I think we could all stand a fun post, couldn’t we?
A reader asked for my thoughts about which Dante books would be good to receive (or give?) for Christmas. An excellent thought!
Let’s start with translations. My favorite translation is the Robert & Jean Hollander, available in three separate volumes (here’s a link to Inferno ). The thing about the Hollanders’ translation is that the notes are exhaustive, almost overwhelming. For newbies, a better choice might be the Mark Musa translation (Inferno  here), given that his notes are far more accessible to the layman. If you go with Musa, be careful not to buy The Portable Dante. It has his complete translation, but with almost all the notes taken out. You really need the notes. Anthony Esolen’s translation is also good (Inferno here ), and his notes are exceptional. I’ve seen the Durling/Martinez translation , and it’s fantastic. I don’t own it, but it is the next translation I want to acquire.
I would not recommend the John Ciardi or Dorothy Sayers translations.
I’ve linked in all the cases above to the Inferno, which is of course the first of the trilogy. I strongly urge you not to buy only the Inferno. You can’t really understand Dante’s message at all if you stop there.
What about books about Dante? Let me suggest that you start not with a book, but with an audio course: Bill Cook and Ron Herzman’s Great Courses lectures on the Commedia.  They aren’t cheap, but they are a fantastic investment. Nothing I read or listened to during my Dante studies better helped me understand the material as a newcomer. I have them all on my iPhone, and listen to them over and over, even still.
In print, you can hardly do better than Prue Shaw’s Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity.  It’s a marvelous general introduction to Dante’s life and thought. I wish it had had more about religious faith, but this book is so rich I recommend it without hesitation. A friend gave me a copy of A.N. Wilson’s biography, Dante In Love , which I also recommend, though it’s not easy to find. I could make a whole list of Dante-related books, but I’ll stop there for now. These are the ones I suggest to newcomers.
What other books? Well, let me remind you that The Little Way of Ruthie Leming is available in paperback, and back on Amazon.com , though as ever, I prefer that you buy it through your local bookstore. Don’t forget Barnes & Noble’s website , which carried it when Amazon would not. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know the story of Little Way. I recommend it as a gift for a special teacher, given that much of it concerns the impact Ruthie had on her students. It is also a memoir with special relevance to people who like to think about small towns and community, as well as those struggling with cancer, either themselves or in their families. And of course if your intended gift-receiver likes the South, this is a good book for them. Also, though this is not a “Christian” book per se, the theme of faith as a source of strength through dark times runs strong in the book.
Finally, and maybe perversely, this is a book to give to your son or daughter who lives far away, and whom you would like to move closer. I’ve had more than a few readers tell me that they chose to move to their hometowns after reading it, to raise their kids around their grandparents and extended families. Julie and I hosted a new friend on her way back to the East Coast from California; she moved in part because Little Way helped her see the value of the family she left behind, and the life they could offer her. I love stories like that, and love that my book played a role in family reconciliation.
Oh, one more: I am giving this year a book I discovered this summer, and absolutely loved: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his 1934 walk across Europe, A Time of Gifts.  It is the best travel book I have ever read, hands down. The writing is so gorgeous that you can’t read it in one sitting, though you’re tempted to. It’s best savored one small bit at a time. There’s a part two and three as well.
Dang it, I can’t stop without mentioning this book for the foodie and/or Francophile on your list: A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris.  It’s a collection of Liebling’s journalism, recollecting good eats in the best food city in the world. Many people don’t know this book, so there’s a good chance your foodie/Francophile does not have it. It’s unforgettable, and an absolute delight. Warning: it will make you want to catch the next flight to Charles de Gaulle.
OK, that’s my list. Yours?