There are few things we love more than books, but book groups can be tricky. Lots of adult faith formation groups choose books that don’t challenge or inspire. So we were thrilled when a friend of The Catalogue, Mary Ann Wilson, came up with a list of 50 books (with summaries) that would be great for a Catholic book group or for independent reading. (Mary Ann came up with this list with help from her friends: Anna Keating, Pat Reidy, Adam Booth, Ben Wilson, Aimee Shelide Mayer, Claire Fyrqvist, Mike Seidl, Julia Fitzpatrick, Cliff Arnold, Sheila McCarthy, Cassie Kralovec, Mary Basola, Julianna Leachman, R.G. Lyons, Katherine Tillman, Phil Sloan, and Emily Garvey.) Read the full list below. Discovered something new on The Catholic Catalogue? We haven’t received any new donations since Advent! Please support our work with a small donation today. Thanks!
Proposed Canon for Literature in Adult Faith Formation:
1) Aligheri, Dante, The Divine Comedy
The fourteenth century epic poem that chronicles the author’s journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise, and provides some of the most profound reflections on faith, language, and love in all of literature. It will be important to choose an edition of the text that provides substantial notes in order to help understand the poem’s context.
2) Bernanos, George, Diary of a Country Priest
A novel about a young French priest and his struggles to come to peace with the persistent unfruitfulness of his parish ministry. An excellent text for considering the differences between the feeling of faith and the reality of faith.
3) Berry, Wendell, Jayber Crow
At the beginning of the novel, protagonist Jayber Crow considers becoming a minister in order to get answers to all his questions about life and God. A Scripture professor tells Jayber that one cannot get answers, but live them out. The story follows Jayber’s patient and profound living out of possible answers on loss, community, belonging, and love.
4) Bolt, Robert, A Man For All Seasons
A play on the life of St. Thomas More and his courage to stand by his convictions at all cost.
Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle provides his apologetic for acknowledging the sacredness of every life by sharing stories from his work with gang members in Los Angeles. Each vignette bears witness to the uniqueness of every human life and the heights of joy and despair that are an inevitable part of his courageous ministry of accompaniment.
An existentialist novel by Nobel Prize winning and atheist author Camus, this story probes the depths of human vulnerability and resilience through its consideration of a community that is ravaged by a deadly disease.
7) Cather, Willa, Death Comes for the Archbishop
This novel depicts the lives of a priest and bishop on mission in New Mexico. With its masterful and eloquent prose, the story provides rich consideration of mutual dependency and friendship, as well as the challenges and opportunities of inculturating the faith.
A fantastical thriller about anarchists and a government plot to thwart their efforts. Set in a surrealist context, the novel provides incisive reflections on the human condition.
9) Connelly, Miles, Mr. Blue
Written in 1928, this is the story of a young man in New York City who decides to follow literally the tenets of the Gospel. J. Blue’s decision to cast off his wealth, live in poverty, and befriend the poor echoes of the life of St. Francis and raises questions about the possible implications if more believers were to do the same.
10) Csizek, Walter, With God in Russia
Jesuit priest Walter Csizek’s memoir of his twenty-three year imprisonment in Siberia’s Russian prison camps and his dependence upon God’s love and providence in the face of constant danger and threat of death.
This spiritual autobiography shows Day’s reflections on God’s work in her life in her non-religious upbringing, her surprising conversion, and the founding and running of the Catholic Worker movement.
12) de Saint-Exupery, Antoine, The Little Prince
A classic and highly imaginative children’s novella, The Little Prince is the story of an encounter between the narrator, whose plane has crashed in the middle of the Sahara desert, and a little prince who has traveled throughout space visiting tiny worlds. Through their conversation, the two approach essentially human questions about the meaning of life.
The story of the four Karamazov brothers who each struggle with the mark of “Karamazov baseness,” whose force reaches a head in the murder of their father. Through the relationships between passionate Demitri, brilliant and skeptical Ivan, compassionate Alyosha, and unctuous Smerdyakov, the novel takes up profound considerations of God and faith, suffering and evil, and human freedom and responsibility.
14) Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Crime and Punishment
In this psychologically tremendous novel, protagonist Raskolnikov kills someone whose life should be of no value or consequence. Raskolnikov’s inability to escape the mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish of living with his guilty conscience speaks to the depth of morality in human nature beyond any mere social or legal sense of obligation.
15) Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man
This twentieth century story of an unnamed African American narrator speaks to the cultural sins of racism and exploitation that ultimately are vehicles of dehumanization. The “invisible man”‘s testimony lends itself to exploring the many other ways in which modern society, while ostensibly oriented to the common good, continues to deny the dignity of the human person.
16) Endo, Shusaku, Silence
This piece of historical fiction depicts the journey of a Jesuit missionary to Japan in the seventeenth century, where he faces persecution. This suspenseful account provides poignant insight on the difficulty of faith and struggle with doubt.
17) Frankl, Victor, Man’s Search for Meaning
Frankl’s memoir of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp which speaks to the inherent need for meaning and the power of belief (in varied forms) to persevere even in the most despairing and impossible circumstances.
18) Golberg, Myla, Bee Season
Jewish mysticism forms the context of much of this novel about the Naumann family, in particular through the spiritual seeking of the son, the intellectual study of the father, and – most surprisingly, and most importantly – through the linguistic interests of the young daughter through her advancing in her school’s spelling bee. The family’s dysfunctional relationships contrast the unity pinnacled in the spiritual search and provide rich opportunities for reflection on the power of the names of God.
19) Greene, Graham, The End of the Affair
Narrator Bendrix states that his book is more about hate than love, because he has lost the woman with whom he was in a passionate affair. His search to find out why Sarah left him leads to his discovery of Sarah’s own transformative encounter not with another man, but with God.
20) Greene, Graham, The Power and the Glory
The protagonist of this novel, the whisky priest, is a moral failure who is treated as a hero when he is the only priest to remain in the region during the persecution of the Catholic Church in twentieth-century Mexico. His mix of sinfulness and grudging virtue speak to the dynamic reality of Christians who are sinners and yet are called to be saints.
21) Hahn, Thich Nhat, Peace Is Every Step
This series of reflections by a Zen master employs storytelling as a way of cultivating mindfulness to reality. Storytelling becomes a vehicle of peace.
22) Hample, Patricia, Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life
This spiritual memoir describes one woman’s search for the spiritual depth for which she longs. Her description of her experience provides a practical and illuminating account of the reality of prayer.
23) Hansen, Ron, Mariette in Ecstasy
A novel about a religious sister’s religious experience which carefully raises questions about the relationship between physical and spiritual health, and the possible congruence with and confusion between instability and holiness.
24) Holmes, Marjorie, Two From Galilee & Three From Galilee
Holmes provides an imaginative meditation on the day-to-day experience of the Holy Family as they lived life between angelic apparitions and divine confirmations of their roles in salvation history. Two From Galilee begins with the Annunciation and concludes with Jesus’ birth; Three From Galilee takes up the boyhood of Jesus.
25) Hugo, Victor, Les Miserables
This classic nineteenth century of novel tells the story of former convict Jean val Jean, who is given the opportunity for a new life through the mercy of a bishop. Spanning the whole of Jean val Jean’s from that point on, the novel looks deeply at questions of justice, love, social equality, and faith.
26) Ilibagiza, Imaculee, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust
Imaculee recounts the story of her survival of the Rwandan genocide and the power of faith to sustain her through one of the worst horrors in human history.
This memoir looks at the author’s relationship with her family, her drinking, and her own vulnerability. The conversion at the depth of her brokenness recasts it all in a light of hope and joy and makes possible the sharing of her story.
28) Kidder, Tracy, Mountains Beyond Mountains
Kidder’s biography of doctor Paul Farmer portrays the amazing extent to which Farmer goes to provide medical care to his patients: the rural poor in Haiti. Farmer’s unblinking acknowledgment of the dignity of each human person stands in stark contrast to dominant understandings of the right to medical care and, therefore, to a decent quality of life.
Writer and adult convert Anne Lamott offers vignettes of the significance of faith for her life with particular attention to faith’s power to expose the myth of self-sufficiency. Her blend of comedic irreverence and tender gratitude to God offer an opportunity for considering the tone with which we might compose vignettes of the significance of faith in our own lives.
30) Lee, Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird
Another classic work, this story of Atticus Finch, his two children, and Boo Radly speaks to the power of conscience and conviction.
31) Levi, Primo, If This Is A Man
An atheist Jew who survived Auschwitz, Levi opens his book with a poem that asks the reader if those in the death camps — those who experienced the most extreme dehumanization possible — were indeed human beings. The continues to probe this question, asking what we can know of human beings in light of the atrocities of the Shoah.
