Winter is a great time to cosy up with a good book—especially a book that warms the heart, the mind and the soul. Unlike summer, when we might look for light and easy holiday reads, the cool, dark days of winter invite us to settle in and tackle books with some weight and substance to them—maybe even a bit of magic. It’s an opportunity to lose ourselves in a good story or to go deeper than we might normally go.
The following are some recommendations to perhaps help you along on your winter reading journey. They range across genres and styles, though there is a particular emphasis on stories and storytelling as an art form.
If you haven’t read Donna Tartt’s famous debut novel The Secret History (1992), winter is the perfect time. The setting is cold and crisp, and the characters—a special talent of Tartt’s—are some of the most vividly imagined and lively people you are likely to meet between the covers of a novel. Tartt is a convert to Catholicism, and her writing is engrossing. Since it follows the journey of a group of classics students, it might appeal especially to readers with an interest in the arts and humanities.
How do you live? (1937) is a novel by Japanese writer Ganzaburo Yoshino (and was recently made into a soon-to-be released film by Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki). In a sense, this is a very peaceful read, as we learn about the life of young Copper, whose uncle provides him with all sorts of advice about growing up in the world.
Although the central premise revolves around the ‘scientific’ view of the world that Copper’s uncle is teaching him—Copper is a nickname for ‘Copernicus’—the central drama, which occurs in winter, revolves around an act of cowardice and the experience of moral shame, a feature of human life that can’t be explained in purely scientific terms.
Susanna Clarke is an author I have only recently delved into, starting with her second novel, Piranesi (2020). It’s a strange, beautiful and highly original story about someone who lives (mostly) alone in ‘the House’, a kind of labyrinth with ruins, statues and ocean tides that flow through its corridors. As time goes on, the main character, Piranesi, discovers the true nature of the House and his own reason for being there.
The novel that launched Clarke’s career, however, is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004), which is even more perfect for winter, inviting us to wander the cold streets of Victorian London, a cityscape imbued with magic and mystery, as we follow the obsessive and reclusive Mr Norrell, one of the only ‘practical magicians’ in England. Its style evokes 19th-century authors like George Eliot or Jane Austen, making it an even more immersive read.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is fantastic when it comes to conveying the power of story. In her book The Scandal of Holiness (2022), she explores how great literature can furnish the imagination, providing us with models of sanctity and of the good life to follow. She also explores how the very act of reading can work holiness in us.
Someone else who wrote a lot about stories is CS Lewis. The Lewis anthology On Stories (2017) is a treasure trove of reflections on the nature of children’s stories, the development of science fiction and the works of other novelists, including JRR Tolkien and George Orwell. His essay ‘The Death of Words’ is a standout, as he reflects on how, if we’re not careful, important words can simply lose their meaning over time.
Mystery and Manners (1957), novelist and story-teller Flannery O’Connor’s collection of essays and talks, is also worth noting here. Her trademark wit and sharp intellect are clearly on display in these meditations on fiction, stories, Catholicism and art.
Another winter read I am currently enjoying is The Truth and Beauty (2022) by Andrew Klavan. Klavan is an American crime novelist who converted to Christianity and writes a lot about the intersection of art, culture and faith. This book explores the lives of the Romantic poets—figures such as Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and John Keats—showing how a deep understanding of the words of Jesus can be traced in their works . His experience as a novelist is evident in the way he brings to life the dinner conversations of these poets on cold winter evenings in England.
Klavan is not Catholic, and sometimes his takes on the history and logic of Catholic belief are unconvincing, but these moments are peripheral to the overall thrust of the book. The age of the Romantics, Klavan argues, was much like our own. In the end, neither they nor we can avoid the idea that human life is deeply meaningful, and that the person of Jesus is the key to discovering that meaning.
Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (2019) by Tracey Rowland is a perfect little winter read, a collection of speeches, lectures and essays ranging from politics and culture to St Thérèse of Lisieux. Especially compelling is her defence of the ethic of chivalry—the idea that each of us, woman or man, is called to put our talents, gifts and abilities at the service of those less fortunate than ourselves.
Pope Francis’ prayer intention for July is that Catholics will put the Eucharist at the heart of their lives, so my final 2023 winter reading suggestions are forays into the Eucharistic realm.
Perhaps the cheapest book you will find on this topic—but an excellent read nonetheless— is Bishop Robert Barron’s This is my Body (2023), currently available for $2.95 on Kindle. While it restates several things Barron has said before, it also draws together the themes of ‘meal’ and ‘sacrifice’ in a very helpful way. Sometimes we get them out of balance, he argues, focussing too heavily on one to the neglect of the other. Instead, he helps us to see how they are both integral to appreciating the sacredness and grandeur of the Mass.
‘The Eucharistic liturgy is the sacred meal because it is a sacrificial offering,’ he writes. ‘Those who are gathered around the altar of Christ are not simply recalling Calvary; Calvary has become present to them in all of its spiritual power.’
Finally, Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist (2014) is a must-read for those who want to understand how Old Testament themes inform our understanding of the Eucharist. Catholic belief comes powerfully to life as Pitre skilfully unpacks the ancient backdrop and biblical ideas that are brought to fulfilment in the Eucharist.
What better way to find warmth and nourishment this winter than to focus again—in our reading as well as our daily lives—on the transformative mystery and profound comfort of the Eucharist, which draws us ever deeper into the greatest story of all.
Melbourne Catholic03 March 2024
Melbourne Catholic01 March 2024