Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Essential Non-Fiction

A friend of mine asked for my essential non-fiction book recommendations—the books I will be insisting my own (potential, future) children read—and at what age I would recommend them. I think reading books is more about maturity than age, which I'm sure my friend would agree with—so instead of providing age recommendations, I've simply divided my book recs into three categories. The first are books I would recommend for all ages, including as read-alouds for very young children. The second contains books with more challenging language and/or ideas, suitable for disciplined and eager 10-15-year-olds. The third bracket, for ages 15-adult, contains the most difficult books, often including the more putrid historical details.

My categorisation is of course pretty loose and arbitrary. You may think that some of the books have been prescribed at too young an age, or that your 15-year-old isn't ready for some third-category book or another, and I actually highly recommend using many of the third-category books as read-alouds for younger students, skipping any of the gorier details.

I tried to keep this list down to just the books I've read, though a few have crept in, recommended by family or off my Must Read List.

The links lead to my reviews of some of these books, either on Vintage Novels or Goodreads.

For the Very Young

  • Genevieve Foster: Augustus Caesar's World and others
  • Charles Dickens: A Child's History of England
  • H E Marshall: Our Island Story 
  • Charles Coffin: The Story of Liberty
  • Peter Mansfield: More Than Dates and Dead People
  • Brandon and Mindy Withrow: The History Lives Series
  • Greenleaf Press: Famous Men Series
  • Gary De Mar: To Pledge Allegiance Series
  • Charles Ludwig: Defender of the Faith (Queen Victoria)
  • Maria von Trapp: The Trapp Family Singers
  • Thea Van Halsema: This Was John Calvin
  • Leaders in Action Series
  • Arnold Pent: Ten P's in a Pod
  • Brother Andrew: God's Smuggler
  • Sower Series 
  • James Herriot: All Creatures Great and Small, &c
  • John G Paton: Autobiography
  • The Book of Forms, or some other volume containing the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter and Larger Catechism, the Canons of Dort, the Heidelberg Confession, the Belgic Confession, the creeds of the church, &c 
  • Vic Lockman: The Westminster Shorter Catechism with Cartoons
  • Don Richardson: Eternity in Their Hearts
Economics, Science, and Architecture
  • Vic Lockman: Economics in Comics
  • David Macauley: The New Way Things Work; The Building Series (Castle, Cathedral, Pyramid, City, Mosque)

For Developing Readers
WWII Memoirs
  • Corrie ten Boom: The Hiding Place
  • Inge Scholl: The White Rose
  • Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (film)
  • PR Reid: The Colditz Story
  • Russell Braddon: Nancy Wake
  • Paul Brickhill: Reach for the Sky, The Dambusters
  • Slavomir Rawicz: The Long Walk
  • Alan Burgess: The Small Woman (Gladys Aylward)
  • Dorothy Clarke Wilson: Dr Ida
  • John Buchan: Memory Hold-the-Door (his autobiography/memoirs)
  • Humphrey Carpenter: The Inklings, JRR Tolkien: A Biography
Literature, Writing, and Art
  • CS Lewis: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, The Discarded Image
  • Michael Ward: Planet Narnia
  • Tom Shippey: JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century (skip the section on evil in Tolkien, which Shippey does not understand)
  • JRR Tolkien: The Letters of JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories
  • David Daniell: The Interpreter's House: A Critical Assessment of the Novels of John Buchan
  • Peter Leithart: Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen; Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays; Heroes of the City of Man; Ascent to Love  
  • Douglas Wilson: Wordsmithy; A Serrated Edge: A Biblical Defense of Trinitarian Skylarking
  • ND Wilson: The Rhetoric Companion 
  • George Ferguson: Signs and Symbols in Christian Art
  • Robin Williams: The Non-Designer's Design and Type Books
  • Isaac Botkin: Outside Hollywood
Science and Mathematics
  • Jay Wile: Science textbooks
  • William Gurstelle: Adventures from the Technology Underground, Backyard Ballistics, &c
  •  James Nickel: Mathematics: Is God Silent?
Economics and Government
  • Gary DeMar: God and Government, in 3 vols
  • Henry Hazlitt: Economics in One Lesson
  • Peter and Andrew Schiff: How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes
Logic and Worldview
For Girls
  • Anna-Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin: So Much More, It's (Not That) Complicated, The Return of the Daughters (film), Reclaiming Beauty (study course)
  • Jasmine Baucham: Joyfully at Home
  • Nancy Wilson: Why Isn't a Pretty Girl Like You Married?
  • Bobbi Brown: Beauty
  •  RC Sproul, Jr: Eternity in Our Hearts
  •  ND Wilson: Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, Death By Living
  •  Donald S Whitney: Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life
  • John Piper: Desiring God
  • Jeremiah Burroughs: The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment 
  • Douglas Wilson/Douglas Jones: Angels in the Architecture: A Protestant Vision for Middle Earth
  • David Chilton: Paradise Restored, Days of Vengeance
  • Douglas Wilson: Heaven Misplaced
  • James B Jordan: Through New Eyes 
  • Jeffrey Meyers: The Lord's Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship
  • Francis Nigel Lee: The Central Significance of Culture
  • GK Chesterton: Orthodoxy
  • St Athanasius: On the Incarnation 
  • RC Sproul: Chosen By God (Calvinism in convenient pocket size)
  • Thomas Cranmer: The Book of Common Prayer
For Discerning/Advanced Readers
Art and Music
Legal Theory
  • John of Salisbury: Policraticus
  • Samuel Rutherford: Lex Rex
  • RJ Rushdoony: Law and Liberty, The Institutes of Biblical Law (3 vols)
  • CS Lewis: The Four Loves
  • Douglas Wilson: Her Hand in Marriage, Reforming Marriage, Federal Husband, Standing on the Promises, Fidelity
  • Nancy Wilson: The Fruit of Her Hands: Respect and the Christian Woman; Praise Her in the Gates: The Calling of Christian Motherhood
  • Mary Pride: The Way Home
  • Jeff Pollard: Christian Modesty and the Public Undressing of America
  • St Augustine: The City of God, Confessions
  • St Anselm: Proslogium, Monologium
  • Martin Luther: The Bondage of the Will
  • John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • Peter Leithart: Against Christianity

