Literary Reading Plans:



I of course speak generally here: Priories’ libraries don’t usually have many novels in them.

Maybe it’s because these novels are kept on private bookshelves, i.e. in the friars’ cells, and are just hidden from view. Maybe it’s because everything is now on the Kindle.

But I doubt it.

For one, friars are suspicious of the Kindle and the e-reader craze. Also, many friars (again, not all,) consciously or not, retain the old Scholastic bias against “profane letters.” To them, a novel at the very least has to propagandize for Truth or what-have-you, or it has no point. Think of Savonarola screaming perdition before his explosive bonfires. Or even remember Sertillanges, in his otherwise excellent book, The Intellectual Life, where he makes this absurd claim that literature is not worth an intelligent reader’s time. An intelligent reader, says Sertillanges, has philosophia perrenis and the divine science to devour incessantly; why should he waste a perfectly useful morning on—on a novel? Sure, read it if you have to;—go on, get it out of your system;—but then get back to work.

Tolkien, Chesterton et al., however, it must be acknowledged, had some positive impact. Friars may now enjoy various sprees in theoretical fiction. They may discuss Middle-earth at the open table, and may allude in their preachings to the Catholic writers/novelists of the ages. They may openly lament the death of the “Catholic novel,” yes, and may also, if they care to, expostulate the implicit Catholicity of Shakespeare. All this is fine and kosher. But still, friars are inclined to think of “good literature” as propaganda, and, if written by a devout Catholic, the “right kind” of propaganda. But if literature is approached as a way for mere esthetic enjoyment, then, well, as the Italians say, “Bah.”   

I of course speak generally. Also provocatively. For, each priory is allowed at least one literary apostle. Or two. Or ten.

For literature is not propaganda. It’s just fun. And also life-changing. And immensely useful in various ways. You may read Jacques Maritain on the subject; or, if you prefer, Maritain distilled, in the letters and essays of Flannery O’Connor.

This Reading Plan will focus on providing you with a good foundation for getting you caught up to speed on the essentials of some of the best books of the last hundred years. It is smart to begin with recent literature, and proceed from there. Sure, you could go “back to Homer,” but Homer isn’t easy to appreciate unless you already have a stomach for epic poetry, and starting from that side of history often ends shortly afterward in a dying whimper.  

These stories are some of the best from the last hundred years or so. They are chosen in part because they’re unusual in a way, but mainly because they thematically deal with “discernment.” If you can read and appreciate these, you can read any snotty English major under the table.

STAGE 1 (Month 1)

  1. Gene Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom.
  2. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

STAGE 2 (Month 2)

  1. Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice.
  2. John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy.

STAGE 3 (Month 3)

  1. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln.
  2. Roald Dahl’s Boy.

STAGE 4 (Month 4)  

  1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
  2. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

STAGE 5 (Month 5)

  1. Frans Bengtsson’s The Longships.
  2. W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.

STAGE 6 (Month 6)

  1. Willa Cather’s One of Ours.
  2. Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons.

STAGE 7 (Month 7)  

  1. Sigrid Undset’s Gunnar’s Daughter.
  2. Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.


Poetry, if it’s not your thing, won’t easily become your thing. However, here is a way to mitigate that problem.

You’re not going to be able to breeze through these poems. Read them aloud, to yourself, by yourself. Go over them patiently, one at a time. You’ll like some, you’ll be completely unmoved by others. The ones you like make sure to mark, so you can return to them later on. Most of the poems, excepting Chesterton’s and Lord Macaulay’s, can be read in three or four minutes. Chesterton’s and Macaulay’s are “long poems,” but can be enjoyed in their parts, because in fact they’re also stories.

The thing about a poem is that you should memorize it. That’s the best way. But also good is simply repeating it to yourself enough times so that it stays with you, whether completely or in fragments, forever afterward. Then it is when poetry does its job.

The following Plan of poems is designed to reach an especially masculine audience. This is not to exclude women, but to eradicate the stupid idea that men don’t or shouldn’t read poetry. Below are very manly, human poems, like Kipling’s “If—” and Lord Macaulay’s “Horatius,” which have inspired generations of men either to reflect on the nature of heroism, or to hoist up the flag of freedom and bravery and to leap into the fray, into the breach.

  1. Rudyard Kipling’s If—, and Other Poems.
  2. G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse.
  3. Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will and North of Boston.
  4. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation.
  5. Oxford World’s Classics’s Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology.
  6. Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay’s “Horatius at the Bridge.”
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