Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Books for the homeschooler

A friend of mine recently wrote me asking what books I would recommend for his high-school-aged son who is being home schooled. He was most interested in literature, but also anything that would contribute to his son's Catholic worldview. Having done some homeschooling of my own children and having been home schooled myself in my younger years by my mother in Japan, I wrote back some random thoughts (see below). It then occurred to me that this is the sort of question which a blog is uniquely designed to field, since I know that we have a large number of intelligent Catholic readers whose experience far exceeds my own limited exposure to classic and Catholic literature. Please freely suggest books and writers you have found valuable in this regard. The following, for what it's worth, are my first thoughts:
I think for boys, especially, dramatic narrative is invaluable for capturing an inspiring vision of life and the heroic aspirations that Catholicism can inculcate in a youngster. Not all of the following are anything close to being Catholic, but they all, I think, contribute to the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian vision that defines the West for what it is: the soul of Christendom.

I suspect that the collection edited by Wm Buckley Jr., Treasury of Classic Children's Literature, or Wm Russell's Classics to Read Aloud to Your Children may be somewhat too thin, although they both have some darn good stuff in them. They might be useful in identifying the unabridged originals from which some of the selections are taken, classics all.

Another author who comes to mind is Rex Warner, who has made a career of distilling classics of the Hellenic-Roman world into books readable for an intelligent high schooler -- including Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War; Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks (very good); Euripides' Medea; Xenophon's The Persian Expedition; The Young Caesar; Imperial Caesar; and even St. Augustine's Confessions.

Also good is Charles Lamb, who similarly made a career of distilling into prose readable to a high schooler classics from Shakespeare to Ulysses; and the works of Harold Lamb (for sheer adventure and history) on Genghis Kahn, the Crusades, Theodora and Justinian; Cyrus the Great; Alexander of Macedon, Tamerlane, Constantinople, etc. Any books on pioneers, patriots, heroes or saints and martyrs are great for high schoolers too, who need this sort of chivalrous fare to combat the constant diet of antiheroes and dilettantes of contemporary "culture."

A readable paraphrase of the whole Bible is invaluable in this vein too -- especially for reading the great historical and dramatic books of the OT, like Genesis, Numbers, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1 & 2 Maccabees, or the Book of Acts in the NT, etc. ("Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ," as St. Jerome says.)

Anything by Charles Dickens is suburb, like Tale of Two Cities (London & Paris during the French Revolution, in which the protagonist who looks like a man condemned to the guillotine takes his place to free him -- many Christian themes), Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, etc. Dickens is a consummate story teller, with often solid Victorian Christian values. No American storyteller tops Mark Twain -- e.g., Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, etc. Herman Melville's Moby Dick is a classic, as well as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels; Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, of which there are some good abridged versions and translations. Henry David Thoreau's Walden and some of Emerson's works are worth reading. And some of Tolstoy's short stories would be a good place to start in the grand corpus of Russian literature (the early Tolstoy's values are still Christian and his story telling matchless in passion and scope). Getting back to the Greeks, Sophocles' tragedy Antigone is high school level and yet profound in its issues. (I remember loving it in high school. Which reminds me, I remember being moved by Viktor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning, which I read on my own in high school in Japan, a book about an Auschwitz survivor -- amazing, better than Elie Wiezel's Night.)

Some poetry would also be worth reading. Get a good older anthology -- something that has Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, Tennyson, Francis Thompson (Hound of Heaven), Gerard Manley Hopkins (received into the Church by Newman), Hawthorne, Shakespeare's Sonnets, etc. Poe has some short stories that are dynamite -- The Pit and the Pendulum, etc. (although they paint an historically altogether unflattering and inaccurate picture of the Church and Spanish Inquisition and Napoleon as liberator, etc.). Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea is about as existentialist as I would get, although it's not a bad story.

