I discovered Chesterton too late. It has been over the past ten years that I started reading seriously from G. K. Chesterton’s works and I will never get to where I should be. Education, as my friend George Grant often says, begins with repentance. I am truly sorry that I did not start reading Chesterton while in college, or just right out of college.
Truth is, I hardly knew who he was. Even with having a minor in English and having taken at least three classes in English literature, I could not have identified Chesterton. Could not have picked him out of a line-up with Hillaire Belloc, John Cardinal Newman, Thomas Carlyle, and Arthur Quiller-Couch. Walked off a stage with a degree, but did not have an education.
How big was Chesterton? Are you thinking of spatial occupation? He was 6 feet, 4 inches and topped the scales at 300 pounds. Did his weight slow him down? I hope so, or else no else would ever have written a book. He was a mammoth of a man and writer.
How big? You might say, “No Chesterton, No Lewis.” (By the way, the day I walked off that stage with a bachelor’s degree, I only had a vague hint of who Lewis was either. Thank God that I knew about Calvin and Luther and had a good teacher in Shakespeare class.)
C. S. Lewis read Chesterton during the time when he (Lewis) was thrashing about this world as an atheist. As he said, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere….God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
Concerning his reading of Chesterton, Lewis wrote, “I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. ” God used that author’s book to set the course for many other fine books.
Chesterton’s books Orthodoxy, Heretics, and The Everlasting Man are all great reads. Witty, profound, bold, and on we could go with the praises. He was a superb stylist, a profound wordsmith, a clever tweaker of phrases, a surgically evasive critic, and a bombastic apologist.
His books are a blend of theology, philosophy, and social commentary. He would have contributed enough had those 3 books been his entire corpus. But he was also a poet and quite a good one. Along with quite a few shorter poems, he composed an epic, The Ballad of the White Horse, That poems tells of and celebrates the victories of King Alfred the Great over the invading Danes. Imagine that. An epic poem. When the great Agrarians (I did not know them when I graduated) gathered for a reunion, the question was asked and not answered: Why did none of you write an epic poem? Chesterton, who shared some affinities with the Agrarians could have answered, “I did.”
And, Chesterton wrote fiction. He created a wonderful character, Father Brown, a Christian, a priest, who uses theological insights to figure out crimes. The Father Brown stories give the remarkable Sherlock Holmes stories a run (and I discovered Holmes a few years after graduating).
Chesterton also wrote biographies and literary criticism. These works still beckon me.
Some of the best Chesterton works are now being published by Ignatius Press, a Catholic publisher. They have good claim on the man since he joined their hearty band of followers. But Chesterton was big, too big even for the Catholic Church.
Kevin Belmonte has done some useful service for the Kingdom in writing and assembling some very good introductory materials on G. K. Chesterton. These books are all published by Thomas Nelson.
First, there is a good biography titled Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of G. K. Chesterton. This book places the man in his time (1874-1936), and those years were not times when people, particularly the educated elites, were moving back toward religious orthodoxy. It also discusses his many books. Of course, one could buy the recent and pricey biography titled Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy by Dr. William Oddie (and give it to me), but the Belmonte biography is a good starting place.
Another useful book is The Quotable G. K. Chesterton, selected and edited by Belmonte. This book contains some 870 quotations by a man who is quoted almost as much as Shakespeare and Twain.
And then, how about a bit of Chesterton every day? Belmonte’s most recent contribution to Chesterton readers is A Year With G. K. Chesterton. This book consists of daily readings, 365 in fact, that begin with a Bible verse (which Chesterton did not write) followed by a selection or two from his books. Sometimes the daily readings are bits of poetry, sometimes Chesterton’s witty sayings, and sometimes longer descriptive passages from his many works.
As Richard Ingrams said, “The new reader of Chesterton will be surprised by…how contemporary a figure he is.”