Taking Stock

Books to Nourish One’s Soul and Broaden One’s Horizons

By Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C

Take a trip around the globe in novels with the President Emeritus of Notre Dame. For 17 of his 18 years in office, this inveterate reader taught a seminar on world literature.


I was just delighted when there was a huge fanfare around the world on the publication of number six in the Harry Potter series. To see young people dressed up in costumes representing the various characters of the books, excited about staying up past midnight so that they could have the privilege of buying a copy, hot off the presses.

My own opinion about such enthusiasm is that it is great for future generations of college teachers who will have students in their classes who learned the pleasure of reading at a very young age. In the class that I taught for 17 of my 18 years as president, I regularly met with students individually and had the opportunity to explore when and if they ever became dedicated readers. In almost every instance, it was traceable back to either the tradition of being read to by their parents or other members of their family and/or being introduced to reading material that gave them pleasure and excitement at an early age. Whether it was the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, the Lord of the Rings or the Babysitters Club, Judy Blume or the Goosebumps Books or whatever, it was uniformly true that those who looked forward to the reading they engaged in early in their lives had already begun the process of becoming life-long, dedicated readers.

I am what one might call a non-stop kind of inveterate reader. As I have grown older, I have had my interest broadened and my appetite whetted. I want to learn more about more things and to enjoy continuously the sheer pleasure of the written word composed by creative artists who are concerned about telling a story effectively and displaying their mastery of English style. Even the translation of a work originally written in another language can be our closest exposure to a trans-cultural experience.

Through 34 semesters of reading novels and watching movies with the intent of exposing my students to literature from around the world and as many cultures as possible, I have made some judgments about books that might be of interest to others. So, I offer this simple essay as a way of acquainting my readers with a cross section of books, in almost all cases novels, that they might also enjoy.

Let me begin my brief tour of the world by starting with a continent from which human life first emerged, Africa. A masterful guide of the opportunities and tensions that came in the wake of the transition to independence in Black Africa is the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe. Almost all of his works explore the realities of tribalism, development, endemic corruption, family loyalty, and the mixed promise that is contemporary Africa. His best known novel, at least in this country, is Things Fall Apart. But several of his other works are also worth looking at including, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah and No Longer at Ease. A related novel by an African woman novelist, Simi Bedford, is Yoruba Girl Dancing. However, many of the novels that I have used have been set in South Africa. The best known of these writers are all Caucasian and born in South Africa, their artistry reflecting the realities of Apartheid and the other struggles in that country, which has received so much attention over the last several decades. Nadine Gordimer has produced a number of important works including July’s People, The Conservationist, My Son’s Story and None To Accompany Me. Alan Paton had two large international successes, Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful and Cry, The Beloved Country. J.M. Coetzee has become better known in recent years, and I found his Waiting for the Barbarians quite stimulating.

The second continent to discuss is Asia, which has, of course, the largest bulk of population and a long-developed tradition of literature. I have been particularly drawn to the work of two Indian novelists, namely Anita Desai who has produced a series of interesting studies of Indian urban life, Baumgartner’s Bombay, Clear Light of Day, In Custody, Journey to Ithaca, and Fasting, Feasting. I have also enjoyed the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and would recommend Heat and Dust, The Householder, and The Nature of Passion. From Japan there are a number of accomplished writers who have developed readership in the States. Above all, I have enjoyed the depth and readability of the Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo. The best known of his works are Silence and Scandal, but I would also recommend The Samurai. Finally, among those who discuss the culture of China and its complex history, I would favor Gail Tsukiyama who has great capacity in dealing with multiple generations. Her novels include The Language of Threads, Night of Many Dreams, Women of the Silk, and The Samurai’s Garden.

Turning to Latin America, certain parts of the continent have a richer and much longer standing tradition of excellence in fiction. Gabriel García Márquez has produced a number of longer works that were too lengthy for my course, but I have used his shorter novels, In Evil Hour, The Autumn of the Patriarch, and The General in His Labyrinth. Another well-known South American novelist is Mario Vargas Llosa. Two of his works that I have enjoyed are The Storyteller and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. If I would include Mexico in the list of Latin American works, I would put forward Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and Swift as Desire as well Carlos Fuentes’ The Campaign, The Good Conscience, The Old Gringo, and The Death of Artemio Cruz.

