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G. K. Chesterton: A Biography [Paperback]

Ian Ker
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 Dec 2012
G. K. Chesterton is remembered as a brilliant creator of nonsense and satirical verse, author of the Father Brown stories and the innovative novel, The Man who was Thursday, and yet today he is not counted among the major English novelists and poets. However, this major new biography argues that Chesterton should be seen as the successor of the great Victorian prose writers, Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin, and above all Newman.

Chesterton's achievement as one of the great English literary critics has not hitherto been fully recognized, perhaps because his best literary criticism is of prose rather than poetry. Ian Ker remedies this neglect, paying particular attention to Chesterton's writings on the Victorians, especially Dickens. As a social and political thinker, Chesterton is contrasted here with contemporary intellectuals like Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells in his championing of democracy and the masses. Pre-eminently a controversialist, as revealed in his prolific journalistic output, he became a formidable apologist for Christianity and Catholicism, as well as a powerful satirist of anti-Catholicism.

This full-length life of G. K. Chesterton is the first comprehensive biography of both the man and the writer. It draws on many unpublished letters and papers to evoke Chesterton's joyful humour, his humility and affinity to the common man, and his love of the ordinary things of life.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 784 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; Reprint edition (2 Dec 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199655766
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199655762
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 492,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Ian Kers magisterial new biographical of Chesterto nwill now do for Chesterton what his definitive biography of Newman did for hima major literary achievement. Nobody who has any interest in Chesterton can afford to be without Ian Kers book (William Oddie, The Catholic Herald)

This masterly biography has the potential to help establish Chesterton in what Ker regards as his rightful place as a major English author (Susan Elkin, The Independent on Sunday)

Ian Kers tremendous biography is an incitement to read Chesterton a fresh[it] confirms him as a great thinker (Christopher Howse, The Tablet)

A discriminating portrait that does welcome justice to the full richness of [Chestertons] hitherto undervalued work the need for a proper critical biography has long been acknowledged and Ker has supplied itfor any true understanding of the scope of Chestertons achievement Kers biography will be indispensable. (Edward Short, The Weekly Standard)

A brilliant towering biography (Gary Day, The Times Higher Educational Supplement)

Chesterton finally gets the big book he deserves a monumental study (Gerald J. Russello, The National Catholic Register)

Heroically researched.. an impressive book that conveys a powerful sense of [Chestertons] personality (Dj Taylor, The Independent)

magisterial a splendid book (James E. Peson Jr., Touchstone)

This full-length scholarly biography will be indispensable for decades (Richard Harries, The Church Times)

Professor Ker's spirited and double-barreled attempt at a rehabilitation of his cherished subject is enjoyable in its own right, and takes in such matters as Chesterton's dialectical genius for paradox, the authority of the Father Brown stories in the detective genre, and the salience of Charles Dickens in the English canonical one (Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic)

Magnificent (Irish Catholic)

Detailed and compelling (Chronicle of Higher Education)

... comprehensive biolography ... (The Lutheran)

Spirited and ... enjoyable (The Atlantic)

[This] terrific new biography.... gives us a portrait of the man in the full.... Any biography of this size is bound to have some elements of dry, encyclopedic chronology; but in Ker's book, they are far more the exception than the rule. On just about every page, one will find extended quotes from Chesterton, of the kind that display his personality and overall joie de vivre. The author made me rediscover my early love of Chesterton and his perspective on the world, and for that I am deeply grateful (Michael Potemra, National Review Online)

Ian Ker provides an account of the thought of Chesterton that surpasses, in its comprehensiveness, anything that has been previously written about him (Bernard Manzo, Times Literary Supplement)

Handles a complex subject with admirable lucidity. Mastering Chesterton's output is a heroic feat in itself (Peter Washington, Literary Review)

Full of colossal wit, wisdom, and common sense...that is this magnificent book (Catholic Times)

There are many fine things in Kers biography. Surely the best is found in his constant stress on the link between the comic and the serious in Chesterton. (Ralph C Wood, Seven)

This is a brilliant biography for a brilliant man. (Times Higher Education)

Rewarding biography (Tribune)

Superb...absorbing (Piers Paul Read, Standpoint)

Reveals valuable new information (The Times)

Magisterial (Matthew D'Ancona, Sunday Telegraph)

[A] masterful biography. Ker... has now become the most important source we have for understanding the master of paradox [Chesterton]... Ker's biography is essential, a labor of love to be sure (America)

A big man, physically and intellectually, British Catholic author Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) finally gets the big book he deserves.... a monumental study (National Catholic Register)

Ker is supremely capable of locating Chesterton's thought amid that of his contemporaries as well as evaluating it critically. . . . What his biography adds is a judicious critical eye that will help make the case that Chesterton is bigger than the keepers of culture have allowed (National Review)

There are some genuinely good books on Chesterton. . . But the need for a proper critical biography has long been acknowledged, and Ker has supplied it. Now, and for the foreseeable future, for any true understanding of the scope of G.K. Chesterton's achievement, which captures not only the sage but the good, gentle, generous man, Ker's biography will be indispensable. (The Weekly Standard)

