Reading List!

I read as much as I can on, well, a pretty narrow range of subjects. Oops. But supposing you’re interested in those subjects too — Christian history, theology, and ethics; left political theory; and political philosophy — then maybe this list will be helpful to you. I certainly hope so!

Christianity

Augustine’s Confessions, translated by F.J. Sheed

FJ Sheed was an interesting figure in his own right, and he shared a couple of hobbies with Augustine himself: theology and poetry. Augustine wrote poetry as a young man, though only a few verses remain; nonetheless, his poetic talent runs through all of his writing, especially the deeply introspective Confessions. Sheed’s translation faithfully reflects not only the substance of the Confessions, but their intimate beauty, too.

Augustine’s City of God, translated by R.W. Dyson

Robert Dyson is a scholar of political theory and Christian political history. He’s one of my favorite interlocutors when it comes to Augustine’s politics, and I love his sharp translation of City of God, which captures its polemical character as well as its searching theological core.

The Pilgrim City: Social and Political Ideas in the Writing of St. Augustine of Hippo, by R.W. Dyson

Augustine wrote some five million words in his lifetime, and though he treated a dizzying number of subjects, his handling of some (for instance, property ownership) was less than systematic. Here, Dyson pulls together material from Augustine’s letters, sermons, commentaries on Scripture and more to build a detailed survey of his social and political thought.

Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, by R.A. Markus

Robert Markus was an ingenious historian, and a careful reader of the church fathers. This work on Augustine is thorough and dense, but well worth the effort: Markus not only surveys Augustine’s political thought, but traces its origins and ramifications for modern political thinking.

The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism, by Fr. John Hughes

John was my tutor at Jesus College, Cambridge, and he was a brilliant Christian socialist with a stellar, once-in-a-generation intellect and a saintly character. Everyone who knew him loved him, and here, a little of his love is left over for the world to enjoy. His book concerns the Christian understanding of labor versus the modern, capitalistic understanding, and possible pathways forward.

Graced Life: the Writings of John Hughes

More from John, on Christian socialism, work, productivity, and creation, poetics, the church and the state, and much more.

Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, by William Cavanaugh

God and Mammon, church and capitalism, eternity and right now.

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

One of the achievements of liberalism has been to make modernity virtually morally unimpeachable. Anyone criticizing modernity is taken to be a reactionary, a revanchist, an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy with renfaire fantasies at best, or a sinister ideological irredentist intent on reversing every bit of modern progress. But it’s not so! The Church, by nature of being a pre-modern institution, maintains a morally salient critique of modernity that is neither quaintly inapplicable nor, well, fashy; and here Cardinal Sarah does a beautiful job of putting that on display.

The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, by William Cavanaugh

Don’t let the title scare you: The argument is not that there’s never been religious violence, or that religious groups have never engaged in violent conflict. It’s a more complicated exploration of the line between ‘religion’ and ‘politics,’ with careful attention paid to the development of each category — by whom, and in service of what.

History & Theory

The End of Ancient Christianity, by R.A. Markus

Another by Markus. Understanding why medieval Christianity wound up so markedly different from ancient Christianity helps explain the destiny of some of Christianity’s earliest — and most radical—precepts.

The World of Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown

Peter Brown is a legend, and his biography of Augustine is very much worth reading as well. This book is a great companion to the Markus book above, as it follows along the same lines, considering shifts in thought between different phases of antiquity that help explain how Christianity changed over time.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, by Etienne Henri Gilson

So what happened in the Latin west after early Christianity transitioned into and out of late antiquity? Gilson picks up where Brown and Markus leave off, tracing the thoroughly and uniquely Christian veins in medieval philosophy. The middle ages are often thought of as a kind of intellectual abyss, but that’s not altogether fair, and this and the next several books aim to debunk that idea.

The Middle Ages, by Johannes Fried

Just a darn good rundown, with careful attention paid to several emergences that would have profound impact on the modern world: the rise of finance, the crisis of authority that helped collapse feudalism, the formation of class and social conscience, and the creep toward the Enlightenment. If you don’t know where you’re coming from, it’s hard to understand where you might be going.

The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, by William Cavanaugh

Don’t let the title scare you: The argument is not that there’s never been religious violence, or that religious groups have never engaged in violent conflict. It’s a more complicated exploration of the line between ‘religion’ and ‘politics,’ with careful attention paid to the development of each category — by whom, and in service of what.

