Sunday, December 05, 2010

Fifteen authors, part one.

Better late than never (or so I hope), here is the first half of a two-part response to the fifteen authors meme that Macrina tagged me with a while back. The rules of the meme are as follows:
15 Authors (meme)

Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I’m interested in seeing what authors my friends choose.
It didn't take me long to come up with a list of fifteen authors, but it has taken me longer than I would have liked to find the time to respond in a way that does justice to Macrina's request and doesn't merely consist of a list of names. With apologies for the delay in my response, I must note that I would be happy to hear from Macrina and other readers who may be interested in the authors and titles listed.

This is the first of two 'fifteen authors' posts; the first seven authors are presented below, with the remaining eight discussed in another post. Following Macrina's lead, I've arranged the list in roughly chronological order by the time in my life when I first read the author in question. I have elected not to tag anyone else, but readers who wish to follow in my footsteps are welcome to do so.

1. HERMAN MELVILLE is an author that I've been aware of since childhood, largely because the first few chapters of Moby-Dick are set in the city of my birth and because the novel has long held an important place in local lore. Having read a comic book version of Moby-Dick in fifth grade, in junior high school I decided to read the real thing - on my own, and not because it was assigned for class. In high school, I reread Moby-Dick alongside other great American classics by the likes of James Fenimore Cooper, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau. (In general, we were assigned very little that was written after the nineteenth century, and very little - Cooper's work was a major exception - that was written outside of New England; this fact offers one explanation why, to this day, I've never read anything written by Ernest Hemingway, and only one book by John Steinbeck.)

Of all the New England classics I read in high school, Moby-Dick is far and away the book that influenced me most. Melville's magnum opus is more than the account of an ill-fated whaling voyage - Moby-Dick is a book about everything, a extended rumination on faith and doubt, obsession and longing, and the meaning of human existence. I try to reread Moby-Dick from start to finish every few years, but in between I often return to sections that I particularly enjoy for one reason or another, like Ishmael's description of the "insular city of the Manhattoes" in Chapter One, Father Mapple's sermon in Chapter Nine ("... what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?"), amusing tangents like the scene at the "Golden Inn" in Lima in Chapter Fifty-Four, and, above all, the destruction of the Pequod, "which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her," after which "the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

2. GEORGE ORWELL is an author I encountered almost as early in life as I did Herman Melville. Animal Farm was assigned reading in my fifth grade class, a fact that now surprises me though it naturally did not when I was ten years old. Soon afterward I read Nineteen Eighteen-Four on my own, which doesn't surprise me as I read a lot of literature that way in my bookish and intellectually precocious childhood. I don't remember why I liked Orwell so much, but I was sufficiently taken with his work to read several of his lesser-known books by the time I reached high school, including Burmese Days, Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia.

Down and Out in Paris and London has left a stronger imprint on my consciousness than any of Orwell's other books, thanks largely to its extraordinary vivid depiction of life in the Parisian slums (for some reason, the London section of the book isn't nearly as interesting). One episode that remains etched in my memory concerns a self-declared atheist who seeks to end five days of hunger by praying before what he believes to be an image of a local saint: "Dear Sainte Éloise, if you exist, please send me some money... to buy some bread and a bottle of wine to get my strength back." With help from a friend, the atheist quickly finds the money that he needs for a meal. Briefly convinced of the power of prayer, the atheist quickly abandons his newfound faith when his friend informs him that what he thought to be a holy image was really a portrait of "Suzanne May, the famous prostitute of the Empire." As a skeptical youth, I regarded this episode as proof of the inefficacy of prayer. On a more recent reading, however, the atheist's prayer struck me as both sincere and truly answered even if the image he first saw as Sainte Éloise really bore the likeness of Suzanne May.

3. RYSZARD KAPUŚCIŃSKI is another writer whom I read in high school, but in this case almost entirely for fun. Polish journalist Kapuściński spent four decades as a roving correspondent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, during which time he "witnessed twenty-seven coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times," as the author blurb on the English-language editions of his books consistently proclaimed. The best known of Kapuściński's works to be published in English is likely The Emperor, a meditation on the fall of Ethiopia's longtime monarch Haile Selassie that Kapuściński partly intended as an allegorical portrait of Poland under Communism. In this book as well as works like Shah of Shahs (on Iran's Islamic Revolution) and Another Day of Life (on the last days of Portuguese rule in Angola), Kapuściński tried to give a voice to ordinary and generally powerless people seeking to carry on with their lives amid political upheaval. Some critics have taken Kapuściński to task for various factual inaccuracies in his work, but this initiator and master of a genre he called "literary reportage" was always less concerned with cataloguing specific facts than with conveying what he saw as broader truths concering human existence.

