Chesterton and Lewis for Beginners

Almost 75 years after the death of G. K. Chesterton and 45 years after the death of C. S. Lewis, millions continue to read them as guides and gurus. New readers will pick up a book, or even just an essay or two, and become lifelong fans and devotees. These portly, homely, undramatic men are still the bookish Christian’s rock stars.
Their new readers, having become fans, excitedly look up the lists of their books — and stop dead. There’s just too much to read, and too little time, and some of those books look like slow going. Chesterton wrote more than 100 books, Lewis more than 50, including the posthumous collections of essays, letters, and diaries.
The fan suddenly becomes an investor, who is balancing his love of the writer with the cost in time and energy that reading him will require. He may even begin looking for a discount, knock-off version on the bestseller shelves at the Christian bookstore. These he can find in abundance, though often they’re on the bestseller shelves partly because their thought is not as rich or deep, and therefore as difficult, as Chesterton’s and Lewis’s.
So here are Beginner’s Reading Lists for the two writers. The lists are not intended to include every insight or even every important subject they covered, and in fact they leave out some of my own favorite works. These men wrote so much, and so cleverly, that some of the choices are nearly arbitrary, in the sense that several other books would have done as well. (The lists include only non-fiction books, but at the end of each, I’ve included a few works of their fiction that put their thinking into a story.)
I followed three rules when compiling the lists: First, each should include no more than seven books. The reader I have in mind actually reads, and will put in the time to understand a writer of this quality, but even he has his limits. These are writers you want to read, if you like them; they pull you through the book, and if you stop to reread a passage, you do so not to figure out what the writer meant but to ponder his argument or insight. But even seven is an optimistic number of books by one author to expect anyone to read.
Second, the lists focus on books that express the author’s mind or imagination or worldview and engage cultural and religious subjects.
Third, the result of reading the books should be a knowledge of the man and not just his writings. The reader should not only know what the writer had said about X, but should be able to guess with some confidence what he would say about Y.
Here are my suggestions. The books are listed in the order I suggest they be read.
G. K. Chesterton
·         Autobiography. Published in the last year of Chesterton’s life (1936), this winsome introduction to the man and his mindoffers 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, as well as the essay collections The Thing and The Well and the Shallows.
·         Heretics. A collection of essays on his contemporaries, like Shaw and Kipling, and their characteristic errors, which, for the most part, happen to be the characteristic errors of our contemporaries. 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.
·         Orthodoxy. One of Chesterton’s two greatest works, it argues for Christianity through his unfolding discovery that it answered all the questions the world presented him. Some people find the book hard to read, because following the way his mind works is almost like learning a new language, but they should persevere. (An earlier work, The Blatchford Controversies, contained in Vol. 1 of Ignatius Press’s uniform edition, provides a good short introduction and summary of the arguments of this book and Heretics.)
·         St. Thomas Aquinas. Not a very useful biography, but a revealing study and a book worth reading even if you don’t read St. Thomas — and if you do, it’s very helpful in understanding what all that formal theology was about. The book is also known as The Dumb Ox.
·         The Everlasting Man. 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.
·         What’s Wrong with the World. 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.
·         Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. An early work, written between Heretics and Orthodoxy, and not exactly a religious work, but one that reveals a lot about his thinking, Dickens being such a sympathetic subject for him.
Fiction: Here the list is even more arbitrary, because so many of Chesterton’s novels are of the same sort and quality. It includes The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown, the first two volumes of the Father Brown stories, though the other three volumes are also engaging; Manalive, the story of a man whose apparently criminal acts reveal much about the world; The Flying Inn, an entertaining view of a Prohibitionist and Islamified England; and his Collected Poems. I haven’t included The Man Who Was Thursday, thinking it an overrated work that appeals to many because they can read so much into it (this is a minority opinion).
C. S. Lewis
·         Surprised by Joy. Lewis’s autobiography, written in his mid-50s, which is not only a winsome introduction to the man but an indirect exposition of his way of seeing the world.
·         God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. A posthumous collection of 48 articles and essays and a few letters to the editor. It is mostly a kind of applied or occasional theology, in the sense that Lewis expresses his insight and learning in responding to various ethical, apologetic, evangelistic, and cultural problems.
·         The Problem of Pain or Miracles. Lewis’s most “academic” books and the slowest-going for the average reader, but books that clearly and systematically lay out his thinking on God’s relation to the world.
·         The Screwtape Letters. Lewis’s innovative collection of letters from a senior devil to his incompetent nephew, a book that offers many striking and usually convicting insights into the nature of evil, not only in man but in society. It is a book often imitated, but never well.
·         The Abolition of Man. A very short book, originally a series of lectures, shrewdly analyzing the ways in which modern man rejects Man and presenting the classical and Christian alternative. It is a genuinely prophetic work.
·         The Four Loves. Lewis’s exposition of the four different kinds of love and the challenges we face in loving others. Letters from Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, one of Lewis’s last books, could have gone in this place, as an example of Lewis’s devotional insight.
·         Selected Literary Essays. A posthumous volume, it contains his famous lecture De Descriptione Temporum, an excellent short guide to his understanding of Western history it covers a great diversity of other subjects, from Austen to Kipling to psychoanalysis and literary criticism. It’s not overtly religious, but his engagement with these subjects says much about his mind.
Some readers will have noted the absence of Mere Christianity. It is not included because, as good as it is as a description of and argument for traditional Christianity, it is not the most revealing of his particular way of thinking — though readers may disagree.
Fiction: The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, the last two books of the Narnia Chronicles and the most “adult” of the seven, which I think became deeper and more fruitful for reflection as they went along; That Hideous Strength, the third book of his Space Trilogy and a fictionalized version of his Abolition of Man (though fans are divided on the subject of which book in the trio is the best); and Till We Have Faces, his exploration of questions of identity and of redemption through Greek myth.
The Others
Chesterton and Lewis are the major but not the only rock stars for the bookish Christian. We were blessed in the last century with many writers of great intellectual and verbal gifts who wrote the same kind of synthetic and accessible works. In particular: Hilaire Belloc, Christopher Dawson, Graham Greene (at a certain period of his life), Ronald Knox, Malcolm Muggeridge, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, and Charles Williams.
One of the great advantages of the Internet is the opportunities it allows for collaboration. With that in mind, what selections do readers recommend for a Beginner’s Reading List for these writers? What changes or modifications for the lists for Chesterton and Lewis?

David Mills’s book Discovering Mary: Questions and Answers about the Mother of God will be published by Servant in late July.


  • David Mills

    David Mills is executive editor of First Things and author of Discovering Mary.

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