50 books every Catholic should read

We generally like to think we are better read than we actually are. I have been swiftly disabused of this particular illusion on reading Roy Peachey’s sparkling and erudite little volume: 50 Books for Life: A Concise guide to Catholic Literature (Second Spring/Angelico Press). Apart from the 19th-century English novel, I have huge gaps in my literary education; as a Catholic, the gaps are greater still. Given that Catholics should be articulate and knowledgeable about their own literary canon, this is an uncomfortable admission.

I describe Peachey’s book as sparkling as it fizzes with enthusiasm; I describe it as erudite because he is clearly very well-read and his short introductions to his chosen authors – a couple of pages or so – show his learning, always leavened with a light and lucid touch. He includes authors that would predictably figure in any such list, like Evelyn Waugh, GK Chesterton, Sigrid Undset and John Henry Newman. But he also has unusual choices, such as Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway and Chateaubriand. And at least two-thirds of the list contains authors who most people will not have heard of, like Wu Li, von Grimmelhausen, Snorri Sturluson and St Ephrem the Syrian.

Curious to know more about the genesis of his book, I ask Peachey how his unusual educational path (Modern History at Oxford, English at the OU, Lake District Studies at Lancaster University, Chinese Studies at SOAS and Theology at Nottingham University) influenced his selection. He replies that it did so in two ways: “Firstly, having been trained as a historian, I am bothered by what one historian calls “presentism”, the relentless focus of much contemporary culture on the here and now.” This led to the inclusion of some “wonderful books…buried deep under the sands of time.”

Secondly, “Having a background in Chinese Studies meant I was determined to include books from around the world. Otherwise discussion of Catholic literature can too often end up being a discussion of only Anglophone literature.”

But how did he come across obscure authors such as Wu Li and Snorri Sturluson? “I stumbled across Wu Li’s wonderful work while at SOAS. He was a highly influential artist, as well as a poet and a Catholic priest! I’ve also had a soft spot for the Vikings for many years. They were much more complex and interesting than they are sometimes given credit for.”

And what was his criterion for making his choices – e.g. Why Waugh rather than Graham Greene? Peachey reflects that his main criterion was “to choose great literature. However, since it was virtually impossible to choose only 50 books, I made sure that I at least covered a broad chronological and geographical range. That meant that some great authors didn’t make the cut. I was not going to miss out Waugh. The only problem was which of his books to choose.”

Does he have any particular favourites in the list? He responds readily that he has “lots of favourites but I can’t choose one favourite above all the others, so perhaps I’ll just say that I discovered some fantastic literature while researching the book; The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, for example, was completely new to me and what an amazingly moving piece of work it is.”

Given his interest in history, does he have a preferred historical period? Peachey admits that he loves contemporary fiction. “I could have written a whole book on recent literature because there are some amazing authors writing today: Tim Gautreaux, Sylvie Germain and Eugene Vodolazkin, to name just three.” Then he quickly adds, “But I also love the fourteenth century; it was a really rich literary period. How can you possibly choose between them?”

My last question is one I often think about: how can Catholics help influence contemporary culture in a more “Catholic” direction? Peachey believes that to do this “We need to be both firmly rooted in our Catholic faith and deeply involved in contemporary culture. Of course, that’s much easier said than done. It’s a real challenge for writers, publishers and readers.” 

In his own case, he tells me, he has made a start by studying contemporary fiction for a PhD, “and also by writing novels myself. My first novel, Between Darkness and Light, which was published recently, is not a “Catholic novel” but it does reveal my commitment to engaging with contemporary culture.” 

He adds modestly, “I can only hope that one day I may be able to bring faith and culture into alignment in the way that the writers represented in 50 Books of Life so wonderfully did.”