The 10 Books Nobody Should Be Allowed to Die Without Reading: Dr. Peter Kreeft (Transcript)

Full text of author Dr. Peter Kreeft’s lecture titled ‘The 10 Books Nobody Should Be Allowed to Die Without Reading’.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Dr. Peter Kreeft – Professor of Philosophy at Boston College

I thought I would give you something practical rather than theoretical today, since philosophers are usually very good at theory and very bad at practice, which is why every philosopher needs a wife.

BOOKS. The number one piece of educational technology that has ever been invented. The only thing that might rival books as a means to the end of education would be asking honest but dumb questions. Many of the greatest discoveries in history were made by asking really stupid questions.


A book is a way of connecting with another person’s mind. We have two ways of sharing our mind with other people: speaking and writing.

And speaking transcends space. What I’m doing now is communicating something of my mind to you through my mouth and your ears, which are separated by a considerable space.

Writing does more than that. Writing also transcends time. You write something down, and then you send it through the mail, or you print it and have people read it years later, or sometimes centuries later. And it’s almost as if you’re still alive. When you’re reading a book written by a dead person, you’re in contact with his ghost, that is, with his spirit, with his mind. It’s a marvelous invention.

Well, there are TWO KINDS OF BOOKS. There are ordinary books, which are usually kind of small and kind of stupid, and then there are great books. And I don’t know why the term great books is so controversial and why great books education is so rare, and why at many education conferences, when you say you teach great books, they look at you as if you had two heads and say, oh, you’re one of those.

I have no idea. My response is, oh, you prefer stupid, crummy little books to great books.

I think the main reason great books are so rare, is that our society is increasingly believing in a kind of relativism. Not only is beauty in the eye of beholder, but so is truth and so is goodness.

The one thing that our society is judgmental about is judgmentalism. You may not make value judgments. Well, in that case, you have the end of all ethics, the end of all virtue, and the end of all education.

Because in order to educate, you have to make a judgment about what is worth educating someone about. I think this is the main reason why all the sciences are radically improving and all the humanities are radically decaying, because you can’t be a successful scientist without believing in objective truth. Science is about the real world.

But increasingly in the humanities, especially in literature and philosophy, the fashionable view now, in order not to be judgmental, is that truth is our own creation, our own invention, that you create your own reality, that nothing is a mirror and everything is a window. So you only see your own mind reflected in what you say.

Well, ultimately, I believe that’s the philosophy of hell. My notion of hell is that it’s more scary than the usual. The usual one is that it’s a terrifying fire pit where demons insert hot pitchforks into unrepentant posteriors. That’s not so terrifying, because the demons are outside of you, and so is the pitch fork, and so is the fire.

But suppose it’s inside you. Suppose there’s nothing outside at all. Suppose you’re totally lonely. Suppose the only person there is yourself. You’ve rejected God, therefore you’ve rejected all these creatures, and you’re all alone forever, with no hope. I think that’s the most horrible scenario I can imagine.

Well, if you believe that truth is subjective, that’s one step towards that. What’s out there is just what I hear you saying. Whenever anybody says, what I hear you saying is, I get very suspicious.

In other words, if you were in my position, this is what you would mean by these words. But you’re not in my position. You’re not you.

The basic principle of reading any book is, listen, don’t please, ever interpret a book by your own personal, sincerely held beliefs. That’s a mistake.

Whether you’re reading the Bible or the Communist Manifesto, interpret the book by the author’s beliefs. Get outside of your mind into his mind, and then respond. The book is almost like a person. It’s somebody else.

All right, WHO DO YOU WANT TO LISTEN TO? Who is worth learning stuff from?

Well, big people. Spiritually big people who write spiritually big books.

What books?

When I asked the people who invited me here what they wanted me to speak about, they said, well, choose your own topic. And I said, no, give me a topic, and we dickered for a little while. And I don’t know whether it was me or them that came up with the idea: The 10 Books I would want you not to die without having read. Ten great books that you may be a little surprised about.

And we agree that that’s a good topic, because that gives you something you don’t already know.

For me to simply tell you what you already know, for me to simply pat you on the head and say, look how wise you are, you agree with me. That makes you go home with a smile. But it doesn’t put anything new in your mind.

I guarantee that all the books that I’m going to talk about today will put something new in your mind and in your heart, because the heart and the mind are always connected.

