By Becky Sindelar
December 17, 2014 — Ready to curl up next to the fireplace with a good book this winter? Jesuit Father Raymond Schroth has just the reading list for you.
Fr. Schroth, literary editor at America magazine, recently published the America Reading List online, which includes book lists he put together at four different Jesuit universities over two decades — resulting in 150 short essays with 270 book suggestions.
Fr. Schroth came up with the idea for these essays while teaching at Fordham University in the 1970s. “I’ve always felt the main role of the teacher is to introduce the student to other people and by other people I mean people throughout world history — the great artists and the great writers. I made a big point of assigning a lot of books.”
He wanted to share his enthusiasm for reading with other faculty so he invited them to write essays about the five or six books that they loved enough to say all students should read them. The Fordham Personal Reading List was published in 1977 and was well-received on campus.
Since it worked at Fordham, Fr. Schroth continued to produce the lists at the other Jesuit schools where he taught. In the 1980s at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, he compiled the “Holy Cross 100 Books,” a book list that includes some of the fundamental classics of Western literature and beyond.
The tradition continued at Loyola University New Orleans and Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey (now Saint Peter’s University). At St. Peter’s, Fr. Schroth chose a theme that focused on how to succeed at the college. “I wrote a list of the 10 books I thought Saint Peter’s students should read before they graduate, and I asked faculty to add to that list,” he explains.
Last year, Fr. Schroth mentioned his book lists in an article about saving the humanities for America magazine. After receiving requests for the lists, he and an intern worked to put all the past essays online in one document.
There’s no real consensus throughout the essays, so they offer a wide variety of recommendations. However, there are some books and authors that appear consistently throughout the years. “Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. They’re two of the greatest novelists in the history of the universe, so they would usually show up. People would often put in a particular book of the Bible as well,” says Fr. Schroth. “As you work your way through, you’ll see that each individual has his or her own favorites,” says Fr. Schroth of the list, which includes classics such as “Pride and Prejudice,” “Moby Dick” and “Wuthering Heights.”
As for Fr. Schroth’s favorite book? “I think ‘David Copperfield’ is right up there probably because that was the first big fat book I read.
“You don’t have to be a 30-year-old genius to read Dickens,” says Fr. Schroth. “It’s really approachable, certainly in high school and college.”
He laments the fact that faculty may not assign long books because they’re afraid students won’t read them. “You would hope somewhere along the line that someone at a Jesuit university would have ‘Brothers Karamazov’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ as part of their education.”
Another favorite of Fr. Schroth’s is Henry David Thoreau. “I’ve probably taught ‘Walden’ more than any other book, and I would read it again each time — my copy is very marked up!”
Reading and writing are in his genes; Fr. Schroth’s father was a journalist and his mother was a teacher. “I lived a split life of teaching and then writing on the side all the time,” says Fr. Schroth.
Fr. Schroth is happy to be back at America as literary editor. He published his first article with the magazine in 1957 while he was in the army, before he joined the Society of Jesus later that year. In addition to his work at America, he’s also been book editor for Commonweal magazine and written for the National Catholic Reporter.
“I take it as a holy responsibility because I know how hard it is to get good reviews and get attention called to yourself when you’re a writer,” says Fr. Schroth of his work at America. Much like the many entries on his book list, when deciding whether to review a book, he says, “I ask myself, ‘Is this a book that would give pleasure and educate and affect the continuing education of our readers?’”
And here’s a new list from Fr. Schroth: 10 Books You Should Not Go through Life without Reading