There is no better Moses for leading children to the promised land of Catholicism than C.S. Lewis, when it comes to his popular apologetic and dramatic works. His books, Mere Christianity; Miracles; The Problem of Pain; The Great Divorce (an allegory on Purgatory); The Weight of Glory and other essays; not to mention his science fiction trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet; Paralandra; and That Hideous Strength; not to mention his Chronicles of Narnia, which are enjoyable at different levels at different ages (I've certainly enjoyed them as an adult -- good theology and didactic great adventures). One shouldn't overlook some of Peter Kreeft's fiction either, such as his fictitious dialogs between a resurrected Socrates and Jesus, Kant, Descartes, or Felicia Flake, Peter Pragma, and Pop Syke in his classic The Best Things in Life.

As I mentioned on the phone, Rudyard Kipling's adventures, like Kim, are interesting for their setting in India under British rule; and Richard Halliburton's travelogues are fascinating and a good way to learn about the seven wonders of the world and other intriguing things geographical. Your son may have already read Tolkien's trilogy, which I would otherwise recommend (Tolkien essentially created the mythology of the British isles, including its own language, theogony, and cosmology). In fact, all of the Inkling writers are good, including Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and the great Christian fantasy novels of Charles Williams.

Philosophically, Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World (fictitious anonymous letters from a philosopher father to his young daughter, which she discovers in her mailbox, introducing her to questions covering the history of philosophy -- much less contrived than it sounds). Plato's Apology or Crito might work as well.

You've probably seen Laura Berquist's Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum: A Guide to Catholic Home Education (Ignatius 1998), which is decent.

This is a beginning, hopefully. But once you get a good author or good anthology, the references will begin snowballing.


Roger said...

I don’t know what I could possibly add to such a great list Dr. B. I can think of only a few more possible entries.
Kelly, J.N.D., Early Christian Doctrines
Belloc, Hilaire, Europe and the Faith, (your assigned reading)
Hurnard, Hannah, Hinds’ Feet on High Places
Bryant, Jennifer Fisher, Thomas Merton, Poet, Prophet, Priest

Anonymous said...


Did you intentionally leave G. K . Chesterton off your list?

I would also recommend Fr. Francis Finn (S.J.) -- a writer who is called "The Catholic Mark Twain".

The Imitation of Christ (Thomas a Kempis)
True Devotion to Mary (St. Louis de Montfort)

Profiles in Courage (John Kennedy)
From my wife and highschool son:

Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott)
Drums (James Boyd)
Men of Iron (Howard Pyle)

I'll stop there.


Pertinacious Papist said...

Roger, Chris,

Thanks for the recommendations. J.N.D. Kelly may be tough going, though I hadn't thought of Belloc, who has some writings that could work.

I did think of Chesterton, but I think he's a lot more difficult than we may sometimes think, at least if we're thinking of works like Orthodoxy. Perhaps his books on St. Francis and St. Thomas Aquinas would work, or the Fr. Brown mysteries.

The others are wonderful recommendations from you both.

Anonymous said...


The problem with Chesterton (and Belloc, for that matter) is that we don't write much like that any more, and so when we moderns read them we have to adjust the ear. This surely is a good thing for our highschoolers to do?

Might I also recommend a whole collection of 19th century speeches. We just don't write this way anymore.

I'm presently reading Napoleon of Notting Hill. Next up is The Man who was Thursday.

Might I also recommend 1984 and Animal Farm, both of George Orwell?

God bless,


Pertinacious Papist said...


I like all of your recommendations, including Chesterton. The difficulty I have found with some of Chesterton's writing, however, I don't think is simply a matter of having an elegant and erudite style which contemporary readers may find "dated" on account of their comparative philistinism. Even the comparatively recent C.S. Lewis has this quality in his more popular writings, though not to the degree that some earlier writers would. Jane Austen's prose is elegant in a way that today's writing and speech isn't, and when we come to Shakespeare, we have this in spades.

No, what I have in mind is a certain dialectical style in some of Chesterton's wittier, clever passages that is sometimes difficult to decypher. While I don't have any examples directly from him at hand, the sort of thing I mean -- a simple example -- would be like this: "The weakness of Christianity is its strength. The strength of Marxism is its weakness." That's very clever, but it's like an Escher sketch or a Goedel theorem or a the Musical Offering of J.S. Bach. It's wickedly clever and mind-numbingly obscure unless you know enough of the author to capture his precise intent from the context.

Still, Chesterton is one of those 10-20 authors I would count myself a loser to have died without reading.