Character Studies

Not just because it is Christmas, but because we love to encourage reading, we invited some friends to recommend to our readers in very few words a favorite book and author—specifically a book that would help a younger person in high school or college develop his or her own character.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.


Literary Editor

The Plunge

Giving a book is an occasion to tell a story. I’d give a young person James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man saying that I was assigned it by Mr. Pontrelli, my Saint Peter’s College 1957 freshman English teacher. Before Pontrelli I thought people read books for entertainment. But Pontrelli taught us that literature is not escape but a plunge into our depth. So I’d write on the gift card, “Time to take the post-adolescent plunge with Stephen Dedalus?”

James R. Kelly is a professor emeritus of sociology at Fordham University.

Wolff Boy

Living in Washington’s hill country, Tobias Wolff, in his This Boy’s Life, A Memoir, grows up in the 1950s with his quirky mother and sadistic stepfather. Wolff survives by acting out and putting on a tough-guy exterior. He escapes his troubled youth through his talent for writing, which shows on every page of this eloquent memoir.

Diane Scharper is a frequent reviewer for America and a poet.

No Rival

I suggest Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, in conjunction with the great new film “Lincoln,” directed by Stephen Spielberg, which is based on it. The book shows, of course, one of the great heroes of American political life at work, but also demonstrates for our politically fractured age how rivals can work together for the common good.

Jeffrey Von Arx, S.J., is president of Fairfield University.

Before Twilight

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a grotesquely horrifying tale of a supernatural evil among Victorian England’s unsuspecting people of privilege, creating fitting parallels for our times. The sheer volume of sex, violence, greed, madness and carnage handily challenges any caricature of Victorian prudery.

Laura Chmielewski teaches history at State University of New York—Purchase.


Unbroken,by Laura Hillenbrand, is the story of a juvenile delinquent who escaped a life of crime by becoming an Olympic gold medalist. Endurance later enabled WWII airman Louis Zamperini to survive 47 days afloat in the Pacific, followed by two years on Execution Island, where a psychopathic guard excelled in tormenting him. He escaped his past and saved his marriage by forgiving his enemy.

Camille D'Arienzo, R.S.M., is a frequent commentator on New York News Radio WINS.

Pre-emptive Parent

Why ask an ancient to recommend a book for the “young”? Since I can’t imagine bridging the gap, I recommend a book about the gap: Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead. John Ames, a rural pastor who has become a father in his old age, is dying. He writes daily reflections for his young child to read later in life, blending family history with poignant justification for his own life and theology.

George Dennis O'Brien, a philosopher, is the former president of the University of Rochester.

Letters Carrier

Eliza Peabody is the central character of Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine. The story develops through letters Eliza writes to Joan, who may or may not exist. Humorous and poignant, with a conclusion you won’t learn here. I predict you will then move to other Gardam novels. There are many.

William Neenan, S.J., is well known at Boston College for his reading lists.

Plain Jane

Students find Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre stirring. I think this is because of Jane’s honesty, beginning in Chapter 4, when she confronts that pious fraud Brocklehurst and her mean old aunt, who gives way before the force of that honesty with startling timidity, and later refuses to surrender to Rochester (who is married) her independence and integrity.

Robert McCarthy, S.J., teaches English at Saint Peter’s University, Jersey City, N.J.

Heroic Lives

I recommend Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Phillip Hallie’s warmly told account of Le Chambon, the Protestant village in Vichy-controlled France that harbored thousands of Jews, saving them from certain death. Stories of the strong crushing the weak abound. Here is a history of goodness filled with everyday heroes who possess an aggressive conviction of the preciousness of life.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy lives and works at the Saints Francis and Therese Catholic Worker of Worcester, Mass.


My first exposure to the theory of evolution in sophomore biology class triggered my interest in Charles Darwin and compelled me to read his seminal book, On the Origin of Species. From his keen observation of unique endemic species on the Galapagos Islands came the theory of evolution by natural selection—the foundation of modern biology.

Mark Aita, S.J., M.D., teaches medical ethics at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pa.

Unending Witness

Who says that Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on anything? Not one but two administrations have sanctioned an unending global war essentially fought in secret. There is no accountability, even for torture. In such perilous times, Daniel Berrigan, S.J.’s Essential Writings (ed. John Dear) bears witness to a lifetime of discipleship and advocacy for peace.

Luke Hansen, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Radical Catholic

Dorothy Day: Selected Writings (ed. Robert Ellsberg) is a wonderful entree into the world of the radical journalist who embraced Catholicism even as she challenged the church and “the system.” This collection allows the story of Day’s life to unfold through her writings. I own many books about Day, but I return to this one again and again to be inspired and held accountable.

Julie Hanlon Rubio is associate professor of Christian ethics at Saint Louis University.

Mountain Climber

Ask me to recommend a book and I will instinctively reach back for a classic before pointing to something new. In that spirit, I believe every college-bound reader could do no better than spend a couple of days poring over Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, a bestseller in the years after WWII, when it was published. When he gave up the world to become a Trappist monk, Merton became rich; and he writes about it fervently in ways I don’t think any writer could do today.

Jon M. Sweeney is author of The Pope Who Quit.

Patient Traveler

I recommend Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe not for the adventure but for its silence and solitude. Crusoe is alone. He spends nine years hollowing out a tree trunk to make a canoe—nine years! In our age of distraction, his days and years are a revelation.

Eileen Markey is a freelance writer in The Bronx, N.Y..

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Pamela Segura
6 years ago
Perhaps, this is rather late. I still feel compelled to suggest: college students should read Bronte's Jane Eyre and then Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I DEFINITELY prefer Joyce and the rest of the modernists--yet, both writers are devising realistic narratives of confusion.


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