The Best of Chesterton
“I am interested in getting to know the works of G.K. Chesterton. Could you recommend a good place to start?” When I hear this question, one of the most frequently asked during my travels on the lecture circuit, I experience a sinking feeling deep inside. I am obviously not disappointed that my interlocutor desires to get to know Chesterton. (Perish the thought!) On the contrary, I am always delighted to learn of another would-be convert to the magic of GKC. The truth is that the sinking feeling overcomes me in spite of such delight, souring its sweetness. I have come to realise that this seemingly inexplicable sense of apprehension is caused by the knowledge that I have just been asked a question that is much easier to ask than it is to answer.
The first difficulty in answering such a question is that I need to know more about the person asking it before I am able to offer an adequate reply. Does he prefer fiction or non-fiction? Does he like poetry? Is he the type of reader who likes to battle with the big questions of metaphysics, or does he prefer the truth served up in bite-size (or byte-size) chunks? I feel that I would have to sit down with my interlocutor and become his inquisitor, preferably over a pint or two of ale or a glass or two of wine. Since time seldom affords us the luxury of such pleasures, it becomes necessary to cut to the chase.
This being so, let’s return to our original question and try to answer it in general terms in spite of our knowledge that every man is not Everyman and that, therefore, he will differ in his preferences from his fellow men. Should our interlocutor prefer fiction, he should be told that The Man Who was Thursday is indubitably Chesterton’s finest novel but that, on the other hand, it is less accessible and perhaps less fun than The Ball and the Cross. It is certainly more confusing on a first reading, whereas The Ball and the Cross offers the reader an unabashed battle between its Catholic and atheist protagonists in decidedly unambiguous terms. If he prefers poetry, he should be introduced to The Ballad of the White Horse or to “Lepanto” but should not be deprived of the delights of Chesterton’s less ambitious voyages into verse, such as “The Donkey”, “The Fish”, “The Skeleton”, or “The Rolling English Road”; nor should he be allowed to overlook relatively unknown and priceless gems, such as “The Strange Music” and “The Crystal”. If he wants to do battle with the great metaphysical truths underpinning reality, he should grapple with the acrobatic brilliance of The Everlasting Man or Orthodoxy. If he wants hagiography worthy of hallowing to the heights, he should read GKC’s pen portraits of St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Francis of Assisi. And we have not even mentioned the works of literary biography, or the detective stories, or the works of history, politics or economics. Or the essays.
As to the last, it is a sorry fact that Chesterton’s essays are sadly neglected in relation to the rest of his corpus, and this in spite of the fact that Chesterton is one of the finest essayists ever to grace the English language.
All of the foregoing shows why my heart sinks when I’m asked for advice about which of Chesterton’s works should be read first. The trouble is that the best of Chesterton is as good as the rest of Chesterton!