The subject of Catholic books is funny, because Catholics are funny. What do I mean? What do we have in common, outside the mass and the ideals we hold? Not a whole lot. Or, not a whole lot that is immediately obvious. The more we grow in holiness, the more we become alike, because the more we become like God, but as things sit in the here-and-now, we are very much in progress… And until then, we have to deal with these differences. Accepting that people are often just ‘funny’ is not the worst way to deal.
Some of us are rich, some poor; some educated, some not; some live horrible lives of suffering, while others enjoy the life of Riley. I don’t mind that we don’t all see eye-to-eye. Sure, it gets frustrating when you hear about Catholic voters putting wealth-redistribution above the right to life in their voting practices. Other things, like whether they like Chesterton more or less than Tolkien, more or less than Michael O’Brien or Flannery O’Connor, well, it’s hard to get too excited about these things. But some people do get excited about them. One of the things that bothers me most about religious people in general—and Catholics in particular—is when they insist that something peripheral is actually of central importance or that a possible view is a necessary one. This might be a quintessential religious defect, but I don’t think so. I tend to think that—today—it is a reaction against relativism. It’s the kind of thinking that responds to the “anything goes” mentality of the world with a strict rule, for instance, against women wearing pants. I’ve seen the same thing in academic theology as an insistence that the truth and the Summa Theologica are coterminous.
One particular manifestation of the “Catholics are funny” thing, and of the dogmatic bent of humanity in general, lies in what I would call a particular feature of Catholic discourse, whether we are talking books, topics of conversation, media, conferences, etc. This is the “I have a pretty clear picture of the lay of the land so just confirm for me what I already know because that makes me feel good” mentality. It’s not really a mentality as much as it is a mode of being. How many times do we have to be told that everything fell apart in 1962 with Vatican II or in 1968 with Humane Vitae’s rejection? How many times do we have to be told that men need to start being men again so women can be women – or do I have this one backwards?
Religious people like to crank. I like to crank, but I assume I do so with a view towards problem-solving. If I say that ‘priests today are no good,’ I would like to think that my intention is directed towards improving priestly formation. So too when I crank about Christian education, and those million other things I like to crank about. However, I realized long ago that this is not every crank’s intention. Some just like to crank for crank’s sake. It fulfills them. Indeed, I have noticed that among complainers, those actually hoping to contribute to a solution are rather few in number. A religious education director, a pastor, a school teacher, a father, a writer, might hate that way things are, and even know of a better way, but for some reason they think it’s okay to simply point it out. Leadership, however—real leadership— requires a great deal more. Between spotting a problem and attempting to fix it lies a vast gulf which I like to call virtue.
But how does this have anything to do with books? How is this any concern of an editor of a literary journal? I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Catholics love their books. The books we write and the books we purchase are a good indicator of our mindset. How would I describe the books that have come out in the last few years? I have received a bunch of them from publishers like Justin, Ignatius, Sophia Institute, Paraclete, Intervarsity, Catholic University and Cistercian. What’s written and published, of course, has a great deal to do with what people want to read. (The Catholic Review of Books is basically the only publication that doesn’t cater to the interests of anyone other than our writers.) But there’s a pull, in any event, when it comes to these great Catholic publishers – very few of them, after all, got into the business of Catholic books because they did not want to share their (pre-conceived) idea of the truth with others, but to simply reflect the views of people back to themselves. That’s what secular presses are for, after all, and there is a lot more money in that! No, Catholic publishers want to help form people for the better as well.
How have they succeeded in recent years? And who really determines the types of books we get: writers or publishers?
