Book Review: In Defense of Sanity

11992607Calling G.K. Chesterton a prolific writer is the sort of understatement best left to men like Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who summed up his survival of the sinking of the Titanic with the words, “It was rather a serious evening, you know.” Do tell, old chap.

In addition to some eighty books, several hundred poems and short stories, not to mention a handful of plays, this happy intellectual behemoth (Chesterton, not Gordon) also wrote over five thousand – yes, 5,000 – essays.

Frankly, the thought of five thousand Chesterton essays floating around gives me a thrill like nothing else. Others may simply find it overwhelming. But whether this knowledge leaves you thrilled, overwhelmed, thrillingly overwhelmed, or overwhelmingly thrilled, there is a book that very much ought to be on your shelf: In Defense of Sanity.

This book (thoughtfully put together by Chesterton aficionados Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey) offers sixty seven of GKC’s finest essays in one single, sterling, stimulating, and downright smashing volume. I loved it.

Of course, if you think the way I do, your first reaction to the whole affair might be one of incredulity: how, you ask, do these three gentlemen propose to pass off this particular collection as the “best”? Who do they think they are? Fear not, I say, for Mr. Ahlquist anticipates your question. From the Introduction:

And who do we think we are calling any collection of Chesterton essays the “best”? The prospect of putting such a collection together seemed not just presumptuous, but impossible. Nonetheless, I agreed to participate in putting this volume together, especially since it was obvious that my presence on the committee would be necessary to balance those two Englishman. So I arranged their choices along with mine and did what good editors do, which is nothing. Thus we have a pure dose of Chesterton the Master Essayist. But no matter how large the book, any such collection will leave out shining literary gems, essays that are not merely outstanding, but perfect. Perfect, I say. How could a perfect essay not be included among the “best”? But I assure you we left several perfect essays out. And yet, here we are, trying to pass this collection off as The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton.

We begin with the first essay of Chesterton’s first book, and we end with the last essay of his last book… Most of these essays are from previously compiled collections; however, a few of them are collected here for the first time. Two of the essays are not really essays but are transcripts of talks given by Chesterton. Why are they included? Because, as Chesterton’s wife and others attested, he talked just like he wrote.

Devoted Chesternuts and fresh-eyed converts will alike find much to savor here, and the variety of topics (even in so relatively small a collection as this) is intoxicating: we’ve got scribbles here about barbarians, architects, marriage, gargoyles, Jane Austen, poetry, sex, medievalism, Charles Dickens, and cheese – and that’s but a scratch on the surface. Rather than try to express my appreciation for each and every essay, I’ll just tip my hat to a few favorites.

  • “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” – I don’t mind admitting that this one actually brought tears to my eyes. It is one of the most beautiful, poignantly-written things I have ever had the joy of reading.
  • “On Lying in Bed” – A sublime example of Chesterton’s ability to start with the seemingly absurd and mold it into the utterly profound.
  • “Turning Inside Out” & “The Drift from Domesticity” – Both sang the praises of home and family life with such conviction I felt like cheering.
  • “On Jane Austen in the General Election” – When one of my favorite writers writes an essay defending another one of my favorite writers, my day has been made.
  • “Babies and Distributism” – A staggering polemic against the propaganda of birth-control. Chesterton in Blitzkrieg-mode.
  • “Two Stubborn Pieces of Iron” – In which GKC weighs in on the co-education of the sexes and states properly “the strong argument in favor of marrying for love.”

Strange as it may sound, there was, in fact, an essay which I did not care for. This essay was “Mary Queen of Scots.” I found Chesterton’s line of reasoning here to be far weaker than usual; and I still do not feel the sympathy for Mary that he obviously wished me to feel. It is not that he didn’t score some excellent points, but his case as a whole was less convincing than his cases generally are.

In the Foreword, Aidan Mackey writes that “if you, reader of this volume, are fortunate enough to have contact with young readers of our own day, do, I implore you, introduce them to the essay form – and there is no better place to start than with G.K. Chesterton.”

Yes and amen. It is my humble but assured conviction that you have not truly experienced the essay until you have experienced the essay as done by Mr. Chesterton.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: In Defense of Sanity”

  1. Having recently read “The Everlasting Man” I am more appreciative of Chesterton than ever. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for this book as well. I cannot help but be curious about your reaction to Chesterton’s thoughts on Calvinism. Surely you encountered his position while reading “Orthodoxy”, if not in other places. I would not presume to take every word of his as gospel of course, but if I were Calvinist I would be hesitant to recommend him without a disclaimer, especially considering the influence and effectiveness of his writing. Admittedly I’m somewhat confused by your advocacy of Chesterton (although I obviously encourage it in general).

    I for one am challenged by his conversion to Catholicism. Because I have so much respect for Chesterton, I cannot simply shrug it off.

    What if he was right in the most important aspect of all: his personal faith? Here’s a link to an essay in which he gives an explanation:

    http://www.chesterton.org/discover-chesterton/selected-works/the-theologian/why-i-am-a-catholic/

    Serious stuff indeed.

    -Ben

    1. Thanks for the link. Chesterton’s conversions to Roman Catholicism has always troubled me, too, so I’m looking forward to reading his explanation – not to agree with him, but to get a clearer picture of “why”.

      Chesterton’s potshots at Calvinism (in Orthodoxy and other places) I am well aware of; and though I disagree with them (strongly), they do not they cause me much theological pain because they are just that – potshots. :) He jabs at it, he sneers at it, but I’d hardly call that serious engagement. Calvinists who know why they are Calvinists will not be jarred out of their position by Chesterton’s remonstrations.

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