For the sheer life-affirming, joyful Chesterton constantly bursts through the relentless narrative and there is much to discover as well as much to enjoy in the corpulence of this book (Recusant History)

Ker's biography is indispensable for anyone who admires Chesterton's work and is interested in his life. (Commonweal)

This biography is a necessity for any student of Chesterton (Towers)

Ker has produced one of those rare biographies that is full of detailed information and personal anecdotes while never losing the author's original goal. We cannot recommend this volume too highly (The Master's Seminary Journal)

Make the case that Chesterton is bigger than the keepers of culture have allowed (National Review)

About the Author

Ian Ker has taught both English literature and theology in universities in the United States and Britain, where he currently teaches in the Oxford theology faculty. He is the author and editor of more than twenty books on Newman, including John Henry Newman: A Biography (1988), as well as the author of The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961 (2003).

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When fishes flew and forests walked ... 2 Sep 2011
If like me you only knew Chesterton from the poem,"The Donkey" and the novel, "The Man Who Was Thursday", then read on. This biography concentrates on Chesterton's non-fiction output, and quotes constantly from it. The text is a very accomplished stringing together of Chesterton's own words and although this takes a while to get used to, once you do become accustomed to it, the experience of reading this book is a fascinating one. "G K Chesterton: A Biography" is best read slowly and savoured a little at a time.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars masterpiece 24 July 2013
By J. Sale
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It’s strange how things change; one minute you think you are on solid ground, and the next it’s quicksand. Such is literary – not to mention artistic, sociological, political, philosophical and theological – fashion. On the literary front there has been a humanist conspiracy for years promoting tedious modernist and post-modernist texts that nobody wants to read, but everyone thinks they should. Ultimately, the cultural hypnotism is so strong one even begins to believe that the texts have merit. But as Dr Johnson observed, ‘Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature’.

I remember myself in the Seventies doing a degree in English Literature and having to deal with all these ‘serious’ writers and ‘serious’ texts – I can hardly remember one of them now. But I can remember that the idea that you’d study a writer like Tolkien was inconceivable – that was low-brow, populist fiction. And anyway, it was plain silly, hobbits and all. Wasn’t it?

What did they know, those academics?

There have in the last year been two brilliant biographies published which represent part of an increasing and welcome trend to correct this injustice and to begin to see a core of major English writers of the twentieth century for what they are: major writers. I refer to Ian Ker’s magisterial biography of GK Chesterton and Alister McGrath’s absorbing Life of CS Lewis. You will doubtless note, of course, both are Christians and overtly Christian apologists.

This requires a slight detour before considering the books themselves. It is not because they are Christians per se that these two are such great writers; it is because of their depth of perception – their insight – combined with their pungent and stylistic elegance.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An antidote to the modern world 15 Jun 2012
By Nobby
This biography on Chesterton is one of the very best. Very instructive. It is like an antidote against modern day brainwashing. A must read if ever there was one. Absolutely essential.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Detailed and well written 14 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An invaluable guide to understanding more about the great man and the things that shaped his life and his writings...
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Encyclopedic 30 Sep 2012
By James G. Bruen Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
Ian Ker's written an encyclopedic biography of G.K. Chesterton, and therein lies both its strength and its weakness.

The book is extensively and exhaustively researched, easily the most factually thorough biography of Chesterton. Ker throws everything at the reader, sometimes entertainingly and insightfully but at other times the book drags and Ker doesn't distinguish between the forest and the trees such that, for example, the reader almost expects the extended recitation of which towns Chesterton visited on which days to be supplemented by recitation of the daily fare on the menus of the inns, restaurants, and hotels he visited.

Ker painstakingly and seemingly gleefully corrects factual, interpretative, and transcription errors in prior biographys of Chesterton, so it's a bit jarring to see him give erroneous titles to some Chesterton works and render names incorrectly (e.g. George MacDonald's name is sometimes rendered as McDonald).

Most strikingly, Ker quotes from correspondence from George Bernard Shaw concerning the possibility of Shaw reviewing GKC's Irish Impressions in The Irish Statesman: "Shaw wrote to say that it was 'too late' as a printers' strike had meant that the 'first number had to be sent in long ago so as to leave time for setting it up by hand.'" Ker then comments: "Posterity may be entitled to bear those striking printers a grudge for preventing Shaw from reviewing Chesterton on his native land." (p. 398) Posterity need not hold a grudge, however. Shaw did review Chesterton's Irish Impressions in The Irish Statesman. That review is reprinted in G. K. Chesterton: The critical judgments (Antwerp studies in English literature), a book Ker lists among those he consulted.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book, fantastic subject, with one reservation... 12 Feb 2012
By Benjamin R Marsh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This biography is thoroughly researched and well-written. The author's purpose - promoting Chesterton to a more respectable literary rank than he currently holds in public opinion - finds sufficient support throughout the work. No Chesterton fan or fan of literature in general should skip this one.