Sources of the Self, by Charles Taylor

Read this in your Augustine binge, if you plan to have one. How interiority and sentiment contributed to modern understandings of the ‘self’ come back, quite surprisingly, to our beloved saint.

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor

When people stop believing, do they believe in nothing — or in anything? What defines secularity, and what has taken the place of the Christian spirit native to medieval society in the Latin west? The answer is complicated, and the nature of secularism isn’t as obvious as it initially appears. This is possibly the most important book on the list in terms of understanding our world today, with all its deficits and glimmers of hope.

Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought, by Eugene McCarraher

McCarraher, according to a little birdie in the know, is working on finishing up another book, which I’m very excited about. He’s mostly an essayist these days, and I read everything he writes. So should you!

Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship, by Eric Gregory

Augustine is a funny figure, loved by traditional Roman Catholics as much as the OG Protestant reformers an their heirs. This is a taste of what I like to imagine as reform Augustine, which is more or less how he usually echoes in American society.

Protestants: the Faith that made the Modern World, by Alec Ryrie

I read this to review it recently and found it endlessly interesting and entertaining; for any scholar of American politics, it’s especially required reading. Plus, it’s a rollicking good time.

The Liberalism Corner

just playing!

Liberalism: the Life of an Idea, by Edmund Fawcett

It feels like every book on liberalism is written by a liberal deeply concerned about the future of liberalism, which, well, is just a feature of liberalism. All joking aside, this is a fantastic and careful dive into liberalism’s modern history, and Fawcett’s enthusiasm for it is sort of infectious.

The Growth of the Liberal Soul, by David Walsh

On the affinities between Christianity and liberalism.

Liberalism and the Moral Life

A great little collection of classic essays on liberalism, with some especially great entries by Charles Taylor and Judith Shklar. A good beginner’s book on learning about liberalism, I think.

What is Property? by P.J. Proudhon

The answer might surprise you! This book was among the first gifts my husband Matt ever gave me. (Matt has been a wonderful teacher to me over the years.) Proudhon now reminds me of Matt not only because this was one of the first texts we discussed in earnest, but because, well, Proudhon writes a lot like Matt — there’s some spicy invective here, but when he’s right, he’s right. And he’s right.

The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice, by Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy

A great gift for all of your “Taxation is theft!” friends. Read it after all the Augustine, if you’re going to read both: Herein you will find that the facts Nagel and Murphy unearth were well-known to Augustine and his Christian peers, and in fact must form the basis of any Christian theory of politics and property.

Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism, by Larry Siedentop

What set the stage for Enlightenment liberalism — the social, political, and economic theory that forms the ideological framework of much of modern life? Before politics could radically change, our understanding of ourselves had to radically change, and Siedentop tracks that shift brilliantly.

Americana

Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, by Thomas Frank

It’s easy to think of Listen, Liberal (and much of TFrank’s oeuvre) as a what’s-wrong-with-the-Democrats entry, but if American politics no longer supports a genuinely pro-worker party, that’s not just a Democrat problem, it’s an American problem. Frank gets to the bottom of it very nicely herein.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

Every country has crime, even random, lurid, disturbing crime. Still I like Capote’s masterpiece because it seems to build to an ominous conclusion about American life — never stated, simply looming, unsaid. This quadruple murder has been solved and its perpetrators hanged — but what byproduct of estrangement and alienation and anomie, of poverty and malice and nihilism — is still slouching off to be born?

The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, by Christopher Lasch

A nice, none-too-gentle corrective for those inclined to the Whig view of history. There are plenty of places to go besides up.

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin Kruse

I reviewed this excellent book for The New Republic during my time there, and I return to it often when considering contemporary politics. It’s much more 20th century focused than the other bits of Christian/political history here, so much more immediately relevant to our current situation.

Stuff I Read for Pure Fun and Enjoyment

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Murder mystery in a medieval monastery. ALL ABOARD.

Five T’ang Poets, translated by David Young

I know, I know. Reading poetry in translation is like taking a shower with saran wrap on. So sue me! But it’s good.

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Classic.

Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, by Lydia Davis

Excellent, crisp reading that’ll stick around in your memory.

About this Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, by Barry Lopez

Just exquisite.