This preachy Enlightenment novella examines the deepest question—why God permits the innocent to suffer—with all the mature wisdom of a high school sophomore. Voltaire sets up as a straw man “Dr. Pangloss,” who offers glib and unconvincing answers, and engineers the plot to refute Pangloss point by point. Call this book the archetype of the smug New Atheist tract whose real goal is to convince readers of the superior cleverness of the author.
2. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
A brilliant execution of a jejune, self-indulgent project: rejecting God, family, and country in order to invent a new form of art and reforge the human imagination . . in James Joyce’s image. The author said that he expected his readers to spend their entire lives learning how to read his novels. In fact, his later “masterpieces” are now read only when they are assigned—if then. Compare them to the magnificent myths painstakingly crafted by the humble traditionalist J. R. R. Tolkien.
3. The Outline of History, by H. G. Wells
The forward march of human history, from the caveman up through President Woodrow Wilson, through the rose-and-jaundice-colored bifocals of the “Whig” view of history—which assumes a natural, almost inexorable progress from the primitive to the enlightened. Hence every religion but humanism and every culture but Western are doomed to the trash bin of history. Also read the refutation it provoked by G. K. Chesterton—The Everlasting Man, a profound Christian meditation on human nature and Western civilization.
4. The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
The perfect book for teenagers who imagine that they are the first people to think every “big idea” and that the world will wink out when they die. The protagonist, Howard Roark, is an architect who nobly refuses to be influenced by other artists, the needs of future residents, or even the wishes of his funders. When a building project is diverted from his artistic intentions, Roark dynamites it and triumphantly defends his actions in court. Yet this model man is emotionally stunted, self-righteous, pompous, and finally insufferable—like his creator.
5. The Long Loneliness, by Dorothy Day
This autobiography by the foundress of the Catholic Worker movement has a dark, unexamined subtext: long before she’d ever encountered any actual poor people, Day already hated the middle class. She followed that loathing into the Communist Party, whose influence and members she never fully renounced. St. Francis, to whom Day is often compared, grew up detesting lepers—so after his conversion he went to serve them. By contrast, Day indulged her antibourgeois feelings all through her life. The grimmest scene comes when Day nods with approval as her handpicked spiritual director tries to deprive a bedridden nun of her only consolation—a transistor radio—because it is an unseemly luxury.