I love Chesterton’s writing, but I just want to warn you that he’s not always easy to read. If you start in the wrong place, you’ll give up and probably never touch him again. (I explained my love for his writing in Love, Rhetoric, and Holiness, published on Catholic Exchange.)
There are the famous lines, like “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” They may take you a beat or two to get, but once you see what he’s said, you’ve gained something in understanding the world. When I first read that line, as an idealistic and rather perfectionist young man, I thought it the dumbest thing I’d ever read. Seemed an excuse for people to do bad work, and there was already enough of that in the world. It took me more than a couple beats to get. When I did see the point, after some maturing and deeper immersion in Christianity, it made sense of lots of vague thoughts and partly-seen intuitions about the fundamental goodness of the world, which I’d believed the world was what we made it. Chesterton gave me words for the way of seeing the world I’d come to, but hadn’t seen very clearly because I didn’t have the words for it.
But there are other passages where he seems to be noodling on in almost a private language. It’s English, but what the words mean, I don’t know. I suggest people who have that experience either skip over the passage, the way you’d cut out a bit of gristle in your meat, or read it as carefully as possible in the expectation that by reading it now you’ve help yourself get it later. In both cases, reading the hard parts of Chesterton is like learning a foreign language. If you keep at it, eventually you’ll get and the reading will suddenly become easier.
Chesterton also wrote a vast number of books. The newbie doesn’t know which to read. Here’s Wikipedia’s list. He wrote over one-hundred of them, including novels, poetry, essays and more essays, newspaper columns, mystery stories, histories, social analyses, biographies, travel books, cultural criticism, literary criticism, and an autobiography. And people keep producing more from all the articles he wrote but never put into books. Eleven volumes (eleven! and they’re a couple hundred pages thick) of his weekly column for the Illustrated London News, which he wrote from 1905 to near his death in 1936, for example.
Which Books to Read
I have a suggestion. here is a list of seven books to start with. It’s a revision of a reading list published in Catholic Exchange several years ago. These should give give you a good introduction to Chesterton and express his mind or imagination or worldview, and you should be able to read them without too many “What is this man saying” moments. I’ve only listed non-fiction but include a shorter list of fiction and poetry at the end. The books are listed in the order I suggest they be read.
Autobiography (1936). Published just after Chesterton died, this winsome introduction to the man and his mind offers less a record of his life than a reflection on the world through selected events and people. Those interested in his Catholicism will want to read his short book The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), as well as the essay collections The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic (1929) and The Well and the Shallows (1935).
Heretics (1905). A collection of essays on his contemporaries, like Shaw and Kipling, and their characteristic errors. These, for the most part, happen to be the characteristic errors of our contemporaries one-hundred-some years later. The introductory and concluding chapters “on the importance of orthodoxy” should certainly be read, but some of the others may be skipped, since understanding them can depend on a knowledge of their long-forgotten subjects almost no one has, because the once-famous don’t usually stay famous.
Orthodoxy (1908). One of Chesterton’s two greatest works, it argues for Christianity through his unfolding discovery that it answered all the questions the world had presented him before he took orthodox Christianity seriously. Some people find the book hard to read, because following the way his mind works is almost (as I said) like learning a new language, but they should persevere. (An earlier work, The Blatchford Controversies, contained in Volume 1 of Ignatius Press’s uniform edition, provides a good short introduction and summary of the arguments of this book and Heretics.) He wrote it as an Anglican, though one who seems to have avoided going to church, but the Catholic bent of his mind is already clear.
The Dumb Ox (1933). Not a very useful biography of St. Thomas Aquinas if you want the details of his life, but a revealing study and a book worth reading even if you don’t read St. Thomas. Chesterton translates all that formal theology into arguments and into stories the rest of us can understand. He explains through Thomas’s life and work the importance of theology and Catholicism’s unique and necessary insights. The great Thomist philosopher and historian of the last century, Etienne Gilson, famously said that he’d studied Thomas his whole life and could never have written this book.
The Everlasting Man (1925). The other of Chesterton’s two greatest works, and the one written after he became a Catholic, this book reads history as a preparation for and then a working out of the Incarnation — working out not only in the Christian West but in response to Eastern philosophies and cultures as well, including Islam. He doesn’t always get the history right, but the errors don’t much affect his insights. It is a book that some readers have to read slowly or again to begin to understand, but a powerful book when you get it.
What’s Wrong with the World (1910). One of Chesterton’s many works of social analysis, chosen as probably the most comprehensive, and one in which he combines criticism with his description of the ideal, especially for the family. Eugenics and Other Evils (1922) and The Superstition of Divorce (1920) are two very good and more focused analyses.
Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906). An early work, written between Heretics and Orthodoxy, and his most famous work on another writer. He also wrote books on William Morris, Chaucer, Robert Louis Stevenson, and William Cobbett, and his friend George Bernard Shaw. Many of his essay collections, like Varied Types (1903), deal mostly with writers. Charles Dickens is not a religious work, but it reveals a lot about his thinking, Dickens being such a sympathetic subject for him.
My suggestions for the fiction is a little arbitrary, because so many of Chesterton’s novels and short stories are of the same sort and quality. Every story he wrote has a point. He tells stories, and good stories, that are not just illustrated ideas, but pretty much every story illustrates an idea. If you like one of Chesterton’s fictional books, you’ll probably like all the others.
The list doesn’t The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), his most famous work in secular circles, because I don’t particularly enjoy it myself and suspect it appeals to many because they can read so much into it. It’s a book academics can play with. I also left out The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), his second most famous work in secular circles, because I think once you get the basic idea, it’s a less interesting story than the later ones. The Distributists among my friends love it, however.
The list includes two of the Father Brown volumes: The Innocence of Father Brown (1911). Look for the 1998 edition annotated by the science writer Martin Gardner, who called himself a “philosophical atheist” (and could be crudely anti-religious) but still admired Chesterton. And the next volume, The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914). The other three volumes are also engaging, and you can buy the whole set in a single omnibus volume.
I’d recommend Manalive (1912), the story of a man whose apparently criminal acts reveal much about the world; and The Flying Inn (1914), an entertaining view of a Prohibitionist and Islamified England. The Paradoxes of Mr Pond is great fun, because in each story Mr Pond makes an absolutely impossible claim which turns out to be true. The Club of Queer Trades is fun in a similar way.
That gets at it what is to me one of Chesterton’s greatest appeals. He sees things we, many of us anyway, don’t see. He challenges our paradigm, or problematizes our narrative, as a professor might put it today. He does it by criticizing the usual view of things so many of us hold, but even more by showing us the entrancing, interesting, unexpected, glorious, world-changing truth.
Correction: I called Martin Gardner a “crude atheist.” Tom Cohoe wrote to correct me. Gardner’s idea of God was more complex than that, as the Wikipedia entry linked above shows. But it seems to me that he pushed religion out of bounds, that is, rejected any thought about God with actual content, which was effective atheism.
David Mills is the Senior Editor (US) of The Catholic Herald. He’s also on the editorial board of The Chesterton Review and has spoken at the conferences of the American Chesterton Society. His previous article for Chapter House was C. S. Lewis Doesn’t Recommend Christianity. He is also the “Last Things” columnist for the New Oxford Review. For a similar list for C. S. Lewis, see Seven C. S. Lewis Books to Start With.
Photo credits: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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