- The Ear of the Heart, by Hart and DeNeut
- The Didache Bible
- Ignatius Bible (RSV), 2nd Edition
- Practical Theology, by Kreeft
- The Noonday Devil, by Nault
- Something Other Than God, by Fulwiler
- Redeemed by Grace, by Trevino
- A Time of Renewal, by Mother Mary Francis
- Be a Man!, by Richards
It’s truly great that the Youth Catechism is selling so well. It is a great book. Now, if we subtract the two Bibles, which, nevertheless, gives us some idea of the volume of sales we are talking about in this list, we see that three of the top-ten sellers are biographies/autobiographies. One of these details the life of an actress turned nun, one a Planned Parent abortionist turned advocate for life, the other an atheist turned believer. Four are what I would call ‘books of spirituality.’ The only category I would say is missed from this list is perhaps what Ignatius is most widely known for in the circles I have travelled: the leading theology works of the 20th century, those from writers such as Ratzinger, De Lubac and von Balthasar. But, of course, ‘hard theology’ would not be expected to sell as well as books in these other categories. Barring this lacuna, I think this list is fairly representative not only of Ignatius, but of Catholic publishing as a whole: it principally consists in books of spirituality and in biography. What does this say about us? I think it says that we feel a need for spiritual guidance and edification, and that one of the chief ways we are edified is through reading about the lives of other Catholics.
The case is not all that different when we look at Amazon.com’s Catholic bestsellers of the year, as of November, 2015. Merchants in the Temple by Nuzzi is, not surprisingly, at the top of this list.
- Merchants in the Temple, by Nuzzi
- 33 Days to Morning Glory, by Gaitley
- Catechism of the Catholic Church
- Sacred Space, by the Irish Jesuits
- Seven Story Mountain, by Merton
- Barron’s Leader Test Preparation for Catholic High Schools
- The Joy of the Gospel, by Pope Francis
- Betrayal, by the Boston Globe
- The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Nouwen
- Laudato Si, by Pope Francis
The difference apparent in this list is that there is a book included here which a Catholic publisher is not likely to publish, Betrayal. One might argue that Merchants in the Temple is also such a book. It is also surprising that two older books appear here – that by Merton and that by Nouwen. Overall, however, I would not say that Amazon’s list is all that reliable an indicator of what Catholics are reading. It’s not even a reliable indication of what people are reading about Catholicism, since two of the books on their list (which I removed from this one) are not by or about Catholicism at all. Nevertheless, some significant observations can be made here too. Aside from the two ‘controversial’ books and the Catechism, we see predominating again, books of a more spiritual bent. The only biography would be Merton’s autobiography. It is interesting that the controversial (?) Laudato Si is not outselling Joy in the Gospel – at least not yet, although we should bear in mind that it was released much later. If we expand our gaze further down Amazon’s bestsellers’ list, we see more of the day-by-day type books, like 33 Days to Morning Glory and Sacred Space; we see other ‘classics’ by people like Nouwen; there are general Christianity books; and there are more controversial books about the Vatican’s money and Hitler, etc. The first Ignatius Press book to show up on Amazon’s list is Cardinal Sarah’s God or Nothing, which Amazon places at 37, but which, once you exclude listing different version of the same book and those non-Catholic books that slide in, is much closer to a ranking of around 20. St. Thérèse’ Journal of a Soul comes in at 39 and Weigel’s City of Saints at 40.
What do I make of these best-sellers lists?
Well, for starters, Ignatius’ is a ‘better’ list because Ignatius is a producer of scrupulously solid Catholic material. And yet, of course, it doesn’t publish all the good Catholic books out there – not by a long-shot. In other words, all of its books are good, but not all good books are Ignatius.
Amazon’s doesn’t actually tell us what Catholics are reading, as I’ve suggested. With a little bit of thinking, however, you can figure this out, more or less. Of course, doing this gets us awfully close to that very dicey task of needing to define who is a Catholic and who is not. You might not think very highly of someone who would read Nouwen, or you might believe that all Weigel fans are heartless neo-cons. But you simply don’t know why someone is reading what they are reading. Some of the stuff I read is from simple curiosity about who this reader is or why others like him. Best-seller status is often an indication of not a whole lot more than a publisher’s advertising budget.
