These days, new books on Chesterton are ten a penny, as are new editions of his works. It wasn’t always thus. Back in the 1970s and 80s when the present author first started collecting anything he could find on or by the great man, there was precious little to be found. It seemed that Chesterton was largely forgotten, or at least woefully neglected. Such neglect had its benefits, however, not least of which was the availability of used copies of his books, already half a century or more old even then, at absurdly low prices. In those halcyon days it was possible to pick up half a dozen Chesterton titles, including first editions, for a couple of pounds, each highly prized new addition to one’s library costing only about forty or fifty pence each.
Times have changed. The revival of interest in GKC has led to a rise in the price of first editions of his books and a rise in the number of new editions of his works being published, coupled with a healthy increase in the number of new critical studies of the man and his legacy. Paradoxically, therefore, Chesterton’s books are no longer a few pennies each because they are now ten a penny, idiomatically speaking! This is all too the good. There is, however, a price to pay for such popularity, and not merely in terms of the amount of money one must be prepared to spend. As Chesterton’s flame waxes, his rekindled fame taxes the brains of publishers seeking to cash in on his popularity. Such was apparently the case with ABCs of the Christian Life, a new book which will tax the patience of the most enthusiastic Chestertonian.
ABCs of the Christian Life is all about spin; the sort of marketing spin which would have Chesterton spinning in his grave, were he still there and not in a better place.
Let’s begin with the title. Anybody seriously expecting to get the “ABCs of the Christian Life” in reading this book will be seriously disappointed. Indeed, anyone reading any book by Chesterton expecting to get the basics of Christianity in such an easily digestible form will be disappointed. Chesterton doesn’t write that way. He perambulates around a question, wandering off on tangents in pursuit of a whim or following the whiff or a dragon which needs slaying. Like his master, Aristotle, he is peripatetic; he wanders from place to place in pursuit of what is to be found there, enjoying the walk with truth so much that he’s not too concerned with how long it takes or how far it takes him. That is why those who pick up a book such as Orthodoxy expecting to find the gist of Chesterton and the gist of Christianity contained therein, encapsulated in the idiomatic nutshell, will be frustrated. Such people, and there are many of them, lose patience with Chesterton because he doesn’t take them where they want to be in the shortest possible time and by the shortest possible route. In fact, if the truth be told, it’s not strictly accurate to say that such people lose patience with Chesterton; they don’t lose patience with him because they lacked the patience in the first place and therefore didn’t have it to lose. These people should cut to the chase by reading those who write with axiomatic succinctness, such as C. S. Lewis or Peter Kreeft, the latter of whom graces ABCs of the Christian Life with a brief Foreword.
Even more misleading than the book’s title is its subtitle: The Ultimate Anthology of the Prince of Paradox. Such a claim is as full of the braggadocio of the braggart as it is empty of substance. There is nothing “ultimate” about this slim volume, with its twenty-six extracts from thirteen of Chesterton’s books. On the contrary, it pales into insignificance beside other and better anthologies, already published. One thinks perhaps of Prophet of Orthodoxy: The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, edited by Russell Sparkes (Harper Collins: Fount, 1997) or A Motley Wisdom: The Best of G. K. Chesterton, chosen and introduced by Nigel Forde (Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), both of which include selections from Chesterton’s poetry, essays and major prose works. In contrast, this new anthology pays scant regard to Chesterton’s essays and completely omits all of his poetry, the latter of which is a sin of omission which cries to the heavens for judgment, or, at least, belies any claim on the part of this volume to its being a serious anthology, “ultimate” or otherwise.
As for the idea of arranging the entries in alphabetical order, this has also been done before and better. See, for instance, The Quotable Chesterton, edited by Marlin, Rabatin and Swan (Ignatius, 1986) or the identically titled anthology edited by Kevin Belmonte (Thomas Nelson, 2011). Then there’s The Wisdom of Mr. Chesterton: The Very Best Quotes, Quips and Cracks from the Pen of G. K. Chesterton, edited by Dave Armstrong (Saint Benedict Press, 2009) or The Universe According to G. K. Chesterton: A Dictionary of the Mad, Mundane and Metaphysical, edited by Dale Ahlquist (Dover Publications, 2011). None of these splendid volumes claims to be the “ultimate” anthology and yet all of them would have a better claim to such an accolade than this latest addition to the lengthening list of alphabetically arranged anthologies.
Having been less than complimentary about ABCs of the Christian Life it would be good to be able to point an accusing finger at the editor responsible for its deficiencies. Unfortunately this is not possible because no editor is listed. Perhaps nobody wants to claim responsibility; or perhaps the selection was made by a committee (heaven forbid!) or a computer (yikes!).
Whimsy aside, let’s try to look a little more positively at what ABCs has to offer.
The cover is very attractive, being designed to look like the foxed, warn and dogeared covers of the other Chesterton titles, aging gracefully on the shelf, which it seeks to emulate. For this touch of artistic finesse we can praise Katherine Robinson who, unlike the anonymous and elusive editor(s), is given credit for her labours in the front matter of the book. The Foreword by the ever-reliable Peter Kreeft is full of the flourish one expects from his illustrious pen, the highlight of which is a wonderful sentence about Chesterton which could equally have been written by Chesterton himself: “He has the reputation of tying us up in knots, but this is exactly wrong, for he is only untying the knots we have tied ourselves into.” And then of course there is Chesterton himself and it is his writing that serves as the book’s redeeming feature, shining forth in splendor in spite of the unbecoming setting in which it finds itself.
As for the rest, the choice of alphabetical headings is curious to say the least. Even were one to grant the difficulty of finding something beginning with “K” or “L”, one wonders how entries on “Kensington High Street” and “Lying in Bed” can be said to fit or sit comfortably in a book purporting to offer the “ABCs of the Christian Life”. And surely it must have been possible to find a better entry for “S” than “Suicidal Thinking” (such as saints, or sinners, or salvation) and a better entry for “V” than Queen Victoria (such as virtue, vice or even that other Queen, the Virgin Mary). And what about “X”? With a little poetic license, “Xmas” would have served, especially as Chesterton wrote so much on this topic that one enterprising publisher once released a whole volume of Chesterton’s festive writing, entitled The Spirit of Christmas (Xanadu Publications, 1984). A good, carefully selected essay on “Xmas” would have worked very well within the theme of “the Christian Life”. Instead the unnamed editor(s) selected “Sex” for the entry under “X”! Perhaps this last egregious example says it all. Perhaps there is nothing more that could or should be said. Perhaps we should be rendered speechless.
The final damning indictment of this slender volume is not that it is merely inadequate, nor even that it is inappropriate; it’s that it is incompetent. It is not merely inapt but inept.
This was first published in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of the Chesterton Review.