Higher Education Books I Would Re-Read

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I work in collegiate ministry, particularly relating to grad students, faculty and administrators. That has resulted in a passion to understand the place where I and these people work. What is the history of these institutions? Why do they exist and toward what end? How do they work? And as a Christian engaged in ministry in this setting, what does religious faith have to do with the enterprise of higher education. Here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful that I turn to again and again.

Michael Bérubé, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts. One of the early defenses of the classic idea of the liberal arts in the face of increasing questions about both their usefulness, and attacks on political correctness. He addresses “liberal bias” and discusses what’s right about the liberal arts.

Robert Boyers, The Tyranny of Virtue. A more recent book also holding up the classic view of the liberal arts against the virtue signalling, cancel culture becoming more prominent in university life. This book addresses what’s wrong with the liberal arts and why the death of these programs is at least in part, self-inflicted.

Andrew Delbanco, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. This is a concisely present history of universities, an overview of what they are today, and Delbanco’s idea of what they should be as places that educate for citizenship and prepare people for useful work and a life of meaning.

Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul. Since 2008 when this book came out, Donna Freitas has been writing about campus sexuality, and the connection between sexuality and spirituality. In this book she studied four kinds of campuses including conservative evangelical campuses and how religious beliefs shaped sexual ethics and practices of students.

Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of the Universities. I read this in college, and it is a good basic account of the rise of colleges out the cathedral schools of Europe.

Anthony T. Kronmen, Education’s End. The title is something of a play on words, dealing both with the purpose and the demise of higher education. Kronmen provocatively questions why universities have given up on the big questions, like the meaning of life.

George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University. More than just a study of the history of the American university, he looks at how the place of religious faith shifted from the center to the margins as universities moved from church-centered schools to public and pluralistic research universities.

Paul H. Mattingly, American Academic Cultures. Covers similar ground to Marsden but looks at the history as one of seven overlapping academic cultures, featuring a prominent campus example of each.

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University. A classic, from his lectures as Rector of the University of Ireland, in which he discusses the unity of knowledge, the relation of faith to free inquiry, and the relationship between the church and the academy.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Shalom. A collection of essays relating faith and the educational enterprise where the author’s concerns for shalom, justice, academic freedom, and how a Christian world and life view works itself out in various academic disciplines.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Religion in the University. Unlike the earlier book, written in the context of a Christian college, this work was written during the author’s tenure at Yale. He makes a compelling argument for the rightful place of religious voices in academic discourse.

As with other installments in this”books I would re-read” series, these are not the only books worthy of such a list. There are others on my shelves I haven’t read once that probably should be here. Universities are vitally important cultural institutions, both in educating the next generation and in conducting cutting edge research to enhance in various ways our flourishing as human beings. These are some of the books that have helped me understand that world.



Spiritual Formation Books I Would Read Again

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The idea of spiritual formation is that the spiritual life is not a static experience but a project of growth. Formation literally suggests the shaping of our lives, our characters, our affections to reflect who or what we consider the ultimate. As you know, I write as a Christian, so the books I share here reflect what it means to follow and be formed in Christ. They are books I have found helpful in my own spiritual progress, and would visit again (and have in some cases).

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat. A wonderful guide to answer the invitation of Jesus to “come with me.” I’ve appreciated a number of works by this author but this is one I pull out whenever I plan a retreat.

Carmen Butcher (tr.), The Cloud of Unknowing. Butcher’s translation of this classic work sings. The author is unknown but leads us into the richness of contemplative prayer.

Michael Card, Inexpressible. The whole book is a study and meditation on one rich Bible word, hesed, referring to the covenant-keeping, lovingkindness of God.

Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life. Ford follows the practice of praying the hours to help us discover what it means to pay attention to God’s work throughout our days and all around us.

Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening. This was the first book that drew me to rather than repelled me from spiritual direction. Guenther is so unpretentious about the whole thing.

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal. The parable of the prodigal is such a profound story, and Nouwen’s use of Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal takes us deeply into this story and what it means for our lives.

Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles. The subtitle of this book is “The shape of pastoral integrity.” While I am not a church pastor, this book challenged me with suggesting that such integrity functions within a triangle of prayer, the reading of scripture, and the work of spiritual direction. He beckons away from the siren calls of charisma and technique.

Gordon T. Smith, Teach Us to Pray. A guide to prayer using our Lord’s prayer, taking us through three movements, of thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren connects the extraordinary things we pray in our churches on Sunday with the ordinary events of our domestic daily lives.

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Willard’s focus is less on the disciplines themselves that what is behind them, why we practice them. He contends:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” 

Nearly all of these writers have written other things, and I could have easily substituted other works. If you find one of these who is a good guide to you, keep reading their works. Above all, I think all of them would direct you to the ultimate formation book, perhaps obvious, but often neglected–The Bible.

Theology I Would Re-read


Theology books I would re-read. Photo © Bob Trube, 2020. 

I read quite a few theology books, which may be odd for some. All I can say is that if one believes, according to the Westminster Confession that “the chief end of human beings (“man” in the generic form) is to worship God and enjoy Him forever,” then it seems a worthy form of reading to explore the excellency of God, and how we might joyfully relate to this God. No offense if you see things differently, though the question of “chief end” is one we all must answer. Here is some of the theology, I would re-read. In fact, some of these I have re-read.