And yet, there are types of readers, aren’t there? But should a Christian deal in stereotypes? I don’t think it’s the mortal sin pagans make it out to be, but, nevertheless, it’s not nothing. Of course, even the most adamant liberals do surveys to figure out what white, black, Chinese, young, old support. Why do these stereotyping foes think about categories? Because it’s an efficient way to deal with large groups of people. When I see that Merton is a top-ten seller I am forced to conclude that a large percentage of Catholic readers are older than I am. When I see that Journal of a Soul is still at number 39 after all these years, I think about all the women readers this must represent. Of course, the fact that so many controversial books appear in Amazon’s top-fifty—and even in the top-ten—is a reminder of something: the continual fascination/repulsion/obsession that so many people have for the Catholic Church, I guess. There are more books written about evils associated with the Vatican than with China and China literally kills just so many, many people daily. China has hundreds of billionaires (ostensibly a communist country) while the Vatican barely has a billion dollars all in. In other words, popularity is no indication of goodness, let alone much else.
Who are Catholics and what do they read? I would trust Ignatius’ list more than Amazon’s to tell me this. Catholics, first of all, look to books for edification or inspiration, not for clear-cut answers and even less for controversy.
If we look a bit closer, we can say a few more things. Today readers seem to be especially drawn to the stories of people a lot like themselves. In the Middle Ages and even later, people wanted to hear about saintly heroes and the more miracles the better! Teresa of Calcutta continues to fascinate us twenty years after her death, but not for that reason. (By the way, a book on her, Mother Teresa: A Life Inspired, sits at number 21 on Amazon’s list.) What is so exceptional about Jennifer Fulwiler? (A lovely, kind, generous person, I happen to know from personal experience, by the way.) I think even she would agree that (so far, anyway) she would not make it into St. Jerome’s On Illustrious Men. Why is Simcha Ficher so popular? I think the same answer can be given in both cases: they exemplify some of the virtues that many Catholic women wish for themselves; they are approachable and believable witnesses for Catholic women today. I think we can say something of the same in regard to St. Therese’s continued popularity.
Practicality is a key word here. And when I think practical spiritual help, my mind turns to Sophia Institute Press. Readers of the Review have seen our writers discuss books from this press on depression, marriage and spirituality. They have re-presented classics, like writings from St. Francis de Sales and Guardini, and studies of St. Thérèse, but new works of spirituality too.
But what is the quality of these works? Sometimes I can get cynical and begin to think that even Christian book publishing can be about just pumping out anything in order to make a buck. Some books are duds, sure, and we will tell you about these. But one thing I have tried to train myself to remember is that I should not ask, was it necessary for this book to be published? That is my academic training coming out. Rather, I should be asking, can this book do some person some good? Other than the Bible, not all books are meant for all people. However, if a book is to justify its existence, we have to be able to identify an intended reader. We can’t insist that if a book does not appeal to me then it is no good. Some books strike me as fluffy and sentimental. Some of the books I like would doubtlessly strike others as dreary or as utterly impractical. I have been hurt many times by people saying this about Augustine! A book is like a conversation, in this case, a conversation with someone who is able to write a book. Some conversations are fruitless; some books must be too. And yet, most times, you can pick up something worthwhile from both the one and the other.
As an intellectual nurtured in the self-referential world of academia, I am also apt to think about the academic qualifications of those who presume to write, and yet these lists of best-sellers suggest that this is not a universal belief. Of course, it’s absolutely true that many, many people have something to share. Whether they can write and write in a convincing and/or entertaining manner, is another story; also, those who can write well, don’t necessarily write good things. Shadowlands (i.e. the movie about C. S. Lewis) tells us that people read in order to know they are not alone. If that’s true, people would tend to read books by people like them, about things to which they can relate. That seems to pan out, as we have noted the large number of ‘experience-based’ books that have appeared: books about my switch to pro-life, my switch to the Catholic faith… But that’s not all we see people reading. Spirituality is an aspiration to something higher, to a higher level of meaning, knowledge and happiness than to which we have hitherto had access. And this kind of thing is our chief interest.
So I guess my initial thought that Catholics just want to hear what they already ‘know’ doesn’t go very far to explain the data. Catholics want to read to be better.
I like looking for patterns. And we will keep thinking and writing about them in issues and in articles to come.