I started discussing Kapuściński by noting that I began reading his work "almost entirely for fun," a statement that invites further explanation. I first discovered Kapuściński in the course of doing research for a high school paper on Haile Selassie (this was in the days when research was still almost entirely rooted in card catalogues and bound periodical indexes). Reading The Emperor got me hooked, and I quickly read everything else I could find by Kapuściński. As a teenager with a thirst for foreign travel and a particular desire to go to Africa (where I still have not been, alas), I was enthralled by Kapuściński's accounts of a fascinating and sometimes dangerous world. In time, I came to savor the literary craft of his work even as I continued to enjoy his accounts of harrowing escapes and meetings with unusual people. In college, I passed on the chance to hear Kapuściński speak at the National Press Club in order to write a paper or study for an exam; to my eternal regret, I thereby lost my only opportunity to encounter Kapuściński in person - he died in 2007 - and the fact that I can no longer remember what exactly I had to write or study for that evening perhaps confirms that I made the wrong choice. All of Kapuściński's books deserve to be read and reread, but for some reason the one I like most is Another Day of Life.

4. It's probably to be expected that a Jesuit would list SAINT IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA among the authors who had most influenced his life. The first work by St. Ignatius that I read was the Spiritual Exercises, a book that people are usually urged not to read outside the context of a retreat. As a Jesuit novice I would 'make the Exercises' in the traditional sense, but my first encounter with the text came in a course on Ignatian spirituality that I took as an undergraduate at Georgetown. My initial reading of the Exercises was less focused on the dynamics of the retreat experience than on the theology embedded in the text and particularly on Ignatius' Christology. I can't say that this course had much influence upon my decision to enter the Society - I had begun thinking about a vocation sometime before that - but I suppose it's worth noting that I first read the Exercises in an academic context.

In addition to making the Long Retreat as a novice, my experiences in Jesuit formation so far have given me abundant opportunity to study the writings of our founder. In the novitiate, we were expected to read some of Ignatius' letters (some readers may be surprised to learn that most of the more than 6800 surviving letters by Ignatius have yet to be translated into English; the most complete English-language edition so far is a collection of 370 'letters and instructions' edited by Father John Padberg) as well as selections from the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Though it wasn't expected of us as novices, I decided to read the full text of the Constitutions before taking vows so that I could more truthfully promise (in line with the words of the vow formula) that "I understand all these things according to the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus."

If I were pressed to select my 'favorite' among Ignatius' works, I would probably have to choose the Autobiography that Ignatius dictated to Portuguese Jesuit Luis Gonçalves da Câmara during his last years in Rome. Scarcely one hundred pages in length, the Autobiography offers a concise account of Ignatius' conversion as well as the events that led to the foundation and approbation of the Society of Jesus. The Autobiography covers only about a third of Ignatius' life: the reader learns nothing of Ignatius' pre-conversion activities beyond the fact that he was "a man given to worldly vanities . . . having a vain and overpowering desire to gain renown," and the text is likewise silent on Ignatius' years as General of the Society. In spite of these omissions, the Autobiography offers a uniquely direct and lively sense of Ignatius' personality and human qualities, which is why it's usually the first book that I recommend to people who want to know more about the Society of Jesus and its founder.

5. It would be wrong to say that JAMES V. SCHALL, S.J. has influenced me primarily as a writer, for the first and most significant way in which he impacted my life was as a classroom teacher at Georgetown. Classes with Father Schall were as unique as they were unforgettable; he almost never lectured, preferring to proceed according to the method of asking a series of questions directed at individual students (who were always called at whim and not because they had volunteered, and who were always addressed in the classroom by their family names), and at the end of the semester he shook hands with each student, thanked him or her for taking the course, and offered best wishes for the future. Father Schall is also the only teacher I ever had who assigned precise and specific paper topics to every student in the class without asking the students themselves what they were interested in writing on; thus, for example, I was tasked with writing a paper discussing the views of John of Salisbury on tyrannicide - a topic that I never would have thought to write about on my own, but one that proved sufficiently interesting to me that I went on to write a number of other papers in college, law school, and graduate school concerning the views that various ancient and medieval thinkers held on whether or not tyrannical rulers could licitly be killed by their subjects. It's not for nothing that many Georgetown undergraduates and alumni proudly say that they "majored in Schall" - that is, that they took as many of his courses as they possibly could.

