Reading G. K. Chesterton: A Guide for the New Fan

In the movie Moscow on the Hudson, a Soviet defector walks in to an American supermarket for the first time, is overwhelmed at all the choices, yells, spins around, and passes out. The new reader of G. K. Chesterton may well feel this way. You read an essay, or a Father Brown story, or one of his better-known books, and love it.

Then you look up his books on the web and find an impossibly long list. Here’s Wikipedia’s. He wrote over one-hundred, including novels, poetry, essays and more essays, mystery stories, histories, social analysis, biographies, travel books, cultural criticism, literary criticism, and an autobiography. Several collections of essays and stories appeared after he died. More may be coming, including an edition of his letters.

So here is a list of seven books to start with. I chose books that would give you a good introduction to Chesterton and express his mind or imagination or worldview. I’ve only listed non-fiction but include a shorter list of fiction and poetry at the end. The books are listed in the order I suggest they be read.

  • Autobiography (1936). Published just after Chesterton died, this winsome introduction to the man and his mind offers less a record of his life than a reflection on the world through selected events and people. Those interested in his Catholicism will want to read his short book The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), as well as the essay collections The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic (1929) and The Well and the Shallows (1935).
  • Heretics (1905). A collection of essays on his contemporaries, like Shaw and Kipling, and their characteristic errors. These, for the most part, happen to be the characteristic errors of our contemporaries one-hundred-some years later. The introductory and concluding chapters “on the importance of orthodoxy” should certainly be read, but some of the others may be skipped, since understanding them can depend on a knowledge of their long-forgotten subjects.
  • Orthodoxy (1908). One of Chesterton’s two greatest works, it argues for Christianity through his unfolding discovery that it answered all the questions the world had presented him before he took orthodox Christianity seriously. Some people find the book hard to read, because following the way his mind works is almost like learning a new language, but they should persevere. (An earlier work, The Blatchford Controversies, contained in Volume 1 of Ignatius Press’s uniform edition, provides a good short introduction and summary of the arguments of this book and Heretics.)
  • The Dumb Ox (1933). Not a very useful biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, but a revealing study and a book worth reading even if you don’t read St. Thomas — and if you do, it’s very helpful in understanding what all that formal theology was about. He explains through Thomas’s life and work the importance of theology and Catholicism’s unique and necessary insights.
  • The Everlasting Man (1925). The other of Chesterton’s two greatest works, and the one written after he became a Catholic, this book reads history as a preparation for and then a working out of the Incarnation — working out not only in the Christian West but in response to Eastern philosophies and cultures as well, including Islam. It is a book that some readers have to read slowly or again to begin to understand, but a powerful book when you get it.
  • What’s Wrong with the World (1910). One of Chesterton’s many works of social analysis, chosen as probably the most comprehensive, and one in which he combines criticism with his description of the ideal, especially for the family. Eugenics and Other Evils (1922) and The Superstition of Divorce (1920) are two very good and more focused analyses.
  • Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906). An early work, written between Heretics and Orthodoxy, and his most famous work on another writer. He also wrote books on his friend George Bernard Shaw, William Morris, Chaucer, Robert Louis Stevenson, and William Cobbett, while many of his essay collections, like Varied Types (1903), deal mostly with writers. Charles Dickens is not a religious work, but it reveals a lot about his thinking, Dickens being such a sympathetic subject for him.

Fiction: Here the list is fairly arbitrary, because so many of Chesterton’s novels and short stories are of the same sort and quality. Every story he wrote has a point.

I haven’t included The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), his most famous work in secular circles, because I don’t particularly enjoy it myself and suspect it appeals to many because they can read so much into it. I also left out The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), his second most famous work in secular circles, because I think once you get the basic idea it’s a less interesting story than the later ones.

The list includes The Innocence of Father Brown (1911, but look for the 1998 edition annotated by the science writer Martin Gardner) and The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914), the first two volumes of the Father Brown stories, though the other three volumes are also engaging; Manalive (1912), the story of a man whose apparently criminal acts reveal much about the world; and The Flying Inn (1914), an entertaining view of a Prohibitionist and Islamified England. I’d also commend his Collected Poems (1932), even for those who don’t read poetry.

G.K. Chesterton is one of my heroes and one of the writers who’ve most formed my mind, for the reasons I gave in G. K. Chesterton: Rhetoric, Genius, and Holiness, and others. He wrote in his essay On Reading (which anticipated by some years the better known essay of C. S. Lewis’s, “On the Reading of Old Books”) that “The highest use of the great masters of literature is not literary; it is apart from their superb style and even from their emotional inspiration. The first use of good literature is that it prevents a man from being merely modern.” That’s true of Chesterton’s writing, if we add to the negative the positive “and that it helps us see truths we did not see before.”

For a similar list for C. S. Lewis, see Seven C. S. Lewis Books to Start With.

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David Mills writes a weekly column for Aleteia. He latest book is Discovering Mary. He’s edited Touchstone and First Things.

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