Dr. Smith's Recommended Reading

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Dr. Thomas W. Smith is the Director of the University Honors Program.  He received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.  Three time recipient of the Martin Manley Distinguished Teaching Award in Political Science, he was also awarded Villanova’s Lindback Award for Teaching Excellence in 2001. Dr. Smith was the founding chair of the Department of Humanities at Villanova, where he currently holds an appointment. He has published a book on Aristotle and a variety of articles on politics, literature, theology, and philosophy.       

Grace Lassiter

Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1991). 

Helprin is a lyrical novelist whose prose teems with poetic beauty and virile intensity.  He once described his approach to writing this way: “I build everything toward the last sentence, which is the first thing that occurs to me in writing a book. It’s like throwing a stone into a lake and then swimming and diving to fetch it.”  A Soldier of the Great War is about an elderly professor who walks with an illiterate young factory worker towards an ancient village in Italy.  Along the way the old man tells the young man the story of his life.  The novel is about love, war, loss, and what passes between generations.  Above all it is about beauty.  If you don’t weep when the narrator talks about being a father and son at the same time in heaven there is something wrong with you.

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P.D. James, Children of Men (Vintage, 2006).

James is a great mystery writer.  But here she tries her hand at suspense in a story that meditates on the theme of natural hope.  In the not too distant future, the human race has become infertile and scientists are powerless to do anything about it.  In a future without hope for the future, a pregnant woman suddenly appears and gives a band of revolutionaries – including a despairing Oxford historian – a reason to live again.  Full of tension, suspense and terrific writing. 

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Shusaku Endo, The Samurai (New Directions Classics, 1997).

Endo was Japan’s great Catholic novelist.  His novel Silence has just been made into a movie directed by Martin Scorsese.  Endo’s Samurai is just as brilliant a story with similar themes.  It tells of three low-level samurai who are sent to negotiate a trade deal in 17th century Mexico.  They are accompanied by a priest who is tempted to confuse the Gospel with his own ambition.  Along the way they encounter a European culture bent on colonialism and a Christ very different than the one the priest is preaching about.  

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Thomas Merton, Seven Story Mountain (Mariner, 1999).

At 26, Merton became a Trappist monk.  But his search for God took many twists and turns in the world before he withdrew from it to become one of the twentieth century’s great spiritual masters.  For Villanova alumni who remember encountering Augustine’s Confessions with varying degrees of affection, reading Merton is an opportunity to return to a great spiritual autobiography and think again about your Augustinian education. 

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Richard Haas, A World in Disarray (Penguin, 2017)

If you’re disturbed by many of the large trends in world affairs today today, this is a great primer for thinking through the issues.  Haas is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations and has served in several presidential administrations.  In lucid prose he sketches a brief history of the emergence of the post-World War II international order, the forces currently unravelling it, and the threats to our nation that these forces pose.  He argues for a comprehensive new approach to international norms.

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Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins (Picador, 1999)

Most of us are worried about the fractured and fractious character of our public life today.  Sometimes we seem to be staring at each other helplessly across racial, gender, generational, and party divides.  Percy noticed these trends three decades ago and explored them in this hysterical, ironic, and timely novel.  His hero has invented an EKG for the soul and he uses it to try to heal the social divisions that he sees in the country – divisions that he traces back to a deep division in our very souls.  But can his technology cure our disease?  Or is his approach a symptom of the problem? 

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Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (Basic Books, 2016).This book also tackles the fractured character of contemporary American public life.  Levin traces this back to what he calls a politics of nostalgia among the left and right.  Both parties are failing because of their different kinds of nostalgia, blinding us to the large scale changes that the country has undergone in our economic and political lives over the last several decades.  Levin argues that we need a new, modernizing politics that avoid both individualism and paternalistic statism.  He is particularly interested in reviving the middle layers of society – families, communities, schools, churches and synagogues, local governments and markets. 

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