But I cheated. I first made a list of 10, and then I said I’ve got to expand it a little bit. So I expanded it to 13. And then I noticed that they could be divided into categories. The categories are autobiographies, novels, plays, epics, fantasy, science fiction, spirituality, apologetics, classic philosophy, popular philosophy, history, theology, and poetry.

That’s 13 important divisions.

And then I discovered that I had a difficult time picking between two great books in each area. So I said, what the heck? I’ll make it twice each category. So two times 13 is 26. So instead of the ten books that I’m recommending, it’s 26.

And the standard that I used was not simply which books are classics, which books have rightly guided Western civilization the most. You probably already know that, but books you maybe haven’t read before and you absolutely must read because I know they are going to stretch your heart and your mind and your spirit. And I know they are food that you want to chew on.

So here they are… even if I say nothing that’s worth remembering. You’ve got a piece of paper that’s a reading list for you and you’ve got 26 great educational experiences in front of you.

The last standard is I didn’t want to make these books too difficult. I didn’t want to recommend books that could be read only by college professors or even only by people who have a college degree.

On the other hand, I wanted to make them challenging books that if you’re a fairly intelligent and thoughtful person and have a good high school education, you could understand.



So I start with Augustine’s Confessions, which I think is the greatest book ever written outside the Bible. If I had to go to a desert island and take only three books with me, I think the first one would be How to Build a Boat. Second one would be the Bible, and the third one would probably be the Confessions.

But be careful to get the Sheed translation because Augustine is a poet. Augustine’s Latin sings, and most of you don’t know Latin and it’s very difficult to translate poetry from one language into another and get the sound right. You can get the concepts right, but one language sounds very different than another.

Well, Sheed gets the sound right, he translates the fact that Augustine sings rather than just speaks prose, it’s a very beautiful translation of a passionate and thoroughly human being who has committed every sin in the book and becomes a great saint. Great saints are usually made out of great sinners.

You need passion to be redirected to God; in order to start up a stuck car, you need much more force than to turn a speeding car around 180 degrees. Well, somebody who’s running away from God is at least running. And God can more easily make a saint out of a passionate sinner than out of a limp spaghetti noodle.

Augustine has what so few people in our society have anymore, namely passion. And once his passion is directed to truth and goodness, he becomes one of the greatest saints of all time.

In fact, medieval Europe is made, I think, more by Augustine than by any other single human being with the possible exception of Socrates. Everybody in this room either would not exist or would be a very, very different person if Augustine had never existed.

So read the Confessions. I guarantee it’ll ring.

What other autobiography?

Well, there’s a book that’s not nearly as famous and it’s not as great and it’s not written by a canonized saint but it’s written by a man of passion and a man of poetry and a very good man. Sheldon Vanauken, whom I knew personally.

  • SEVERE MERCY by Sheldon Vanauken

A Severe Mercy is an autobiography that begins with a beautiful pre-Christian pagan love story, proceeds to a conversion story. C. S. Lewis was the main agent there and then concludes with a story about death. Love, faith and death are three of the most important things in life. And this is a beautiful story.

I just a few minutes ago asked two other people whether they read the book. They both said yes. And my first question was, did you weep? And they both said yes.

I have asked 43 people now, have you read the book? 42 of them have wept. So if you read that book, bring a couple of handkerchiefs, especially for the death scene.

Novels: Second category. Notice that I didn’t include sociology or psychology. I think the best way to understand human feelings and behavior, whether individual or social, is by reading novels. They’re concrete rather than abstract. They are practical rather than theoretical.

To read a novel is to make a lot of friends because a good novelist has to identify with all of his characters. And to do that, they have to be real. And the characters drive a novel. You meet them, you understand them, you live inside their flesh for a little while.

  • THE BROTHER SKYARAMAZOV by Fyodor Dostoevsky

That’s especially true of great novelists. And probably the greatest one is Dostoyevsky. And my candidate for the greatest novel ever written is The Brother Skyaramazov. There’s everything in there. He stretches you.

If you don’t want to be stretched, if you want to be patted on the head and feel comfortable, don’t read Dostoyevsky; he’s a volcano. He’ll put you in touch with two people that you didn’t dream existed. One of them is the Satan in you and the other is the Christ in you.

And his character is sometimes a single character are living, sometimes in heaven, sometimes in hell. They’re all weird, but that doesn’t mean we can’t identify them with them because we’re weird. We just suppress it. So that’s all I have to say about the book.

