Why You Should Be Reading Chesterton
A beginner's guide to one of historyÍs most fascinating characters.
If you look through any list of history’s most influential Christian writers, you’ll undoubtedly see the name of English journalist G.K. Chesterton. During his own lifetime (1874-1936), Chesterton’s fiction and literary criticism merited him significant praise. Perhaps more well known to many of us are his apologetic writings, which profoundly influenced the culture around him—and the culture around us, too.
Even almost 80 years since his death, Chesterton’s life and work continue to interest people, including the current PBS show Father Brown based on his children’s stories. If you’re not yet convinced that the 20th century writer is worth your time, consider why he wrote. Then, I think, you’ll know why you should read his work.
Why Chesterton Wrote
Like most 20th century writers who matter, Chesterton was born in London. He took a fairly common route of study: art, Latin and English at a couple different schools, including the Slade School of Art and University College, both in London.
Beginning at the Slade School in 1893, Chesterton experienced what biographer Kevin Belmonte calls “a dark night of the soul.” Like a lot—if not most—college-age students, Chesterton was away from family and in a whole new place with new ideas and influences everywhere. He experienced the seemingly requisite existential crisis of young adulthood, wandering and even dabbling in things like the occult. Years later, he wrote about the time in his autobiography:
I could at this time imagine the worst and wildest disproportions and distortion of more normal passion; the point is that the whole mood was overpowered and oppressed with a sort of congestion and imagination. As Bunyan, in his morbid period, described himself as prompted to utter blasphemies, I had an overpowering impulse to record or draw horrible ideas and images plunging deeper and deeper as in a blind spiritual suicide.
Around the summer of 1894, the idea of existence caught Chesterton’s imagination and began to bring him out of his “dark night.” He couldn’t get over the fact that he merely existed. After all, “anything was magnificent as compared with nothing,” he wrote. “The mere fact that one could wave one’s arms and legs about … showed that is not the mere paralysis of a nightmare. Or if it was a nightmare, it was an enjoyable nightmare.”
Chesterton was grateful to be alive. This realization, he said, caused him to hang on to “the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks.” He discovered an outlook with “a sort of mystical minimum of gratitude.”
He slowly, but decidedly moved toward faith. His gratitude needed an object. So what he perceived as personal gifts brought him to belief in a personal God. Life in general appeared more personal to Chesterton. It was more like a story. And, as Belmonte says, the great writer began “to know [the story’s] Author.”
This experience changed everything for Chesterton, especially his future literary output. Meeting the Author always does.
Why You Should Read Chesterton
Chesterton went on to become one of the most prolific writers of modern times.
Primarily a journalist, Chesterton’s writings appeared by the thousands—literally—in newspapers and magazines throughout the U.K. and United States, including his own G.K.’s Weekly. He also produced some 80 books, including fiction, poetry, biography, collected essays and theology.
Lesser known to contemporary readers, Chesterton’s works of literary criticism are what first caught readers’ attention. In fact, some people credit his work on Charles Dickens with starting Dickens’ revival in the early 20th century. A Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson claimed that “nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement” as Chesterton’s biography of Thomas Aquinas.
And according to biographer Ian Kerr, Chesterton wrote entire works—including criticism on Dickens and Aquinas—without revisions or secondary sources—and he’d quote authors at length entirely from memory.
You should read Chesterton, in part, because he represents legitimate and rare genius.
The culture of his day recognized this. In fact, writes Belmonte, The New York Times quoted or referenced him or reviewed his work more than 550 times during his lifetime. The unique marriage of wonder and ordinary in his thought garnered him the nickname “the prince of paradox.”
But I think Pulitzer winning author Garry Wills, in his book Chesterton, gives us the best reason for reading Chesterton: “Chesterton described his style as the representation of familiar things from unsuspected angles, under the new lights of the imagination, that we might see them with innocence of surprise.”
A Beginner’s Guide to Chesterton
With the massive amount of writing by Chesterton available, launching into his work can be intimidating. So, if you’re just beginning, here’s my advice:
Father Brown Mysteries
Start here. My first experience with Chesterton was reading—or maybe listening to—his Father Brown Mysteries, a series of stories for children about a quirky priest who doubles as his parish’s detective. These stories are easy to read and enjoyable.
The Man Who Was Thursday
In this brief novel, pretty much nothing is what it you think. Like with the mystery stories, you’ll enjoy reading The Man Who Was Thursday. While this humorous adventure borders on nightmarish absurdity, the short novel ultimately reflects on suffering. Some even suggest that it’s a christological interpretation of the Book of Job. The book provides an intriguing introduction to some key ideas in Chesterton’s thinking.
The Everlasting Man
Basically, this book is Chesterton’s answer to H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. And, in God’s providence, reading The Everlasting Man awoke fellow English writer, C.S. Lewis, to the Christian faith—and ultimately to the gospel of Christ. If for no other reason, read it for Lewis.
This is easily Chesterton’s most recognizable work, in which he details the history of his own thinking and how only orthodoxy (historic Christian teaching) answers life’s universal questions. Reading Orthodoxy, however, is not easy. To make it a bit more navigable, I suggest starting with the last chapter, then working through earlier chapters in order.