If you live, as I do, in a place with cold winters, the arrival of spring feels like something of a liberation. Venturing outside, appreciating the greenness of growing things, feeling the warmth of sunlight on one’s face—it does the body good! Likewise, after a busy work week, the weekend offers a welcome change of pace, and the Sabbath in particular is a much-needed time for the mind and soul to recharge and be refreshed.
The imagination, as much as the body and the mind, also needs refreshment and wholesome leisure, the opportunity to relax and play in healthy and life-giving ways. We need to spend time regularly in wholesome literary environments, where we can be refreshed and invigorated.
Books that provide these reading experiences can be literary holidays and Sabbath days. They can serve as mental palate-cleansers after reading things that (necessarily) deal with the more disagreeable and disturbing aspects of life. They can offer changes of pace that allow us to gain strength for more weighty tomes and topics. But where can we start?
Here are five recommendations for books that are particularly effective in providing that wholesome, refreshing literary experience.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The adventures of Mole, Ratty, Badger, and Toad are perfect for any season of the year or season of one’s life. It is a near-perfect—nay, I would suggest a perfect book, with its rich portrayal of friendship, its celebration of the humble pleasures of hearth and home, and its beautifully textured evocation of the changing seasons by the River and the Wild Wood. The Wind in the Willows helps us find, or renew, an imaginative vocabulary for wholesome things in our everyday lives. It has humor, adventure, pathos—even a touch of the transcendent. Read it slowly, lingering on Grahame’s lush descriptions of the setting, delighting in the interactions of the characters, appreciating the delicate tones and flavors of the prose. Don’t rush or skim, but savor.
You must, simply must, read a copy of The Wind in the Willows with illustrations by Ernest Shepard. Trust me.
The Barchester Chronicles by Anthony Trollope
We might well describe the Victorian author Anthony Trollope as a male Jane Austen, following in her footsteps as a deft chronicler of domestic dramas. Trollope’s Christian faith is woven deeply into the stories—not so much in the overt details but in the clean, wholesome moral atmosphere of the stories. Trollope wrote dozens of novels, but his most famous (and justly so) are the books known as the “Barchester Chronicles”: The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington, and The Last Chronicle of Barset. Trollope’s particular skill is in characterization—by the time we’ve read the Barchester Chronicles, it feels like these are people we actually know in real life.
One of the most notable features of these novels is that Trollope has the gift (sadly all too rare) of depicting good, virtuous, devout characters who are three-dimensional, believable, and deeply attractive. For instance, Mr. Harding, who is the title character of The Warden and features in the other books as well, is a genuinely holy man, yet he is not simplistic or shallow, and there are many other examples throughout the books.
All except the last can be read without reference to the others, but there’s a distinct pleasure to be had in reading them in order.
The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
Miss Prudencia Prim comes to the quiet little village of San Ireneo, and discovers a thriving small-town society that challenges all her secular, modern views about what’s good, true, and beautiful. It’s a charming book, thoroughly steeped in the atmosphere and ideals of G.K. Chesterton, with a protagonist who gradually comes to see that there’s more richness and beauty in the world than she’s hitherto even dreamed of. One of the intriguing aspects of this book is that, for those who have eyes to see it, the views being put forward as true are very much Catholic ideas—but she never makes any specific references to the faith, instead allowing the story to “get past the watchful dragons” of the reader’s assumptions. It’s also notable that she achieves the difficult task of presenting apologetics arguments in the story, without being either obvious or aggressive about it. The ending may seem a bit unclear for some readers, but I’d say that Sanmartin Fenollera has done well in resisting the temptation to tie everything up with a nice bow.
The Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown tales—which feature the plain, even dumpy Catholic priest as the detective solving a variety of mysteries—are not nearly as well known as they ought to be. Chesterton was the first president of the Detection Club (whose members included such luminaries as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers), and these delightful stories showcase his skill in crafting memorable and surprising puzzles. Father Brown is a character that every Catholic should be acquainted with; he shows that in a fully orbed Catholic perspective, reason and faith are not opposed to each other. It’s worth noting, as well, that Chesterton incorporates significant theological ideas into many of the tales, in such a way that they arise naturally out of the story—and give rise to reflection in the reader.
The Innocence of Father Brown is the first of several volumes featuring the detective exploits of the titular priest. It’s the ideal place to start, not just because it’s the first, but because it includes several particularly strong tales: “The Blue Cross,” “The Hammer of God,” and “The Eye of Apollo” are stand-outs.
The Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome
As we saw with The Wind in the Willows, a great children’s book is also a great book for adult readers. The Swallows and Amazons series, published from 1930 to 1947, tells of the adventures of various children (modeled on children whom Arthur Ransome knew in real life) as they go camping and sailing, and engage in imaginative play. In the first volume, Swallows and Amazons, we are introduced to John, Susan, Titty, and Roger Walker, who are allowed to take a small sailing boat, the “Swallow,” to camp on an island on their summer holiday. They become friends (and friendly rivals) of local children Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who sail in the “Amazon.” The second book, Swallowdale, has the Walker children back for a second summer holiday, in which they hope to reprise their camping adventure of the previous year, only to find unexpected disappointments and delays, including a shipwreck and a daunting great-aunt. Some of the later volumes are written as if the children’s imagined adventures really happened (as in Peter Duck), but mostly they are highly realistic.
It’s difficult to describe the books in a way that adequately conveys their great charm. Ransome is a skilled and subtle writer, and his characterizations of the children, and his depiction of their imaginative life and inter-relationships, are masterful. (Incidentally, J.R.R. Tolkien had a high regard for Ransome’s novels, and even took some of Ransome’s suggestions for edits to The Hobbit.) The stories are richly textured as well, with abundant, precise detail about the landscape and the mechanics of sailing. But what is most nourishing is the healthiness of the characters’ relationships. We find here parents who are both loved and respected by their children—a sadly rare phenomenon in modern children’s fiction. The children themselves are allowed a tremendous amount of freedom (spending whole days unsupervised, and camping by themselves), which they enjoy with a sense also of their responsibility to each other.
Reading the Swallows and Amazons books is a reminder that we’re all too easily caught up in the frenetic pace of modern life, so that even our so-called leisure time is over-stimulated, over-regulated, and over-commercialized. But the fresh breezes of the Swallows and Amazons books may be just the right thing to help you slow down and let your imagination play freely in the sunshine!
These books are all stand-alones, but it’s best to read them in order if possible, since there are references to earlier books, and the children grow as the series proceeds. If possible, you should get hardback copies that include Arthur Ransome’s illustrations, which add considerably to the atmosphere and pleasure of the tales.
I have anticipated that most readers would immediately (and rightly) think of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles as wholesome books, so I chose to focus on other titles. However, if by some chance you have not yet read them, you’re in for a treat! (But do read them for the first time in the original publication order: starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) Likewise, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is perfect for literary refreshment (bear in mind that it has nothing to do with the films). Narnia and Middle-earth are wonderful places to have an imaginative holiday; it’ll do your spirit good.