ALSO READ:   Art Williams: Do It! (Full Transcript)

It’s about just everything. It’s, of course, a novel and therefore it’s about human interaction and it’s about love and hate and death and life and faith and doubt and despair and hope. And it’s also a great detective story.


A second choice… I’m not saying that these are the two greatest novels ever written but my second choice, less universally known, is the book that C. S. Lewis thought was the best one he ever wrote. And I totally agree with him.

Till We Have Faces is a book that’s laid in pagan pre-Christian Greece and it’s about the problem of evil, and it’s about sin and what to do about it and what God does about it.

In other words, it’s about the same thing as Augustine’s Confessions and The Brother Skyaramazov. But it’s beautifully written. And everyone I have ever talked to who has read that book has read it a second time. And 100% of the people who read it a second time said the first time was good, but the second time was twice as good.

It’s one of these books that has layers in it. Each layer makes sense. You don’t have to plow through a bad layer the first time. Just as a story, it makes sense.

But then when you reread it, you see like an onion, all sorts of layers. I’ve read at least twelve times. I get something out of it that’s new each time.

I’m going to put a lot of CS. Lewis in here. He’s my favorite modern author. In fact, six of these 26 books are from CS. Lewis; four by G. K. Chesterton.

Third category: PLAYS.

  • A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS by Robert Bolt

My favorite movie of all time is A Man for All Seasons. Robert Bolt was the playwright who wrote the play. And the movie is based on and faithful to the play.

And usually when you make a movie out of a play or a novel, the movie messes it up because movie makers are very arrogant and they want to add and change the author.

But Bolt, who was supervising the movie, didn’t do that. This is totally faithful to the play, and everything from the music to the sets to the characters fits the play.

So, yeah, read the play, but definitely see the movie. By the way, I don’t classify The Passion of the Christ as a movie. I classify it as a liturgy. It’s a time machine. It takes you back 2000 years. It’s a miracle. I assume you’ve all seen it. So that’s a category of its own.

But next to that, I think A Man for All Seasons is the greatest movie of all time. And the play is one of the best of all time.

  • OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder

My other play, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, unfortunately, is taught to the only people in America who shouldn’t read the play: high school students, adolescents.

Because an adolescent, quite rightly, is a rebel. And they rebel against the establishment and ordinary people and their parents and their family. And this is about parenting and about families and about ordinary people.

So it seems to most high school students, very familiar and quite kind of hokey and backwoodsy and ordinary and not spectacular, and comforting.

It’s exactly the opposite. It’s terrifying. When hard-nosed Hollywood elites first saw the play, they broke down and wept, perhaps for the only time in their lives. It’s a play that is so popular that tonight, somewhere in the world, it is being put on on some stage. There’s no other play; it’s that popular.

It’s popular in hundreds of translations, in hundreds of languages, as well as in America. The key to its success I think is that this ordinary life is looked at from the viewpoint of the dead.

The main characters die, but instead of looking at death from the viewpoint of life, which we usually do, you also get to look at life from the viewpoint of death. And that’s jolting. It’s beautiful. It’s another tearjerker.

By the way, I think that’s a pretty good indication that the Rainer gets an A. Tears. That’s an impossible thing to force. I command you to cry, to weep. That’s ridiculous. Can’t be done.

How can I elicit tears? Well, only in two ways. By doing something very bad, like giving you a good kick. Or by doing something very good. By presenting something so good or so beautiful that you weep.

I think that the greatest call for an artist, the greatest job description for any artist, especially artists, in words, is to break the human heart. Because no heart can possibly be a whole heart unless it’s first been broken. Just as nothing can rise from the dead unless it first dies, so our ordinary heart has to be broken before it can be complete. And great works of art do that.

  • THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien

Every one of the six books that I’ve mentioned before does that and so does The Lord of the Rings, which four different poles of readers, ordinary readers, picked as the greatest book of the 20th century.

The only class of people that does not believe that The Lord of the Rings is the greatest book of the 20th century are literary critics, which doesn’t say anything about The Lord of the Rings, but it says a lot about the critics, that they are a bunch of overstuffed, proud, arrogant, out of touch elitist.

