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James T. KeaneDecember 14, 2021

It’s December 14. Why haven’t you finished your Christmas shopping yet?

That’s right—we here at America are not afraid to follow consecutive Catholic Book Club columns on Dorothy Day and Wendell Berry with a judiciously timed tout on behalf of consumerism and materialist excess. But in our defense, ours is a qualified endorsement of the crass commercialization of a sacred holiday: We’re only recommending books.

Over the years, the bookworms at America Media have compiled list upon list of books that would make good Christmas gifts. Here is a sample.

Over the years, America has often asked its editors and contributors to share their favorite book gift ideas, and most of those choices have held up well. (O.K., maybe not everyone would want to find From Humanism to the Humanities: Education in the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe under the tree on Christmas morn, but some of our editors had tastes that were perhaps a bit recherché.) The tradition began in our inaugural year of 1909, when the editors offered some recommendations for adults and children alike. They also reminisced about the annual anthology of children’s short stories they remembered from their own youth, The Chatterbox. Its demise, they darkly warned readers, was sure to have consequences:

One of the joys of our first Christmases was the ownership of the annual “Chatterbox.” We wish we had one of them by us now to discover in adult wisdom what it was which made the old-fashioned “Chatterbox” a fertile source of childish pleasure. There are no more “Chatterboxes,” alas! And we suspect the present generation of children are, in consequence, all the worse off in the matter of infantile dissipation.

We have remained ever the watchman since against the lurking menace of infantile dissipation. Down with the bottle, babies!

Ours is a qualified endorsement of the crass commercialization of a sacred holiday: We’re only recommending books.

In 2019, frequent America contributor Jon Sweeney offered suggestions for a “last minute Christmas gift,” though his literary recommendations involved far more care and discernment than that pair of slippers you bought in a panic for Aunt Dot last year on Christmas Eve. Among his selections was a novel originally published in French and Creole, Slave Old Man. The author, Patrick Chamoiseau, has been compared to James Joyce and Franz Kafka (no pressure there), and Sweeney called him a genre-shaping artist. “Buy this little and yet enormous book for someone this month who loves fiction,” he wrote, “and believes there is nothing new under the sun.”

Given the many harrowing stories that came out this year about mistreatment of Indigenous peoples at residentials schools run by churches in the United States and Canada, another suggestion from Sweeney is particularly apt: Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (an umlaut a day keeps the doctor away!). “The book is astonishing in its scope,” Sweeney wrote. “It is rare to find such a work, a deft narrative so comprehensive that also includes lots of original research.”

One of Sweeney’s top picks was by one of our favorite authors at America: Sister Helen Prejean. Her memoir, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, “tells more of the story of her life than Dead Man Walking (1993) did,” Sweeney wrote. It tells of “the transformation of a woman, who had better be named a saint one day, from life in a convent in the late 1950s, teaching white kids in suburban Catholic schools, to living in an African-American housing project and corresponding with and companioning death row inmates.” (Editor’s note: How did we ever allow Sweeney to use “companion” as a verb? The philistines are at the gate.)

How did we ever allow Sweeney to use “companion” as a verb? The philistines are at the gate.

In 2015, America literary editor Raymond Schroth, S.J., reached out to America readers and contributors for their Christmas recommendations. “A book is sometimes the most difficult gift to offer. Usually it is not the most expensive, but often it is the most rich,” wrote Father Schroth. “Sometimes it means the most when it comes from an older person to a younger one. Then it is the gift of self, imparting, one hopes, the joy and wisdom that have changed one life and now might change another. Ultimately, at any age, it is an expression of love.”

Investigative journalist Jason Berry suggested Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, first published in 1883. “The narrative flows with impeccable pacing and Twain’s lyrical voice, yielding memorable profiles of the people he encountered in his travels, pitch-perfect descriptions of towns and cities, the early explorations and Indian communities, interlaced with a judicious crediting of historians and sources in the text,” Berry wrote. “I have reread Life on the Mississippi several times and find it a transcendent account of American life, with an optimism that appeals to readers of all ages.”

Journalism professor Paul Moses offered a suggestion that feels appropriate right now, given the ceremony marking the official submission of Dorothy Day’s cause for sainthood a week ago: Dorothy Day: Love in Action, by Patrick Jordan. Moses called it “a clear, concise and keenly observed biography of the feisty, saintly and sometimes contradictory social activist Pope Francis praised during his historic speech to Congress.” Because Jordan knew Dorothy Day well through the Catholic Worker movement and through his editing of a collection of her writings, Moses wrote, his book “is rich in detail. There is no plaster mold for this saint.”

And from way back in the mists of time in 2007, you can find another nice list of suggestions from the editors.

If you noticed these past few weeks that we have taken a bit of a deeper dive than usual into one author or theme, you’re a close reader of America’s literary criticism. In this space every week, we will feature reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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