I have but one reservation. The author relied so heavily on in-line quotations that I thought the world would run short of quotation marks by the middle of the second chapter. I wish the author has trusted his readers to read Chesterton's works for themselves rather than stuff the book with so many words from the man's works (especially his autobiography). Mr. Ker even notes his extensive usage of quotations in the introduction, as though he knew he used more than he ought.

This may seem like a minor quibble but for fans of reading quickly, the appearance of so many punctuation marks is off-putting. (There is a reason James Joyce hated them!)
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine Work 27 May 2013
By Gregory - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
I prefer to avoid big books -- an aversion which I picked up when I tried to swallow Grant's Memoirs some years ago. So although I'm a Chesterton fan, I picked up this 729-page book with some trepidation. But I found that good things sometime come in big packages -- like this book and its subject. Ker writes well; the material is lively and well organized. I thought I knew everything about GKC -- or at least everything important. But Ker introduced me to features of the Chestertonian landscape which were either new to me or had been hitherto under-appreciated. Unlike some books about saintly people, this one is not sentimentally fawning. But it is sympathetic -- Ker recognizes sanctity and he recognizes genius, both of which reside in the great Gilbert G. Chesterton.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Halfway through... 4 Jan 2013
By Canuck Monk - Published on Amazon.com
I admit, I have not yet finished reading this massive biography of this massive writer. However, though I am only halfway through, I feel as if I can still offer an adequate review.

Ian Ker's new biography of G.K. Chesterton is a thorough record and exploration of the life of work of this exceptional Catholic writer. Many Christians today know C.S. Lewis as a brilliant apologist and storyteller but Chesterton (whose book "The Everlasting Man" helped lead Lewis back to faith) was just as good. With this scholarly biography of Chesterton now available, hopefully there will be a resurgence of interest in Chesterton.

Ker offers a detailed recording of Chesterton's life, recounting his childhood, his education and his conversion to Christianity as a young man and his entrance into the Catholic Church in particular later in his life. I have only yet arrived at the chapter on his conversion to Catholicism. Ker also writes about his trips abroad to the Holy Land and to the United States. Several key events in Chesterton's life, like the Marconi scandal, the First World War and the death of his younger brother are also recorded, along with Chesterton's rise in English society and his relationships with his contemporaries such as George Bernard Shaw and Hilaire Belloc. A few of the chapters focus exclusively around Chesterton's work, such as "Orthodoxy" and "The Everlasting Man"; here, Ker quotes extensively from Chesterton's work, demonstrating how Chesterton viewed the world and offering analysis of Chesterton's thought. Spread sporadically throughout the book is commentary and engagement with Chesterton's minor works such as "What's Wrong With The World" (which is one of my favourite GKC books).

I rate this biography 4/5 for several reasons. As a previous reviewer noted, Ker relies heavily on Chesterton's own words to tell his own life story. This is not inherently bad in my opinion because Chesterton was a clever and witty writer, but unfortunately Ker does not share Chesterton's knack with words. There are many humdrum pages that can be a bit stifling. As well (and this is a paradox Chesterton may appreciate) the book is both too short and too long. It is too short because fans of Chesterton will always want to know more about him and they will want to devour all his work; on the other hand, this enormous biography will only appeal to the most devoted of Chesterton's fans as Ker goes into excruciatingly fine detail about Chesterton's life (e.g. "On November 13 Chesterton and Frances caught the 9 am train that took them to ______. There they met their friends ______."). Casual fans of Chesterton should perhaps try a leaner biography such as Joseph Pearce's or Kevin Belmonte's biography of Chesterton. Also, due to the length of the biography, I was often frustrated with how little breakage there was in the book. Ker subdivides the chapters into sections but sometimes these sections can stretch to dozens of pages which makes it frustrating if you only want to read a few pages in your spare time.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great even for new readers of Chesterton 29 July 2012
By F. Vogel - Published on Amazon.com
An excellent biography of an excellent man. More than a great mind, Chesterton was a defender of justice, big-hearted, master of humor and fun, king of imagination, and a prophet of the modern age. I can't believe he's not more popular than he is nowadays.

This biography really captures all these sides (a better word is "overflowings") of Chesterton. It's amazingly well-researched and carefully annotated, not only in biographical information but also in Chesterton's writings, as the author gives summaries/overviews of most of Chesterton's books. Clearly, a LOT of work went into this biography.

Fans of Chesterton obviously should read it, but I'd also recommend it to anyone who:
1. Wants to get into Chesterton but doesn't know where to start. Best to read the biography second, after As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Reader. I myself am quite new to Chesterton, and I've gotten to know him mainly through these two books.
2. Wants to learn more about 19th and early 20th century history, literature, philosophy, politics, religious debate... Chesterton wrote about (and was directly involved in) all these, and his writings are still very relevant today. Christian readers particularly will find his views on Catholicism (prominent in this biography, as they were in his life) very thought-provoking.

Highly, highly recommended!
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