a difficult book. It must be read slowly and carefully, but its message is indispensable: “Don’t be busy all the time. Take time to do nothing.” Pieper explains the reasons only as a first-rate philosopher can. Also highly recommended: A Guide to Thomas Aquinas, The Silence of St. Thomas, and the Pieper Anthology.

Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts

A fact-filled and curiously-inspiring book about a series of converts to the Catholic faith in twentieth-century England.

John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture

It shows how things could be and should be. Quixotic, but that’s the whole point. Beautifully written. Unfortunately, the book appears to be out of print and you can only get it for an exorbitant price. Fortunately, there's a free PDF.

Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages and God and Philosophy

Great introductory books to metaphysics. Also, try Jacques Maritain’s Introduction to Philosophy.

Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith

I think so highly of this book, I’ve undertaken to translate it into English. Belloc was a superb stylist, I suppose, and widely read in his day, but he doesn’t translate well today, so I’m trying to bring this refutation of Whig history into the 21st century. Also recommended: The Servile State. Both Belloc books are just 99 cents on Kindle.

Clare Booth Luce, editor, Saints for Now

No Catholic reading list would be complete without a dose of saints, and this is one of the best doses you’ll find. Its contributors were some of the best writers of the mid-twentieth century. Its semi-intellectual approach makes the book a great fit for this list. I learned recently that Luce was, well, loose in her mores, even after converting, which certainly took a lot of shine off this splendid book, but the book itself is still a masterpiece of mini-biography.