In conclusion.
Making this list has caused me to recall how much of my formidable knowledge bank didn't come from non-fiction.

There are the magazines I've read—Chalcedon Report, Credenda/Agenda, and others. There are the lectures I've heard—right now I highly recommend George Grant's Modernity lectures, and the “Weapons of Our Warfare” three-lecture series by RC Sproul, Jr. There are the things I've heard of from fiction books, then learned about from forgettable non-fiction books. There are things I've read poems and watched movies about.

Non-fiction is not to be set beside fiction in an antithetical way, where one tells you the truth and the other doesn't. The great advantage of non-fiction is that it tells you the unvarnished truth; the great advantage of fiction is that varnish makes the truth more memorable. If someone had told me about the Battle of Lepanto, I would have forgotten it—indeed, that may have happened. But after reading GK Chesterton's poem a couple of times, I don't think I'll ever be able to forget it.

There are also ways in which fiction can be truer than non-fiction. Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, for example, purports to be the unvarnished truth but is really a collection of mean-spirited personal attacks upon people who were really almost above reproach. Give me a GA Henty story set around Gordon's last stand in Khartoum any day, rather than this.

The fact is that, as Stephen Mansfield points out in More Than Dates and Dead People, history is primarily a Story by the greatest Author of all. Biography is story. History is a great, cohesive drama. Any non-fiction that fails to recognise this is false, and by presenting an incoherent and disjointed array of names and facts, it denatures the story that actually occurred.

Merkle's White Horse King is just the kind of history we need instead: a history that sees and points out the Providential impulse behind the story—and tells the story as though it is a story, rejoicing in the great deliverances worked by God for His servant Alfred. Merkle tells it like it is: a story of apostasy and judgement, the raising-up of a prophetic king, national repentance, and victory. History is full of such stories—and the tragedy is that few people, their senses fuddled by a reluctance to see the workings of Providence, are able to enjoy them. We need better non-fiction.

For essential fiction:


Carole said...

You might like to consider Alison Weir's history based novels http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2012/03/alison-weir-author.html

Christina Baehr said...

I'd add David McCullough's "John Adams" to the list. A truly wonderful biography.

Christina Baehr said...

Oh, and Tom Reilly's "Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy".

Suzannah said...


I do SO want to read that.

Alex49 said...

Thank you so much for creating such a thoughtful blog! I've been searching for good Christian book bloggers, and your blog is such a beautiful, rare gem.


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