Picking up on the realities of the Middle East as well as historical realities of the Holocaust, one might begin with Elie Wiesel. His best known work is Night, but also to be recommended are Accident, Dawn, The Judges, and The Town Beyond the Wall. A well regarded Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, has produced a number of challenging works including Panther in the Basement. The reality of the experience of women in Middle Eastern cultures is picked up on by Hanan Al-Shaykh in The Story of Zahra and Women of Sand and Myrrh. On the same theme, one might also look at Halim Barakat’s Days of Dust, Nawal El Saadawi’s God Dies by the Nile, Tahar-Ben Jelloun’s Corruption, Naguib Mahfouz’s Miramar and Midaq Alley, Norma Khouri’s Honor Lost—Love and Death in Modern-Day Jordan, and Sayed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs.

The span of American literature is, of course, huge, but I have tried to introduce my students to a broad cross-section of cultures and ways of life. In the African American literature, I dealt with a broad cross-section of writers rather than focus on any particular author. Worthwhile contributions can be found in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, Breena Clark’s River, Cross My Heart, Rita Dove’s Through the Ivory Gate, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Dorothy West’s The Wedding, Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Sula.

The Hispanic American perspective can be found representing a broad cross-section of origins in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, Michele Serros’ How To Be A Chicana Role Model, and Lori Marie Carlson’s The Sunday Tertulia.

Among classic American novelists, I have particularly enjoyed James Agee’s A Death in the Family, Ann Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Willa Cather’s array of great stories—Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Antonia, O Pioneers!, The Professor’s House, Shadows on the Rock, and A Lost Lady.

In the European context, there is once again an almost infinite array of possibilities. I have especially enjoyed James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Edna O’Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, and Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.

In the Catholic university setting, I have also tried to introduce my students to some of the more distinguished Catholic novelists both from this country and abroad. I already mentioned the Japanese author Shusaku Endo. But probably the best known Catholic author was Graham Greene. Among his prolific output would be included A Burnt-Out Case, The Comedians, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, and The Quiet American. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Ring Trilogy have been embraced by generations of young people and those not so young. In the American context, I would especially include Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, The Moviegoer, The Second Coming, and The Thanatos Syndrome, as well as Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge, The Violent Bear It Away, and Wise Blood, and finally Jon Hassler’s A Green Journey, North of Hope, and Staggerford.

When it comes to fantasy or futuristic literature, some of my favorites include Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, Jules Vernes’ Around the World In 80 Days, and of course, the Harry Potter books.

If one is interested in various thematic orientations of literature, the reality of war is captured well in Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, V.S. Naipaul’s Guerillas, Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina, Adam Braver’s Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms, John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, and Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad.

The more intimate dynamics of women’s lives and relationships in the modern world can be explored through Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John and Lucy, Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen’s Daughters of the House, Sebastian Barry’s Annie Dunne, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and last but not least, the delightful Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.

What I have been trying to suggest in all of this is that there is a wonderful range of fiction available to the modern reader that can help us to understand our lives, our relationships and the broader socio-economic and political forces that affect us all.

But in the course of acquainting ourselves with this material, we can be more than enlightened and also transformed by the beauty and power of the written word. We can travel vicariously and visit every nook and cranny of the world around us as well as previous periods of human history and those imagined to come after our time. All we need to engage successfully in this journey is a commitment to the life of learning and the pleasure of the worlds created by the best and most talented conveyers of the human story.

—Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C. is president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame.

“The rays of the moon fell through the prison bars, forming on the wall a shadow that reminded the priest of the man of Galilee. The eyes were lowered, but they looked toward him. On this shadow face the priest put contours: he drew in the eyes and the mouth. Today he had done well, he reflected; and he glowed with pride like a child.”

—Shusaku Endo, Silence, Japan




“He had lived in this land for fifty years—or if not fifty then so nearly as to make no difference—and it no longer seemed fantastic and exotic; it was more utterly familiar now than any other landscape on earth. Yet the eyes of the people who passed by glanced at him who was still strange and unfamiliar to them, and all said: Firanghi, foreigner. For the Indian sun had not been good to his skin, it had not tanned and roasted him to the colour of a native. What was the colour of a native anyway? To begin with, everyone had seemed to him ‘dark’ but after all these years he separated them into boot-black like the juice-wallah with his oranges and pith and pulp, sallow yellow like Farrokh in his tubercular café, dusky chocolate, coffee-bean, tea-leaf, peanut-shell, leprous purple, shade merging into shade till all blurred into brown. He was none of these: his face blazed like an over-ripe tomato in the sun on which warts gathered like flies.”

—Anita Desai, Baumgartner’s Bombay, India


Copyright © 2006 University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved Last Updated on: December 7, 2005