An 'America' Reading List: 150 short essays on 270 books

When I was small, at our home in Trenton, New Jersey, I would sit on the stairs and listen to my father, the newspaperman, read aloud to my mother, the school teacher, as she knitted. Two books were Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, the story of Erasmus before he became the famous medieval theologian, and Sigrid Undset’s epic, Kristin Lavransdatter, which helped her win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1953 when I was studying in Paris on Fordham’s junior year abroad, I spied a copy of Cloister in a bookstand along the Seine and bought it, and in 2001 I included Kristin Lavransdatter—which turned out to be the favorite of Jesuit seminarians in the late 1950s, perhaps because for many, still in their teens, it was a rare romantic experience. Years later I wrote about it in my 50-essay collection, Dante to Dead Man Walking: One Reader’s Journey through the Christian Classics. I read recently in Joseph Berger’s biography of Woodrow Wilson, that in the early 1900s young people strengthened their friendships by reading to one another. For me to read what my father had read to my mother opened a window into a special intimacy they shared.

Between the 1970s and 1990s, in four of the five Jesuit universities where I taught journalism, I invited the faculty to join me in producing a collection of short essays on books they thought everyone should read. In response to my essay in America on “Saving the Humanities” (12/23-12/30/13), some readers suggested recreating the book lists from the various schools, and New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer suggested we put it online.

We reproduce them here in the order in which they were published — Fordham University, The College of the Holy Cross, Loyola University New Orleans, and Saint Peter’s College, now a university—just as they first appeared. I thank America, where I am literary editor, for making its resources and website available. Our production editor, who did the design and copying, and is responsible for its final appearance is Allison Shapiro, a former summer intern. She is currently a junior at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. She has our undying gratitude.

You can browse these reading lists (in pdf form) here.

October 15, 2014

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