Though Father Schall influenced me first and foremost as a teacher, I have derived substantial benefit from reading some of his many books. Another Sort of Learning was the first Schall book that I ever read, and probably a good start for anyone who has not yet read any of Schall's work but would like to know what he has to say; beyond that, his various collections of essays like The Distinctiveness of Christianity, Idylls and Rambles, and On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs are all worth reading. As an aside, I could also point out that Father Schall writes frequently for The Hoya and other student publications at Georgetown, and his meditations on aspects of life on the Hilltop are perhaps the most eloquent pieces of writing concerning Georgetown that I've ever encountered; I once told him that he should collect some of these essays in a book called Schall on Georgetown, though I fear that the audience for such a work would be limited enough to discourage most publishers from printing it.

Though I've derived great benefit from Father Schall's various books and essays, I think my old prof would be pleased to know that I've reaped even greater rewards from the many other authors whose works I first delved into under his tutelage or at his suggestion. This list includes the major works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas as well as such gems as Christopher Dawson's Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Etienne Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical Experience, Josef Pieper's Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges' The Intellectual Life, and an unforgettable little book by Régine Pernoud called Those Terrible Middle Ages! (Pernoud's thesis, as perhaps the exclamation point in the title subtly lets on, is that the Middle Ages were really far from terrible.) All of these books have enriched my life, but having known the teacher who introdued me to all of them has enriched me to an even greater degree.

6. Australian writer GERARD WINDSOR was another discovery of my college years. I've only read one of his books - a book that I came upon entirely by chance while browsing the stacks at Georgetown's Lauinger Memorial Library - yet that book has had a strong and enduring impact on my life. Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit is a memoir of the seven years that Windsor spent as a Jesuit in the 1960s, moving from his entrance into the novitiate as an eighteen year-old in 1963 to his departure at the end of the decade. Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit is shot through with a special kind of wistful affection that makes it quite unlike any other book I've ever read - in an odd and unexpected way, this obscure little book from Australia probably had a greater impact on my decision to enter the Society of Jesus than any of the other books that I read while discerning my vocation. The only way that I can explain this is to say that Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit conveys the essential poignancy of religious life better than anything else I've ever read, and that this book helped me convince myself that the vocational stirrings that I felt were worth acting upon.

7. WALTER J. CISZEK, S.J. is yet another author whose name I first heard at Georgetown, though I didn't read his two books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me until after I arrived at Notre Dame. The first American Jesuit to be ordained in the Byzantine Rite, Father Ciszek spent much of his religious and priestly life engaged in clandestine ministry in the Soviet Union. Arrested by the NKVD in 1941, Father Ciszek spent five years in Lubianka and a decade in the Siberian gulags before being released from hard labor in 1955. Though Soviet authorities had ordered him to cease his pastoral ministry, after his release Father Ciszek spent several years serving underground 'parishes' in several Siberian cities before returning to the United States in 1963 as part of a Cold War prisoner exchange. Back in his home country, Father Ciszek produced the aforementioned books and spent the remaining two decades of his life giving retreats and serving as a spiritual director.

While I was at Georgetown, Father Tom King suggested that I read With God in Russia as part of my discernment of a possible vocation to the Jesuits. After graduating from college and moving halfway across the country to attend law school, I finally followed this advice and liked With God in Russia enough that I decided to read He Leadeth Me as well. While my personal experiences with Jesuits played a much larger role in my decision to enter the Society than any books that I read (including Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit), I nonetheless found great inspiration in the story of Walter Ciszek, a self-described "tough Pole" from a Pennsylvania mining town who managed to combine an exemplary gentleness and humility with the strength and guile needed to survive years of imprisonment and exile behind the Iron Curtain. Having read each of Ciszek's books over again since I entered the Jesuits, I've found that I get even more out of them now that I'm able to relate Ciszek's words a bit more to my own lived experience.

My thanks to readers who have been patient enough to read this lengthy post all the way to the end. With gratitude for your continued indulgence, I ask you to stay tuned for part two. AMDG.