32) Lewis, C.S., The Chronicles of Narnia
This children series unfolds largely in the land of Narnia where four human children from England find themselves charged with a noble task, where all the created world lives in relationship and communication with each other, and where the great lion Aslan is king. It is a rich allegory of the Christian story that can be powerful for adults and children alike.
33) Lewis, C.S., The Screwtape Letters
A senior devil, Screwtape, writes letters to his nephew, Wormworth, instructing him in the work of drawing souls away from God, and offering a reinterpretation of many modern considerations (or lack thereof) of temptation and sin.
An interpretation of the myth of Cupid and Psyche as seen through the eyes of Psyche’s sister Orual. The novel looks profoundly at questions of transformations, both positive and negative, caused by love and by love’s absence or superficiality.
O’Connor’s short stories communicate the prevalence and power of grace which, as many people forget or fail to notice, frequently must wound in order to heal. Readers may find it helpful to read either O’Connor’s essays and/or letters in conjunction with her short stories in order to understand the radically faithful perspective out of which she writes.
Set in twentieth century New Orleans, this story’s main author persistently turns to movies and books to experience the engagement and immediacy he finds lacking in his day-to-day life. One Mari Gras, he seeks to break out of this monotony by embarking on a spiritual quest of self-discovery.
Like Holmes’ work, these are imaginative retellings of the life of Christ, putting words and images to the many aspects of his life not mentioned in the Gospel narratives.
38) Robinson, Marilyn, Gilead
A novel in the form of a memoir of one dying minister to his young son. His attempt to communicate that which would be important for his boy, who will be robbed of the opportunity for in-person father-son conversation for most of his life, provides heartfelt and probing reflections the good, the true, and the beautiful.
39) Russell, Mary Doria, The Sparrow
A work of science fiction depicting the space mission of eight Jesuits to a new world. Encounters with another race provide opportunity for reflection on that which is essentially human.
40) Salinger, J.D., Franny and Zooey
As brother and sister, Franny and Zooey Glass were child prodigies who have been steeped in advanced religious practice and study since their youth. Franny seeks to follow the Eastern practice of “praying without ceasing” and is engaged by her brother about the true aim of religious knowledge.
This play follows Lear’s initial undoing when he casts out his youngest daughter, Cordelia, as she refuses to engage in an exercise of empty flattery of her father. Lear’s subsequent descent into madness examines the consequences of self-deception and the apparent madness of wisdom and love to a world based on self-advancement.
42) Shakespeare, William, Macbeth
This tragic play explores Macbeth’s consuming drive for power and the subsequent corrosion of self, family, and society that occurs.
43) Sienkiewicz, Henryk, Quo Vadis
This work of historical fiction describes an early Christian community that faces the persecutions of Nero and the richness of the individual lives that are given up for the sake of faith in Christ.
This classic work of Christian literature is considered to be the first autobiography, and also one of the most spiritually profound and astute accounts of a conversion experience.
45) Steinbeck, John, East of Eden
This novel portrays the echoes of Cain and Abel’s struggle with good and evil, with choice and personal freedom, in the lives of the Trask family in California.
46) Tokien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
This epic saga portrays life in Middle Earth, which is threatened by the evil Lord Sauron’s search for the One Ring as the way to obtain absolute power. The only hope for all creatures in Middle Earth is for the Ring to be destroyed, and the task falls to Frodo, a simple hobbit. Saturated with sacramental imagery and rich in reflection on love and friendship, humility and the true nature of sacrifice, love and its full cost, this trilogy is epic in every sense of the word.
47) Tolstoy, Leo, Anna Karenina
Widely regarded as one of the best novels of all time, Anna Karenina tells the story of an ill-fated love affair and explores its profound psychological, social, and spiritual impact on Anna. A parallel relationship between Kitty and Levin observes alternative patterns of possible unhappiness as well as marital joy.
48) Vanauken, Sheldon, A Severe Mercy
This spiritual autobiography recounts the shared spiritual search of one couple, facilitated by friendship with C.S. Lewis, and their discovery of the new depth of love in light of faith and of loss.
49) Undset, Sigrid, Kristin Lavransdatter
This trilogy of novels, set in fourteenth century, follows the life of Kristin from childhood through old age and offers an intricate and elegant perspective on life and faith in medieval Norway.
50) Waugh, Evelyn, Brideshead Revisited
Written in the context of post-World War I England, the story’s protagonist reflects on his pre-war experience of love and the search for identity in light of changing times. The book poses significant considerations about what is ultimately necessary in order to find meaning in one’s life.