The best books on the power of conscience

Mark Goldblatt Author Of Twerp
By Mark Goldblatt

Who am I?

When I’m not writing novels, I’m a college professor. Two of the courses I teach are religious history lectures: the Old and New Testaments in the History of Ideas, and Religion and Dissent in American History. The books I write tend to be shot through with religious themes—notably the formation of conscience in children and the struggle with conscience in adults. There is a very old tradition in Judeo-Christian thought which sees the purpose of life as soul-forging; the essence of who you are emerges through the many trials of being alive. Conscience is the site of that struggle.

I wrote...


By Mark Goldblatt,

Book cover of Twerp

What is my book about?

Julian Twerski isn't a bully. He's just made a bad mistake. So when he returns to school after a weeklong suspension, his English teacher offers him a deal: if he writes about the cause of his suspension, he can skip an assignment on Shakespeare. Julian jumps at the chance…but doesn’t write about the incident. Instead, he writes about everything else going on in his life: exploding homemade fireworks, writing a love letter for his best friend, and worrying whether he's still the fastest kid in the sixth grade. Lurking in the background, though, is the one story he can't bring himself to tell, the story his teacher needs to hear.

The books I picked & why

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By Mark Twain,

Book cover of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Why this book?

The novelist Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…. There has been nothing as good since.” This was the novel that convinced me that a “children’s book” can also be an adult book. Jim is a runaway slave. He’s also Huck’s best friend. The law says that Huck shouldn’t help Jim escape. But there is a law written in Huck’s heart that tells him he must help him. What happens when the two laws—the written-down law and the law of the heart—conflict? That’s what Huck has to figure out. He’s thirteen years old. But in deciding between what’s legal and what’s moral, Huck becomes the conscience of a nation.

Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of Great Expectations

Why this book?

Pip, the narrator of Great Expectations, is one of the great conscience-torn protagonists in literature. He ages in the novel from a (roughly) seven-year-old boy to a young man, and he matures in the course of events from valuing the shiniest objects and people in his orbit to appreciating honesty, generosity, and love—even when they are found in the least outwardly attractive characters. What I like best about the book is that when Pip does eventually center his moral compass, when he tries to do the right thing, he does not arrive at a happily-ever-after. Doing the right thing is a reward in itself. 

The Catcher in the Rye

By J.D. Salinger,

Book cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Why this book?

The Catcher in the Rye is a tough call. It’s a great book, but not always a likable one. The teenagers who populate it are deeply flawed, none more so than the narrator, Holden Caufield. Holden is suffering from depression, anxiety, and plain old boredom. He wants to save someone…anyone. Except he’s a pain in the butt to everyone around him. But that voice! Is there a more arresting opening to any novel? “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Paper Moon

By Joe David Brown,

Book cover of Paper Moon: A Novel

Why this book?

I didn’t even know a novel called Paper Moon existed until I saw the movie; the fact that the book’s title was changed retroactively underscores how much the 1973 film starring Tatum and Ryan O’Neal has overshadowed it. Set in the American south during the Great Depression, the plot follows the misadventures of nine-year-old orphan Addie Pray and a con-man nicknamed Long Boy—who may or may not be Addie’s biological father. Her desire to connect with Long Boy means getting drawn into his petty swindles and confidence schemes, helping him cheat people at a time when many of them are hard up for money. Addie knows what she’s doing is wrong. She’s guilt-ridden about it. But Long Boy is family. Maybe.

The Screwtape Letters

By C.S. Lewis,

Book cover of The Screwtape Letters

Why this book?

I’m not even sure what to call The Screwtape Letters. It’s fantasy, but it’s not exactly fiction. It’s philosophy, but there’s no rigorous analysis—in fact, you can’t trust a word out of the narrator’s mouth. But is Screwtape really a narrator? He’s telling a story, sort of, but he’s telling our story, humanity’s story, and therefore the reader’s story, not his own. He’s a demon; that much we know. He’s advising his demon nephew Wormwood on the best ways to ruin a human soul. His project is our mortal peril. Screwtape is one of the greatest characters in twentieth-century literature: funny, petty, prickly, annoying, and wise almost beyond words. He’s irresistible. That’s the problem.

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