But it is certainly the greatest book of the century. There’s no question about it. This is another book that I’ve read at least a dozen times. I have to read it every couple of years. Every couple of years I get a little antsy. Can’t say missing. What’s? Missing. Oh, I haven’t read The Lord of the Rings for a couple of years.

The movie is good. If you’ve not read the book but have seen the movie, I’m sorry. You should have read the book first. And the movie might spoil your reading the book because instead of your own imagination, you might use Peter Jackson’s imagination, which is very good.

The acting is good and the costumes are perfect, and the special effects are wonderful. The battle scenes are great, the settings are terrific. But he doesn’t understand Tolkien. He doesn’t understand heroism. Every one of the basic characters in his movie is cut down to ordinary size, but in Tolkien, they’re not. So the book is far better than the movie.

It’s a long book, but Tolkien himself said that he wept and keeps weeping when he rereads his manuscript at two points. I was very pleased to read that after I had finished The Lord of the Rings a couple of times and read Tolkien’s letters, which are very good, by the way, and I was pleased to read that those are the same two passages that I wept at.

But there was a third weeping when you come to the end. The end? Oh, my goodness.

How can I possibly come to the end of this? Tolkien said I don’t usually read my own critics because we have different standards, but I do accept one criticism of The Lord of the Rings, which is about 1500 pages long, namely, it’s much too short.

When you close this epic fantasy and turn your head from the book to your refrigerator or your garbage can, you don’t get the impression that you’re moving from a less real world to a more real world. Just the opposite.

Somehow it’s much more difficult to believe in your garbage can than to believe in Frodo and Bilbo and the other characters in The Lord of the Rings.


And that’s sort of true also with C.S. Lewis’s great achievement in The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m not sure whether Lewis will be known and recognized as great 500 years from now. I think he will. But I’m almost certain that The Chronicles of Narnia will, because they are not only the best children’s books ever written, they are children’s books which can be enjoyed and digested and appreciated by adults just as much as children.

And Lewis did a miracle. No other writer in the history of the world ever did anything even close to what C. S. Lewis did. In The Chronicles of Narnia, the most interesting character there is Jesus Christ. Of course, He’s Aslan, but there are hundreds of books by Christians, most of them Protestant fundamentalists who try to write fictional books about Jesus. They’re all embarrassingly bad. Don’t read any of them.

It’s impossible to take Him seriously. The Christ of the Gospels is so big and so impossible to come up to and to imitate and to equal that you can’t invent a character like that.

One of my strongest arguments for the reality of Christ, [the Church’s Christ], the true Christ, is no human being could possibly imagine that story. Certainly twelve bumbling Galilean fishermen couldn’t.

Where did that story come from if not from reality? You can’t imagine that. And that’s why you can’t write more stories about Christ, more fiction about Christ.

Lewis did. When you read The Chronicles of Narnia, and you meet Aslan, what happens? Something happens in your heart, in your spirit, which is unique. He somehow enables you to spontaneously feel towards Aslan, the same complex and unique emotion that people who met Jesus in the Gospels felt when they first met Him.

Aslan is not comfortable. He’s a lion. He’s terrifying, but he’s good. So good that in him is all our hope. But usually we think of things that are terrible and fearful as bad. And usually we think of things that are good as comforting and satisfying. Nope, not as good nope. He’s just like Christ.

How did Lewis do it? Well, it’s fantasy, so he creeps past the watchful dragons of familiarity. Narnia is another world, you don’t expect Jesus to be a lion.

And duty. You feel a duty to feel certain ways towards the Christ of the Gospels and duty paralyzes spontaneity. Lewis received quite a few letters from children saying, I loved your Chronicles of Narnia, but I feel guilty because I think I love Aslan more than I love Jesus.

And Lewis said, don’t feel guilty as it is Jesus. It’s a masterpiece; all seven of them.

Supernatural Fantasy.


Category five: supernatural fantasy includes another masterpiece by Lewis. What Lewis did in The Great Divorce is basically what Dante did in The Divine Comedy. But it’s much shorter, it’s much clearer. It transcends the culture.

500 years from now, you won’t have to do a lot of historical research to find out what politicians Lewis is satirizing as you do for Dante in The Divine Comedy.

I know The Divine Comedy is a great book, but it’s not easily accessible on first reading; The Great Divorce is. Same theme: trip from Hell to Heaven.

