Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Top Ten Books of my M.A.

By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

As the summer winds down, one looks back on the great books discovered over the past year. In my case, I shall look back a bit farther and make it the past two years, since many came to light as a result of a master’s program in theology. St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote that “love consists in interchange between two parties”—that is, one shares what one has with the beloved. So, dear reader, may I share with you my top ten books of recent vintage, with the hope that you might enjoy them as I did.

1. The World of Silence, by Max Picard

A beautiful and deep treatment of the phenomenon of silence, this book was a major source for my thesis, thanks to Eric McLuhan (son of Marshall), and a few others, who recommended it. Picard was a philosopher in the tradition of “phenomenology”, who wasn’t afraid to weave his own poetic intuitions into his analysis of human experience. Unfortunately out of print, if you can find this 1952 book, keep it and read it!

2. Christology from Within, by Mark McIntosh

Perhaps the best introduction to the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the author takes us into the heart of the one of the greatest minds of our time. It is so well-written, it could also be read in bite-sized chunks as spiritual reading.

3. Art and Scholasticism, by Jacques Maritain and The Arts of the Beautiful, by Étienne Gilson (tie)

From two of the twentieth century’s greatest Thomistic philosophers, these present a comprehensive treatment of beauty in the world. They have minor differences, but are nonetheless wonderful synthetic reads, which will draw you in and hold you spell-bound: “His love causes the beauty of what He loves, whereas our love is caused by the beauty of what we love.”

4. Sex au Natural, by Patrick Coffin

On the question of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, this 2010 book is notable for its clarity and wit. Peter Kreeft writes in the foreword, “Patrick Coffin has done for Christopher West what Christopher West has done for John Paul II” – and I agree. At 134 pages, it is a concise treatment of the vast topic of human sexuality, and Coffin covers the bases – entertainingly.

5. A Heart on Fire, by James Kubicki, S.J.

At a certain part in my Jesuit life, I needed a simple book that spoke convincingly about the love of God. This came out last March (2012), and I thought would be a quick read—it’s only 182 pages—but in the end I spent months slowly digesting the very basic spirituality it described. There’s something disarmingly deep about this book charged with “rediscovering devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus” in a contemporary way. It was great side reading on our Hearts on Fire tour.

6. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Carr’s provocative title called out from the cover of Atlantic Monthly. This follow-up book, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize last year, is an expansion of the question: what are the effects of our technologies on our minds. For those of us in teaching or ministry, this is an unavoidable issue. Carr assembles a lot of data to suggest we should be concerned, pay more attention, and take more action.

7. The Father’s Tale, by Michael D. O’Brien

My father is kind enough to send copies of his novels to his offspring, and this one, his latest, came out last fall. At over 1000 pages, it looked intimidatingly like a Russian novel, and while much of the plot did indeed take place in Russia, it was a page-turner that I devoured in less than two weeks – during the frenzied heart of graduate school no less. Warning: it’s a weeper, but weeper in the sense of “good-sad”. Perhaps it’s because the heart of the Father seems so close, especially while the characters go through so much.

8. The Woman of Andros, by Thornton Wilder

Being a huge fan of Wilder, who won separate Pulitzers for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, I had never found this more obscure novella until this year. Set in ancient Greece, like much of Wilder’s work, there is an exquisite tenderness for his characters, as they illustrate profound existential questions by their lives.

9. Subversive Orthodoxy, by Robert Inchausti

Disclosure: I’m still picking at this book. But what a delight to find in one volume a treatment of “outlaws, revolutionaries, and other Christians in disguise” who showed by their writings the dynamism of Christianity in the modern world. He manages to cover brilliantly Blake, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Berdyaev, Kerouac, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, Merton, Schumacher, Wendell Berry, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Ellul, René Girard – can this list get any better?

10. Youcat (English)

Finally, an adaptation of the Catholic Catechism that’s short, sweet, and has great quotes in the margins.


  1. Most of those are new to me. Thanks for the account.

  2. Tremendous. Thank you of this list. I love Gilson. Where does Bible study and books on the Bible fit in a Master's program of that kind? The best Bible scholar I have ever read came from your school, the late Fr. David M. Stanley S.J. Tom Schuessler Mayville, WI

    1. True, as a reading list it's a bit weak on scripture books. My concentration was "philosophical theology" as opposed to scriptural or pastoral, etc., so I only took basic Bible courses. Of course Balthasar's theology is rife with scriptural quotations. Stanley was a great mind from all accounts, and there's many SJs still around who knew him. His book on the Spiritual Exercises is a classic.

  3. Great list! The only one I've read thus far is Coffin's. I'll look forward to slowly working through the rest.

  4. Thanks for this nice list, John. Both Max Picard's book and your father's novel have been on my reading list for a while now, but otherwise these titles are all new to me. Thanks especially for the pointer to the book on the Sacred Heart; it's a devotion that I admit has never resonated with me; I would be happy if that changed.