Books blog: A common sense introduction to Chesterton

GK Chesterton sits on a bench in Brighton in 1935 (AP Photo)

A friend has kindly given me a present of Dale Ahlquist’s Commonsense: 101 Lessons from GK Chesterton. Ahlquist, for those who don’t know of him, is the president of the American Chesterton Society. Having now read the book, which struck me as full of prophetic insights about the current age as well as providing some wonderfully witty quotations I asked the author a few questions.

Firstly, how did he discover GKC and what attracted him to him? Ahlquist tells me that he was a great CS Lewis fan “and I learned that GKC was very influential on Lewis.” He recalls that a friend had told him, “If you read Chesterton, you don’t need to read Lewis, because all of CS Lewis is in Chesterton”. Ahlquist commented to me that although he considered the remark “blasphemous” it had “planted a seed.” He reflects, “After reading Chesterton for 35 years, I tend to agree with the blasphemous remark.”

Naturally enough, I wanted to know if he has a favourite book among Chesterton’s copious output. Ahlquist reproves me: “That is a question I detest! But of course people always ask it.” He mentions Orthodoxy as an “essential book – and I never get tired of reading it, though I still would not let it be called my favourite.” He reflects, “I think his book on Charles Dickens is exquisite, The Everlasting Man a tour de force and The Ballad of the White Horse a masterpiece, as are the Father Brown stories.” Then he adds that that he most enjoys reading GKC’s essays – “and there are only 5000 of those.”

Faced with GKC’s enormous book list I ask: which of his books would he suggest a new reader starts with? Ahlquist quickly responds that it is another question he used to detest, “because I was never satisfied with any of my suggestions.” He adds that he was then prompted to write a book “to introduce people to Chesterton. And then I wrote another.” So he recommends GK Chesterton- the Apostle of Common Sense as well as the book which prompted me to contact him: Common Sense: 101 Lessons from Chesterton.

Ahlquest informs me that they “are designed to open the door to GKC for first-time readers. Then they can pick any Chesterton book after that and be ready to go.”

Having read a recent comment under one of my blogs with this criticism, I put it to the author that reading GKC is an exercise in nostalgia, not relevant to the modern age. How would he respond? Ahlquist is quick to refute me: “It is the modern age which grows increasingly irrelevant, while Chesterton grows increasingly pertinent. You don’t have to think about Word War I or Prohibition or anything that was going on in the early 20th century to enjoy Chesterton, and you quickly realise that he seems to be writing more for this century than his own.”

Ahlquist is keen to emphasise that Chesterton “addresses the narrowness and moodiness and slipperiness of modern thinking”, quoting to me GKC’s words: “Men do not argue about what they think is evil, only about which evils are excusable.” Also, “The Catholic Church is the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”

I conclude our interview by asking Ahlquist if he thinks GKC is a suitable candidate for sainthood? He responds instantly, “I’ve been saying that for a long time and I’ve been helping lead the charge. The American Chesterton Society has distributed over 10,000 prayer cards with an intercessory prayer to Chesterton.” He reflects: “He has certainly helped me understand the meaning of the Communion of Saints. His writings reveal his goodness.”

At the risk of challenging the author and risking his further displeasure, I would only contradict him about one thing: you don’t have to choose between Chesterton and CS Lewis; they are both gifted communicators and profound thinkers and both are well worth reading.