ALSO READ:   Damien Mander: From Sniper to Vegan (Full Transcript)

And what’s great about The Divine Comedy is you can identify with all those characters, the saints and the sinners. It’s universally human. You do the same thing in The Great Divorce.

The plot is basically a bus load of travelers from Hell is allowed to visit Heaven, the outskirts of Heaven, and choose to either stay there or go back to Hell. All but one choose to go back to hell. It’s a great satire. It’s funny as well as terribly serious, and it shows you yourself and your own follies.

It’s not really speculation about the next world. That’s fantasy.

What do we know about the next world? Very little. The best description of it in the Bible is ‘eye has not seen, ear is not heard, nor has entered into the heart of man the things that God has prepared for those who love Him.’

So the point is not speculation about what you’re going to meet after death, the point is what you’re doing right now.

And just as Thornton Wilder turns things around and looks at life from the viewpoint of death, so Lewis turns things around and looks at this world from the viewpoint of the next.

I’ve seen this performed as a play four times in four different cities by four different sets of players for four very different audiences. Every single time, I heard how effective the play was.

As a college professor, I’m very sensitive to noise in the audience and I know when I’m boring people, papers are shuffling and feet are moving and they can’t wait to get out of the classroom. Ordinarily it’s just a little bit of that noise and that’s ordinary level.

When I say something really interesting, the noise stops. Like now. But maybe once a year, maybe less than that, maybe once every two or three years, I’ll say something so arresting that they’ll not only stop moving, they’ll stop breathing. Literally. Stop breathing for 5 seconds. 1-2-3-4-5. It’s easy to stop breathing for 5 seconds, but you don’t usually do it and I can hear the difference.

And every single time I’ve seen this play perform, I’ve heard the audience stop breathing a couple of times. It’s an amazing book.


The other supernatural fantasy by Lewis is The Screwtape Letters, which also turns things upside down, because it’s a series probably you know this even if you haven’t read it. A series of letters from a senior devil to a junior devil about how to tempt humankind. That is us.

I seriously believe that The Screwtape Letters will be recognized as one of the great spiritual classics in Christian literature for the next thousands of years. The practical advice about faith and unfaith and hope and despair and charity and egotism and the clever ways that Satan enables us to deceive ourselves.

You learn an immense amount of practical religious wisdom in The Screwtape Letters. And it’s funny.

The funny in the series aren’t necessarily opposite. Lewis was once asked the question: do you think that heaven will be funny or serious? And he said, that question is not serious; it’s funny.

  1. A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Category Six: Science Fiction, not everybody’s cup of tea. I don’t particularly like technological science fiction myself because technology sort of bores me, as mathematics does. That’s neither a virtue nor a vice.

However, here are two certainly great science fiction classics, each of which has been not only in print but very, very popular ever since it was written. The first one is 50 years old. The second one is almost 100 years old.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is certainly the most Catholic science fiction story ever written. C.S. Lewis thought it was the greatest science fiction novel ever written. I agree with him.

The hero is the Catholic Church, which survives apocalypse and nuclear war. And the background theme is very [Dostoevskyn], that is, man is an original sinner and capable of insane feats of self-delusion and self-destruction. Yet God providentially brings good out of evil and redeems in utterly unpredictable ways.

It’s a philosophy of history. It’s a sprawling novel that covers about 1000 years of history and yet it’s pretty short. It’s only about 200 pages long.

  1. BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley

The other science fiction novel I recommend is probably the most prophetic book in the 20th century, namely Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, written in 1932; it reads as if it was written yesterday.

We are living in Brave New World and it’s about the destruction of the family and marriage and human sexuality, and the destruction of any culture that’s not uniformly approved by the all-knowing powers that lead.

And the conflict in Brave New World is again a reversal because at first the reader is introduced to this Brave New World of the future.

Brave New World is basically, let’s say Brave New World is to Sweden what Sweden is to Zaire. It’s not really happy. It’s just stable and into this is introduced a savage from an Indian reservation and from the viewpoint of Brave New World, the savage is absurd. He wants to suffer, he wants to have his heart broken. He wants Shakespeare and he wants Beethoven and he can’t get them.

And then you realize that you have the choice between being the savage and being a citizen of this peaceful and soulless brave new world. It’s just an astonishingly prophetic book.

Seventh category: Spirituality.


I picked here not the two greatest books of all time, but the two that were the most helpful to me because I’m very simple minded and I’m lazy and I like short books and I like simple books.

