Cole’s Top 10 Reading List
by Cole Matson
My good friend Tyler from high school is a restaurant manager at a top restaurant in New York City. Since I’ve moved to Baltimore, I don’t get to see him and his new wife (also a culinary professional) as much as I’d like. This week, Tyler asked me about a reading list, thoughtful books I’d recommend. So here it is, starting with my top choice, with a few notes on why each book is included:
1. The Bible – It may be a cliché, but there is a reason the Bible is the number-one best-selling book of all time. As a Christian, I believe it is the Word of God and contains the keys to eternal life. However, it has also had a greater impact on Western culture than any other book. If one would be literate in our culture, one must have some familiarity with its stories and symbolism. In addition, the ideas and people contained therein, especially the central Person of the New Testament, are a challenge to every thoughtful person.
2. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien) – IMHO, this is the greatest piece of literature of the 20th century, and one of the greatest of all time. Besides creating a thrilling story, Tolkien managed to tap into the deep sense of loss that is a part of being human. (Visit Bruce L. Edwards’ blog to read a good article by Megan J. Robinson on the sense of lost joy in Tolkien and the sense of future joy in Lewis – two sides of the same Christian coin.) There is such ravishing, sorrowful beauty in Middle-Earth, that to be lost in that world is both humbling and ennobling.
3. Les Misérables (Victor Hugo) – This is the book that made me choose to be a Christian, and first taught me that mercy and forgiveness were infinitely greater acts than an insistence on cold, hard justice. During my teenage years, I took Jean Valjean as my model, and his example of selfless love remains with me as (I hope) an influence on my behavior. When I re-read the book last year, for my third total reading of it, I was struck for the first time just how left-leaning the politics were, and how they wouldn’t fly with Lewis. For example, Hugo insists that universal education would solve crime, and that criminals shouldn’t be treated as people who willingly broke the law, but as patients in need of healing. Just read Lewis’ essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” (in God in the Dock) to see how he felt about a theory of punishment that takes away any acknowledgement of a man’s free will. However, if one does not get hung up on the many mini-essays of this type with which the book is speckled, one can be profoundly moved by the story of a man who is redeemed by grace.
4. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis) – Of course, I must have some Lewis on this list! Mere Christianity is one of the most concise, clearly-written explanations of what Christians believe and why, and would be my first recommendation (after the Gospels) for someone to read who wants to know more about Christianity.
5. The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis) – As I wrote earlier, this is one of Lewis’ most under-rated books. See this post for my thoughts on it. Moral relativism taught to children under the guise of an education in the liberal arts is a very dangerous thing. This book is best paired with a reading of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, especially the final book, That Hideous Strength, in which the ideas of Abolition take horrific fictional form.
6. Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl) – As a clinical psychology doctoral student, I was angered by schools of psychology (Freudianism, Behaviorism) that had a deterministic view of man. Your responses to the world are formed as a child, either by your parents or by rewards and punishments, and once they are set, you have little to no say as to how you will respond to life’s situations. Viktor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy and a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, took the view that the greatest ability and the greatest dignity of man was to be able to choose his own response to a situation, even one has oppressive as a Nazi death camp. He writes about how the prisoners most likely to survive the camps were the ones who felt they had a purpose, a mission to live for. Probably the most famous Frankl quote is this:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
7. The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton) – Again, I’ve spoken about this book here, but it really made me think about both Catholicism and particularly monastic life in a new way. If anything, the spiritual autobiography, and Merton’s beautiful language, are worth reading, even if one has no inclinations toward Catholicism. (Though be warned, he does have some harsh words for Protestants.)
8. Taliesin (Stephen R. Lawhead) – This fiction book is the first in Lawhead’s five-book Pendragon Cycle. It tells the story of Taliesin, the father of Merlin. It takes place during the introduction of Christianity to Britain, and the way Taliesin takes to the idea of one God, above all the gods he knew and worshiped, made me look at Christianity in a new way – not as a displacement of all previous knowledge and experiences of the divine, but as a fulfillment of them. Taliesin was also the first piece of contemporary Christian fantasy I had read; it made me glad to know that there were still writers carrying on the tradition of the Inklings. After Taliesin, my favorite Lawhead book is Avalon, which is a sequel to the Cycle, in that it takes place in modern-day Britain, when Arthur returns to take up the kingship of Logres in a country that is about to abolish the monarchy as an outdated and oppressive institution.
9. “On Fairy-Stories” (Tolkien) and “On Stories” (Lewis) – Two of the best essays on the importance of fantasy ever written. Tolkien’s breakdown of what people mean by the “escapist” accusation, and how the “escape of the prisoner” differs fundamentally from the “flight of the deserter,” provides especially good apologetic fuel to the lover of this type of literature. Also, Tolkien’s concepts of the Eucatastrophe and Subcreation are invaluable, especially for anyone who wants to better appreciate #2 on my list. (Read a nice little essay on the differences between co-creation and sub-creation here.) I tell ya, practically everything Tolkien writes brings nobility to the genre.
10. The Everlasting Man (G.K. Chesterton) – A look at the Christian story as the central fact and fulfillment of history. This book was an influence on Lewis. The two most important ideas I took away from it are 1) the Crucifixion and Resurrection as the literal crux of all history, and 2) civilizations and cultures are not all created equal. A culture that sacrifices babies to blood-thirsty gods is not as valuable as one that promotes the care of widows and orphans and the honor of all human life.
So there you are, a top 10 reading list. Top 10 of what, you may be thinking. Just the top 10 books to come to my mind when asked what I would recommend. There are books that are more thought-provoking, more morally strengthening, and more imaginative than most of these, but I’m giving you those books that first came to my mind when I thought of what had an impact on me. At the least, I hope I’ve provided some possible options to add to your bedside reading stack.