I am currently re-reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, perhaps his best work of fiction. I came to it first some forty years ago, and since then have read it two or three times. After going through all the Chesterton volumes at the Santa Monica Public Library—that took all of ten years—I decided to start collecting his work. At the outset, there weren’t many works in print. Fortunately, Ignatius Press of San Francisco started coming out with an edition of his Collected Works. To date, I have all the volumes that have been released so far: I say “so far” because they are still dribbling out at a rate of one or two a year.
Currently, all of Chesterton’s major works are in print, sometimes in multiple editions. It is only in some of the more abstruse titles such as GKC as MC, The Victorian Age in Literature, Sidelights of New London and Newer York, and William Cobbett that require some digging around. But Gutenberg.Com has full texts of more than forty of his works, including fiction, plays, essays, journalism, and poetry. (Click here and scroll about 40% of the way down.)
It isn’t easy to compile the complete works of someone who was so prolific as GKC. His short pieces appear in newspapers and magazines from all over the English-speaking world, many in publications which no longer exist. Fortunately, most of his books are still around. In fact, I would have been delighted (and bankrupted) if such were the case in 1986. I regularly scour the listings in eBay, but only once or twice a year can a find a title I don’t have on my shelves in some form.
In addition, Chesterton is also widely available cheap or free for readers of Kindles and other e-books.
Before I go any further, let me answer one question that might be hovering at the back of your mind if you’ve gotten this far: What is the point of reading Chesterton at all? I mean, didn’t he convert to Catholicism and write a whole lot of religious books?
Yes, he did—among scores of books not relating to religious subjects—despite the fact that the Catholic Church is considering canonizing him as a saint. Having read widely in both his religious and secular works, I think they are equally of value. His biographies of Saints Francis and Thomas Aquinas are well worth a read, as well as The Everlasting Man. He is probably most famous for the Father Brown stories, in which the hero/detective is a Catholic priest. Although his Catholicism certainly enters into the stories, it is not in an obtrusive way. (There is also an excellent 1954 British comedy called The Detective, starring Alec Guinness as Father Brown.)
What I like most about Chesterton is the way he exorcised his own demons, and he had a few. The early years of the Twentieth Century were an anxious time in Europe, with a nasty arms race between Britain and Germany, and the prospect of a war looming in the near horizon. At the same time, it was the high water mark of both anarchism and international socialism. And that was not to mention any personal demons lurking in the writer’s heart. GKC faced his demons with optimism, humor, and style. He did it so successfully that even today I will read an obscure Chesterton if I am feeling down in the dumps. In his own way, he is much like P. G. Wodehouse in that regard—but that is another story.