And Brother Lawrence’s little book, The Practice of the Presence of God centers in on the single thing that I think makes a saint more effectively than anything else, which is the title.

When you are in the presence of God, you don’t want to deceive yourself, you don’t want to be an egotistic fool, you don’t want to forget who you are and what the meaning of your life is. But God is in fact present all the time, totally, really in many ways in your life.

So that’s the kind of skeleton key that opens up all the other doors. And it’s a very simple point and beautifully put by a very holy and very humble monk.

  1. THE STORY OF A SOUL by St. Therese of Lisieux

The other book that’s also very holy and humble, but much more demanding and difficult and is more about the will and total charity than it is about the mind and total sanity, both of which are very good things, is The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul.

She’s one of the most popular of all modern saints because, well, she’s just as saintly as you can get, I guess. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s a book that will change you no matter what level of sanctity you’re on, the lowest to the highest. And it’s a narrative, not a spectacular narrative, but very personal.

So it’s not abstract theory, it’s very concrete practice.

8th category: Apologetics.

  1. PENSÉES by Blaise Pascal

Apologetics is basically our obedience to the command of St. Peter, the first pope in his letter to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you. So giving reasons for faith.

In my experience of teaching philosophy and philosophy of religion and religious philosophy and apologetics in many different ways to many different students, I find that Pascal’s Pensées is the single most effective way to get at the typical modern pagan who doesn’t really care very much about religion.

It’s simply a series of notes that Pascal was planning to put into a book in a logical order and died before he could. But the notes are better than the book would be.

There are a series of arrows that strike you in the heart. I noticed that whenever students read certain chapters in the Pensées, which are strikingly modern, even though the book was written 400 years ago. They say, Oops, that’s me.

  1. THE PROBLEM OF PAIN by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain is a probably more difficult book than any of the others that I’ve mentioned so far, because it’s a rather tight logical argument. It’s not abstract and theoretical, but it’s a short book. It could have easily been three or four times as long.

But it’s about the most obvious difficulty that anybody of religious faith has, namely the problem of evil. If God is all good and all powerful and all loving, why is there so much evil and suffering and injustice in human life? That’s probably the strongest argument for atheism.

And this is to my mind, the clearest and strongest answer to it that I’ve ever read. It also has a couple of speculative chapters towards the end, one on heaven and one on hell that are the best summary that I’ve ever read in a short compass of what to expect in those two places.


My 9th category: Philosophy, is what I teach most of the time, and if I were to select just two classics that are so fundamental that you can’t understand philosophy without them, I’d pick, first of all, The Apology of Socrates by Plato.

Socrates is the great granddaddy of all philosophers, and this is basically a defense not just of Socrates, but a philosophy. He’s about to be executed for the crime of being a philosopher, and he explains and defends his life. And even if you’re not a professional philosopher, you better be a philosopher, because the philosopher is a lover of wisdom, and wisdom is a divine attribute.

In Augustine’s Confessions, there’s really three conversions that are related. In the first one, even before he becomes a Christian, is when he reads Cicero’s version of the Apology and converts to philosophy. Wisdom is an absolute. I devote my whole life to wisdom. It’s his first absolute. Doesn’t even know wisdom is divine.

Then the next conversion is his conversion to Christianity intellectually; all the arguments are answered. The third conversion of the scene in the garden is conversion morally, the conversion of will that completes it.

But The Apology of Socrates is basic. Without that, you don’t have philosophy. Without philosophy, you don’t have the love of wisdom. Without the love of wisdom, you don’t have wisdom. Without wisdom, you don’t have sanctity or civilization.


Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy is written about a century after Augustine, at the beginning of the Middle Ages. But it’s a very popular book. Like Socrates, Boethius is about to be killed by a wicked politician who doesn’t like Boethius’ politics, and he’s in prison. And this is his last speech: What can philosophy tell you about the meaning of life and death and divine providence in the light of your impending death?

It’s a very simple, very poetic and very short book. It completes The Apology of Socrates.

  1. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS by G.K. Chesterton

Some of the best philosophers are not professional philosophers, but popular philosophers. And one of the greatest minds of all time, I am convinced, is G. K. Chesterton. He’s a great novelist, he’s a great essayist, he was a great journalist, but he’s not usually classified as a philosopher. He never even went to the university. But then neither did Socrates. University wasn’t invented until his disciple Plato invented it.

