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Why You Should Read G.K. Chesterton (Even When It’s Hard)

June 14, 2016


Today marks the anniversary of the death of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a man of colossal genius. Even his “enemies” thought so. His debate opponent, George Bernard Shaw, admitted Chesterton to be “a man of colossal genius.” Among his notable debate opponents were intellectual heavyweights like H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russel. At 6’4” and over 300 lbs at his heaviest, G.K. himself was a heavy-weight, and his intellect even heavier-weighted.

Nonetheless remembering that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly”, this larger than life apostle of common sense also took himself lightly because he took his faith seriously. He came to know God but he came to know himself better; which made him a better man. He was—to summarize—a joyfully serious thinker and wordsmith whom people loved (and love).

Chestertonian scholar, Dale Ahlquist, writes:

“There’s a goodness that just exuded from him…The biographical accounts of Chesterton always portray him as being very joyful, and humble, and good, so that everyone was just drawn to that, including his intellectual and philosophical enemies. The people who violently disagreed with Chesterton on the issues were drawn to him as a person because of his charity.”

C.S. Lewis, one of the twentieth century’s other great minds, thought Chesterton to be dangerously good at conveying “what is” to his readers—or perhaps we might say Lewis thought Chesterton to be dangerously good at conveying “Who is” to his readers. He wrote:

“In reading Chesterton, as in reading [George] MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”

Lewis’ appreciation of Chesterton’s writing is no surprise; for it was reading Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man that decisively turned the atheist Lewis in the direction of Christian belief. Lewis wrote in a personal letter:

“Have you ever tried Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man”? The best popular apologetic I know.” (in a letter to Sheldon Vanauken)

Ahlquist joyfully affirms that “C.S. Lewis was an atheist until he read Chesterton’s book, The Everlasting Man, but he wasn’t afterwards”.

Chesterton has been called the “prince of paradox” because of his abilities to flip phrases and ideas rightside up. As one writer for Time magazine has observed:

“Whenever possible Chesterton made his points with popular sayings, proverbs, allegories—first carefully turning them inside out.” (“Orthodoxologist”, 11 October 1943)

One could go on forever about this brilliant man and the value of his wit and wisdom for the minds (and hearts) of today. But it might be best that each person be left to discover the words and works of Gilbert Keith Chesterton for themselves.

BUT here’s the thing: he’s not easy to read—at least not at first. Remember that good physical nutrition presupposes “good chewing” to ensure good digestion. Good intellectual nutrition thus also presupposes “good chewing” to ensure good digestion. Chesterton’s words are like steak, not pudding. Hard work will make your head work, and reading Chesterton is hard head work. Hard work in a Culture Of Convenience might seem inconvenient, but adventuring with Chesterton is worth the rigour. As Chesterton himself says:

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” (from “On Running After Ones Hat”)

Here are three things I’ve learned about maximizing the G.K. Chesterton experience:

1. Read his stuff over and over.

 Try to avoid reading anything of his for the last time. Chesterton is like a fine wine because he gets better with age, and like a smooth scotch because it takes time to aquire a taste for his writing; but once you do you’ll never look back. Patience is truly a virtue. The nice thing is: You don’t have to “drink” Chesterton in moderation. In fact you ought not to.

To help you hit the ground running, you might consider starting with Dale Ahlquist’s G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common SenseCommon Sense 101: Lessons from Chestertonor The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

Also, here’s a great Chesterton reading plan from the American Chesterton Society.

2. Sample Chesterton widely.

 Chesterton wrote around 80 books of varying genres. He wrote several hundred poems, around 200 short stories, around 4,000 essays, and even some plays. He was a literary and social critic, columnist, historian, playwright, novelist, poet, theologian, apologist, debater, and mystery writer. He’s got things to say about everything; and usually what he’s got to say makes us say, “Why didn’t I see this before?!”

3. Read his biographies.

Start with the ones by Maisie Ward and Joseph Pearce. You would also do well to read his autobiography. It’s as much a joy learning about the man as it is learning from the man.