During high school, one of the hardest decisions I would make in anticipation of my family’s summer vacation was which books I would pack for the trip. Generally, I had a separate backpack I would fill with the books I wanted to read and the main goal was to never, ever run out. Since we always drove to our destination, I had no restrictions based on the bag’s weight or how many items I had for boarding an airplane. My limiting factor was simply if the bag could still zip.
Since offering book gems to others is a delight of mine, I wanted to share some options for you to pack for your upcoming road trip, flight, beach/lake day, rainy afternoon, or whenever you wish to tuck into some good reads. The list I started became longer and longer until I realized I would only be able to offer a handful of suggestions. For the sake of simplicity, I have loosely divided the books into “Spiritual” and “Literature” reads.
Five Loaves and Two Fish by Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận
This book is short yet packed with beautiful spiritual insights from someone who has thoroughly suffered for the wisdom. Imprisoned and persecuted for thirteen years in Vietnam, Cardinal Văn Thuận spent many of those years in solitary confinement. Despite the hardships and life that is unlike what most of us have experienced, the wisdom he offers is incredibly applicable for all of us in our pursuit of the Lord.
Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer OR The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Both of these works by C.S. Lewis are letters written to imaginary people for opposing reasons. Letters to Malcolm is written on the topic of entering into relationship with God, including the practical, insightful wit and acuity for which Lewis is known.
We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake. (Letter XIV)
In a similar form of letter writing, The Screwtape Letters instructs us in how to be in relationship with God by giving us the perspective of the demons. The letters are written from an experienced demon to an apprentice demon and focus on how to achieve the damnation of the soul in the “care” of the demon. I recall often stopping to reflect on how sneaky the devil is and being reminded of particular ways to resist him.
The Heart of Perfection by Colleen Carroll Campbell
Following the main title, it says “How The Saints Taught Me To Trade My Dream Of Perfect For God’s.” This book is a beautiful blend of learning about different saints, particularly ones who have struggled with perfectionism, and the author’s application of their wisdom into her own life. Honest yet without unnecessary confessions, Campbell reveals that pursuing holiness isn’t easy or quick. Instead, we enter into her interior wrestling and through captivating stories, we are led to consider how God wants to wrestle with our own hearts. Honestly, it is the book I want to write.
The Presence of God by Anselm Moynihan, O.P.
I was listening to a friend’s talk one time and he mentioned this book as being a great source of spiritual wisdom. Moynihan’s book is brief, but I recommend moving through it slower than you would like. Filled with beauty and truth, the real pinnacle of the book is found near the end in emphasizing the reality of our heart being an inner sanctuary and how we ought to foster it for the Divine Guest.
I Believe in Love (even when I wasn’t a fan of St. Therese of Lisieux, I still had to admit the beauty of this book)
Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles with Jesus (one priest’s experience of the Camino de Santiago, which prompted my own pilgrimage a year later)
Letters to a Young Catholic (filled with the beauty and truth of Catholicism alongside a literary trip around the world)
Manalive by G.K. Chesterton
A most delightful read the first time, this book is still a gift to revisit. It is Chesterton and as such, it is filled with memorable one-liners, captivating images, and a beautiful vision of life. Overflowing with the joy of living, this book points out with child-like innocence the reality that many respond to the world with boredom instead of the deserved wonder. Don’t read the back of the book, however, because the summary ruins the experience of simply entering into this lighthearted work.
The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
Originally, I didn’t want to read this book, despite the fact that it kept popping up in different magazines and websites. Eventually, one of the women in my book club suggested we read it. She said, “It is a proposal for culture” or something like that. And with that particular angle in mind, I dove in and loved it and it prompted a lot of good conversation with a few friends. While it has many strong (perhaps debatable) perspectives, it also includes one of my favorite explanations for why marrying someone who doesn’t follow the Lord involves a fundamental difficulty.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Despite a degree in English literature, I arrived at this book far later in my life than is perhaps acceptable. A friend mentioned that it was overflowing with rich Christian symbolism. I like to think I would have noticed it without that disclaimer, but it was definitely on my mind as I read it. A brief read, the coastal setting immediately makes me think of summer, even if the time of year is uncertain.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Summer seems like a time to adventure and The Hobbit is a classic example. The Lord of the Rings is great, but I’ve always found this prelude to be a more manageable work to return to over and over again. Proposing that the unexpected characters have greatness lying within, The Hobbit invites us to a literary adventure that overflows into our own personal quest.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
For some unknown reason, spring/summer is the time I think of this book. I accidentally purchased it twice and acquired it digitally once before I finally sat down to read it. It involves Anne Elliot, the oldest heroine from Austen, and was the last novel fully completed prior to her death. The confidence and wisdom that comes with age is particularly present in Anne’s character.
Death Comes for the Archbishop (a beautiful glimpse from Willa Cather into the establishment of a Catholic diocese in the New Mexico Territory)
Kristin Lavransdatter (a lengthy trilogy about sin and grace and forgiveness by the Catholic convert Sigrid Undset)
Green Dolphin Street (another book where you shouldn’t read the back cover–I ached alongside the characters and saw myself in them, the good and the bad)