ALSO READ:   What Crows Can Teach Us About Death: Dr. Kaeli Swift (Transcript)

But two of the books of Chesterton I would say are the two best popular philosophy books I’ve seen. One is his introduction to Thomas Aquinas, whom I would classify as the most intelligent human being who ever lived next to Jesus Christ and the greatest Thomas philosophers of the 20th century have all said that this is the best book anybody ever wrote about Thomas Aquinas. A very simple one, a very engaging one.

  • ORTHODOXY by G.K. Chesterton

Orthodoxy is unclassifiable; in that sense it’s a very unorthodox book, but it could be classified as a book of apologetics. It’s about Chesterton face in distinction to a whole bunch of modern heresies. But it’s written in such a, how can I put it, surprising way that nobody can turn you upside down better than Chesterton.

He shows you that you are in fact standing on your head, so when he turns you upside down, he’s turning you from insanity to sanity. It’s also a hilariously funny book. Funny not in the sense of body humor or jokes, but in the sense that things are pretty much the opposite of what they often see.

I think I’ve done a fairly good job of telling you what each of the other books is about, but it’s impossible to tell you what Orthodoxy is about. It’s about everything. It’s a masterpiece.

I once received in the mail a large piece of paper the size of a newspaper, and somebody, some guy with a lot of extra money had read Orthodoxy and said, this is the greatest book ever written. So I am going to print out, I think it was half a million copies and send them cheap in the mail to everybody that I know. And that’s what we did.

It was small print, but you can fit the whole thing on two sides of a newspaper. It’s a fairly short book, but for somebody to do that is to say this is a remarkable and unique book.


  • THE EVERLASTING MAN by G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton, another selection of Chesterton, wrote The Everlasting Man, which is about the difference Jesus Christ made to history. Let me just quote one sentence from it.

Here’s a summary of the history of Western civilization: Paganism was the biggest thing in the world. Christianity was bigger. Everything since has been pretty small.

It’s the big picture of history.


The second book here is probably one that nobody here has read. In fact, I think it’s out of print, but it’s an absolutely spectacular little book. It focuses on one incident in history which is probably more important than most of you realize.

The Americas… North and South America are both dedicated to and under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why? Because of the miracle of Guadalupe. More people visit Juan Diego’s tilma in Mexico City than any other holy site in the world.

And Warren Carroll tells the story of Guadalupe and the story of Cortés and the Aztecs, which come before Guadalupe in a way that most historians don’t. It’s not dull, it’s not scholarly, it’s spectacular. It seems almost like fantasy or science fiction, but it’s literally true. And he bases his account on the actual diary of Bernal Díaz, who was Cortés’ companion and diarist. It’s just a spectacular story of good and evil and miracles. Arresting.

Category 12: Theology.


Here I’ll give you probably the simplest and probably the most advanced books of theology that I know. C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity has probably done more for mutual understanding among different Christians: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant than any other book ever written.

Everybody loves it, and it’s clear, it’s simple, and yet it’s inexhaustible. It’s like the Bible that way. You read it the first time, you say, I got it. You read it the second time, you say, Oh, there’s more to it. By the 10th time you say, wow how much more could there be to such a simple book? Amazingly clear.

  • SUMMA THEOLOGIAE by St. Thomas Aquinas

The Summa Theologiae – most people say Summa Theologica – is about 4000 pages long. It’s worth browsing through, but it needs to be condensed and it needs to be edited.

So I’ve done two versions of that. Edited means footnotes explaining the technical terms, and people have surprised me by buying a lot of copies of my version of The Summa, not just in college. In fact, I don’t think many people do use it in college.

This is a book that ordinary people buy and read and understand and say, wow, I never thought I could understand Aquinas. Now I do. He’s really quite simple and direct. Once you understand a couple of technical terms, you’re off and running.

So sample The Summa, it’s probably the greatest work of theology ever.

Finally, Poetry.

  • LEPANTO by G.K. Chesterton

Two of my favorites, they look very very different, are a short poem by G.K. Chesterton called Lepanto, which is about the repelling of the Muslim invasion in the 15th century miraculously.

If you like poetry because you like to hear music in words, if you like the union of sound and sense, Lepanto is great. If you prefer modern poetry, which doesn’t have much sound and doesn’t have much sense, well, you won’t like Lepanto.

