Gift guide: Books for the soul

Gifts for the spiritually minded

It's a glorious expedition to survey the spiritual landscape of this year's books for the soul, to pluck the ones with richest deepest resonance. Poets and scholars, a pundit and pope, all rise to the top.

Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte, Many Rivers, 247 pages, $22

Poet and philosopher David Whyte constructs an alternative dictionary of 52 words — an abecedarian that stretches from "alone" to "vulnerable" — and, in so doing, invites the reader to explore the depths of each entry, beyond the semantic surface, burrowing into the poetic and the profound. It's a form of prayerfulness, the meditative powers of contemplating a single word. Whyte takes us there in plainspeak, though his is a language that pulses with counterpoints of shadow and illumination. Surely, a certain road to soulfulness is paved with unexpected poetries and luminescence at every bend. Whyte takes you there by heart.

The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Volume 1 and 2, W.W. Norton, 4,448 pages, $100

Weighing in at 8.4 pounds, a whopping 4,448 pages, and tucked in a tidy two-volume book pack, this massive and monumental Norton Anthology, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jack Miles, holds inspiration for more than one lifetime. At heart, writes Miles, it's an invitation "to see others with a measure of openness, empathy, and good will. … In that capacity lies the foundation of human sympathy and cultural wisdom." With more than 1,000 primary texts — Volume 1 covers Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism; Volume 2, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — this is an instant classic.

The Road to Character by David Brooks, Random House, 320 pages, $28

Before diving into modern-day parables in the form of biographies — ranging from Augustine to George Eliot to Dwight Eisenhower to Dorothy Day — David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times and opinionator for this oft-imploding globe, pens as fine an exegesis on sin as has been written in recent times. Our sin: "self-satisfied moral mediocrity." It's in those character studies of some of history's greatest thinkers and leaders, 10 in all, that Brooks lays bare what it takes to cultivate deep moral character. And isn't a moral core, tested in everyday trials, our one best hope at an everlasting soul?

Map by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, HMH, 464 pages, $32

Here, for the first time, is the English translation of all of the poems of Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska's last Polish collection, including previously unpublished works. In all, "Map" gathers some 250 poems written between 1944 and 2011. While Szymborska, who died in 2012, focuses her attention on quotidian subjects — an onion, a cat — she plumbs them to probe life's big questions — love, death, and passing time. And while she might not be as widely read in America as poets Mary Oliver and Mark Strand, her words bore deep. She is poet serving as spiritual guide.

Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis, Melville House, 192 pages, $14.95

This breathtaking amalgam of urgency and poetry mines the spirit and appeals to the moral core. It's as essential a soul-stirring read as any recent manuscript. Billed as the pope's pontifications on the environment, it is in fact a sweeping letter addressing a spectrum of global sins. The Guardian termed it "the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years," bespeaking its relevance beyond the walls of the Roman Catholic Church.

In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World by Padraig O Tuama, Hodder & Stoughton, 192 pages, $23.95

This quiet book of contemplations by Belfast-based poet, theologian and peace worker Padraig O Tuama barely stirred a ripple in the marketplace of books, but where it counts — in the hearts of those blessed to turn its pages — it swiftly became a treasure. More deserve to be stirred by its deep currents. Putting to work poetry and gospel, side by side with story and Celtic spirituality, O Tuama explores ideas of shelter along life's journey, opening up gentle ways of living well in a troubled world. The reader can't help but be drawn in, slip-sliding into the harbor of the author's soulful words.

Barbara Mahany is the author of "Slowing Time." Twitter: @BarbaraMahany

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