At 12/05/2010 2:11 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Yes, I get the sense that Windsor is a major literary figure in Australia, but unfortunately he doesn't seem to be known much internationally. As perhaps you've seen, he's published some other memoirs, novels, and collected essays - I regret that I haven't read any of them yet, but hopefully I'll remedy that some day.

A few years ago, I ordered a copy of Heaven Where the Bachelors Sit online from a book dealer in Australia who, quite to my surprise, turned out to be Gerard's wife. She wrote back and asked if I would like her husband to inscribe the book for me, and I naturally responded in the affirmative - it's nice having a copy of a book that's meant a lot to me with a personal note from the author.

Thanks also for sending the BBC story - I look forward to reading it!

At 12/05/2010 2:19 PM, Blogger Robin said...

Fascinating list so far. The one we have in common is St. Ignatius, although I have to add that He Leadeth Me has had a significant influence on me thus year.

At 12/05/2010 9:00 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

I'm glad you read Kapusinsky for fun. The fact that some feel it's fact is tragic, particular n the case of Haile Selassie I. Kapusinsky later said had little to do with Ethiopia OR Selassie, yet most read it as history instead of entertaining fiction.

At 12/05/2010 9:47 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Robin: Thank for that - I have to admit that I prefer With God in Russia to He Leadeth Me, but that's just me. The Ignatius connection doesn't surprise me, but I'm also glad to hear that Walter Ciszek has been a part of your life as well as mine!

Jim: Point taken. I've read up on the controversies you mention, and I'll admit that Kapuściński got a lot of things wrong (and not just in The Emperor) but I don't think that should keep anyone from reading and appreciating his work.

Of course, I should also point out that there is a lot of fact in most of Kapuściński's work and that it shouldn't all be classified as "entertaining fiction" or, perhaps, "magical realism." My favorite of his books, Another Day of Life is a straightforward but still very eloquent piece of reportage - I've yet to find any reviews or evaluations of that book that question its accuracy, unlike, for example, The Emperor and The Shadow of the Sun.

At 12/05/2010 11:41 PM, Blogger Robin said...

Well, this got me going on my own post.

When I was at Wernersville in October, I discovered that Walter Ciszek is buried there. Unfortunately, the cemetery was undergoing major construction, so we couldn't walk there. Another year.

At 12/06/2010 8:18 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Indeed - there's another reason to go back to Wernersville, a place always worth returning to!

At 12/12/2010 2:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting these, Joe. I'm sorry that I haven't responded sooner, but I was sort of waiting until I had time to digest it properly - and even now I'm inclined to say that many of these are new to me and that I have much to learn. So much to read and so little time!

Thanks, and I look forward to the rest.


At 12/22/2010 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Koczera,

I read Fr. Ciszek's With God in Russia as a fourteen-year-old, wide-eyed on the edge of my chair; with that book an inexorable chain of events was set in motion that led me to Fr. King and Shall's classrooms.

In all the subsequent years, of all the books I have devoured, I have only read one autobiography which I found as compelling and impressive, actually more so, that of an unsung and under-appreciated hero and devout Catholic, whose life rivals that of many saints for drama and accomplishment.

Alas and alack, it has yet to be translated into English; if your German permits it, I don't believe I can recommend it highly enough. Here's how you can obtain a copy:


At 12/22/2010 8:09 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for that, J-A. I had not heard of Dr. Issels before, but what I've been able to learn from a quick Google search suggests that he had a very interesting life and that I should learn more about him.

Ich muss mein Deutsch üben. Ihr Vorschlag zu diesem Buch motiviert mich zu verbessern. Vielen Dank!

At 12/23/2010 8:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Koczera,

Please be careful in trusting what others have to say about Dr. Issels. Omnis homo mendax said the psalmist in his exasperation.

Dr. Issels joined the SS at the express request of the nun who administered the hospital where he worked, who'd hoped he'd be a good influence on them, and quit the SS after Kristallnacht despite having being warned that to do so was to invite a death sentence. During the war many, many, attempts were made to get him killed, but the Nazis eventually gave up when even their best laid plans came to naught. As said, his life truly was spectacular.

And a Merry Christmas to you and yours.

At 12/23/2010 6:36 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Thanks for the caveat, J-A. It sounds like the best thing for me to do would be to read Dr. Issels' story in his own words. Thanks again for the book recommendation, and prayerful best wishes for Christmas!


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