But it’s especially good for teenagers who are very sensitive to body language and sound.

  • THE WASTE LAND by T.S. Elliot

T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland is not nearly as beautiful, but it’s quite profound. It’s rather obscure, in fact, but it’s memorable and haunting and it’s utterly relevant. It’s about the modern post Christian world.

Well, there you are, 26 of them. 26 readable books every Catholic should read, but actually only eleven of the 26 were written by Catholics.

Let’s see, I’ve got eleven by Catholics, nine by Anglicans, two by Protestants, two by Agnostics, one by Eastern Orthodox, and one by Pagan, the Socrates.

C.S. Lewis was mentioned six times. Couldn’t help it. Sorry, Chesterton, four times.

There are many other books I could add. We’re going to have the most interesting part of my talk now. I’m going to shut up and you’re going to ask me questions.

But one of the questions is certainly going to be if you can have a third choice, what would you add?

So I’ll answer that question right off. A third autobiography I would add is either Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain or C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy.

A third novel I would add, is Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities.

A third play, I would add, is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Probably the greatest play ever written. By the way it’s fairly short and literally millions of books have been written. And yet next to the Bible, there are more quotations from this short play in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations than any other book ever written. That’s how memorable the language is.

If I were to add another epic, I would add Tolkien’s Silmarillion. It’s the [Greekwell 2], or the big picture surrounding The Lord of the Rings.

If I were to add another supernatural fantasy, I would add Charles Williams’ book Descent into Hell, which is the most terrifying book I have ever read… the point of the title is the protagonist descends into hell during this life, and the psychology of damnation is very convincing.

If you didn’t believe in hell, you didn’t believe that anybody could go there, read that book.

If I were to add another science fiction classic, it would probably be Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

If I were to add another book of spirituality, it would be de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence.

If I were to add another book of apologetics gee, I already said Mere Christianity. What am I going to say? Well, Lewis’ Miracles.

When Thomas Aquinas at the beginning of The Summa establishes that God exists and therefore theology is possible. Thus it’s the foundation for the next 4000 pages. He has only two objections to the existence of God, and throughout history there have been only two strong arguments for atheism.

On every other issue he has at least three objections, but he can only find two to this most important of all questions. One of them is the problem of evil, and the other is the apparent adequacy of the natural and human sciences to explain everything without any supernatural God.

And Lewis’s Defense of Miracles is an answer to that objection. It is a deep, many layered book, but it’s fairly difficult and fairly profound. So that’s on kind of another level.

If I were to add one more book of classic philosophy, it would have to be Plato’s Republic. If I were to add another book of popular philosophy, it would be Aristotle’s Ethics.

I once met a guy who said I bet you can’t tell where I teach philosophy. I said, well, tell me. He said, on the streets of New York City every summer to the homeless. I said, Good for you.

He said, I’ll bet you don’t know what their favorite book is. I said, what? He said, Aristotle’s Ethics. It’s very practical. If the homeless love it. Well, that car rubber meets the road.

If I were to add something else in history, it would be either Augustine’s classic The City of God. Get a shortened version, it’s about 1000 pages long. Or something by Christopher Dawson who I think is the best historian of modern times.

If I were to add another book of theology at our present time and culture, I would say get something by Christopher West on St. John Paul II’s Theology of The Body, which is the Church’s definitive answer to the sexual revolution which is the most powerful weapon that Satan has of destroying our culture and civilization.

George Weigel, the pope’s biographer said this is the most important development in Catholic theology for 700 years.

Finally, if I were to add another poem, I would say St. John Henry Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius which is about dying and going to heaven.

Well, I finished in less than an hour. I was going to take 45 minutes, so that’s not too bad. And we don’t have a terribly crushing time limit so I think there’s a lot of time for questions.

Now, I am always very impressed by Catholic audiences because you politely sit through a monologue, which is always dull so you can get to the Q and A, which is always interesting. And that’s because you believe in purgatory. So your purgatory is over. Your heaven begins.

Resources for Further Reading:

10 Lies of Contemporary Culture: Dr. Peter Kreeft (Full Transcript)

The Solution for all Your Spiritual Struggles: The Exchange at the Cross (Transcript)

Derek Prince: Orphans, Widows, the Poor and Oppressed (Transcript)

Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have Been to the Mountaintop Full Speech (Transcript)