I’m a huge GKC fan, and have read quite a bit of his work. He was a brilliant thinker, a delightful writer, and an indefatigable defender of the common man. He had a rapier wit and was always willing to take on the anti-Christian forces of his day – but one of the things I admire most about him was the winsomeness with which he did it. Many of his staunchest opponents (such as G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells) also admired him and considered him a friend. He embodied the injunction to be “wise as a serpent, and harmless as a dove”. We need more of his ilk in our world today.
As for accusations of anti-Semitism and racism… Well, those are slippery terms these days, and easy to run afoul of (especially if you live in a different century and don’t have the opportunity to explain yourself to unread moderns). However, I don’t find him guilty of either – “product of his times” or not. Based on my reading of him, GKC had no time for the idea of “race” itself, let alone hate anybody of a different one. (I’m not sure he hated anyone.) I think he found notions of racial superiority (or inferiority) to be ludicrous. (I can’t find the quote now, but somewhere he mocks the Nazis because there’s no such thing as a pure race in Europe…) Yes, he played fast and loose with stereotypes and generalizations (and language) that today would be considered unacceptable, but there was no malice or ill-intent: GKC generalized everybody, be they Jewish, Irish, Italian, American, French, Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, atheist, or whatever. His broad brush painted everyone at some point or other, and to criticize him for it is like criticizing an Impressionist for his lack of accuracy – an adventure in “missing the point”.
I think the thing that gets GKC in trouble the most with modern readers is that I don’t think he was much of a fan of pluralism. Or, rather, I think he didn’t believe a society could cohere without a shared ground of truth and virtue. In What’s Wrong with the World, he says that what’s wrong with the world is that we do not ask what is right. A society that does not agree on the most fundamental truths about the nature of man cannot hold together. In his time, he perceived fault lines between Jewish communities and the (at least nominally) Christian European nations in which they lived. Some called have that “anti-Semitism”, but GKC was simply observing a very real tension… one which came to a bloody fruition shortly after his death. For GKC, loyalty to place and home were an essential part of human life, and those were bound up with faith and tradition. People of different faiths or worldviews can cooperate up to a point – but ultimately over the most important questions peace will break down. When I see the state of our nation today, I have to admit he seems to be right.
As for books of his to read… The Everlasting Man is a brilliant tour de force. I dearly love Orthodoxy, although many people find his rather non-linear style to be off-putting. The Everlasting Man, on the other hand, is probably the closest thing to an extended linear argument GKC ever makes. What’s Wrong with the World is a classic, and Eugenics should put to bed notions of racism in GKC. Biologos readers should keep in mind that when GKC talks about evolution, it’s almost always in the context of the way the eugenicist scientists of his day were employing it. He wasn’t a scientist and didn’t have a grasp of the evidence for evolution. But he was the mortal enemy of the eugenicists who wielded Darwin like a sword. Tremendous Trifles is a collection of whimsical short essays, and is often what I recommend to someone first coming to GKC. Chesterton was a journalist, and the short essay/article is a form he mastered. For economics, read The Outline of Sanity. If you enjoyed The Ball and the Cross, you might like Manalive and The Flying Inn. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is also good fun. But with GKC’s long fiction, I find he tends to rush endings.
This was a bit long-winded, but GKC is one of my favorite subjects!