Garwood Anderson, Paul’s New Perspective. There has been much discussion of the “new perspective” on Paul. This careful study of Paul’s writings explores the possibility of development in Paul’s understanding, offering warrant for both “traditional” and “new” perspectives.

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.  One of the best summers I ever spent including working through these two volumes, marveling at one who loved God so deeply and reasoned so carefully.

Daniel L. Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God. This is the best book I’ve read on the troubling Old Testament passages that connect Israel’s violence with God. Hawk allows for the disturbing complexity of the biblical witness that explores the messiness of God who is both in but not of the ancient Near Eastern world of Israel.

Matthew Levering, Dying and the Virtues. A probing exploration of the biblical virtues by which we live–and die. He revives the ancient pastoral conversation on what it means to make a good end to our lives.

J. I. Packer, Knowing God. No single book played a greater role in opening my eyes to the greatness of God and the joy of knowing Him. This was one to be read a few pages at a time. I’ve done so several times.

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity. The shortest book in the collection, but no less rich in its insights into the mystery of the Triune nature of God.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion. I spent Lent last year reading this work, leaving me in wonder at the death of the Son of God.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith challenges the notion that all we need to do is get people to believe the right things. His theology of what it means to be human is to be desiring creatures, and that we believe what we practice, that “thick” practices shape our spiritual affections.

John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ. For many years, I was part of a reading group called the Dead Theologians Society. After reading this work together, one of our participants remarked that this was the best book we had read (in a group that had read Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and many others). Stott, with his typical clarity of expression and insight, sets forth the work of the cross, and his defense of substitution, not so popular nowadays, with depth and concision.

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. This is an absolutely magnificent study of the idea of the resurrection in “second temple” Judaism and the surrounding culture, and the evidences for the physical resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things all these works have in common is that they are works of conviction, that pulse with the passion for God of the authors, that elevates them from our image of theology as a dry and dusty discipline. There are many others that I could have added and I’d love to hear of those you would re-read. It’s just possible that I might choose to read them for the first time. I always love a book recommendation that says, “I would read it again.” In the area of theology, that tells me that the author has moved beyond the commonplace nostrums to a personal knowledge of the God of whom they write.


History I Would Re-read


Some of the history I would re-read. Photo © Bob Trube, 2020.

Until college, I thought history was just one dull fact after another. Then I had several history professors (not even my major) who made history alive, by weaving the facts into a story, connecting cultural forces, people, and events into a narrative that both made sense of the times, and helped make sense of how we got to our own time in history. Since then, I’ve been hooked on reading history. In fact, I couldn’t keep this list to ten (and could easily add to it).

Steven Ambrose, Undaunted Courage. Reading the account of the journeys of Lewis and Clark gives one an appreciation for the amazing accomplishment and improbable accomplishment of their explorations.

Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. As imperialist and colonialist as this is, Churchill offers a magnificent narrative from the beginnings of Britain through the age of exploration to the revolutionary age and the modern global spread of English-speaking peoples. Not only could Churchill speak, but also he wrote well, and made his living off his writing. Some day I would also love to read his six volumes on The Second World War. I’ve read a one volume condensation so this would not strictly be a re-read.

Shelby Foote, Civil War: A Narrative. Foote, a southern historian takes us from Sumter to Appomattox in three volumes that I didn’t want to end

E. H. Gombrich, A Little History of the World. An account of human history in 284 pages. Written for European schoolchildren, Gombrich pulls it off. It was a great summer read one summer. Maybe again this summer.

Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. Guelzo directs the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College. He lives on the battlefield site. He knows every hill, valley, field and railroad cut and takes us inside the battle better than anyone I’ve read.

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam. Vietnam was the war I grew up with but I did not understand the unfolding and unraveling of the war until I read Karnow’s account.

David McCullough, The Great Bridge. This was my introduction to McCullough and his capacity to weave a fascinating narrative of the Roeblings, father and son, and the challenges of design and construction they overcame to build the Brooklyn Bridge, costing one his life, the other his health.

Candace Millard, Hero of the Empire. One can begin to understand why Churchill was such an inspiring and intrepid figure. Millard, who has also written about Theodore Roosevelt, and the death of James Garfield, gives at once, an account of the Boer War, and the miraculous escape and perilous flight across country of Churchill, working as a freelance journalist captured for ransom by the Boers.

Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower. Philbrick profiles the company of Pilgrims, the religious challenges that drove them to migrate, the new challenges they faced in the New World, and the challenges they presented the native peoples.

Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly. Tuchman is one of the great narrators of history. This was perhaps one of her more polemical books, demonstrating the foolishness and waste of war.

Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty (Oxford History of the United States). Wood traces the early life of the American republic, from the presidency of Washington through the end of the War of 1812, a time when the country’s existence was touch and go. Great writing, as is true of each volume of the history. James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom on the Civil War is excellent.

Donald Worster, A River Running West. Worster chronicles the explorations of the Colorado River, and the surrounding canyons by John Wesley Powell, giving us a stunning portrait of this explorer of and advocate for the American West.

History researched and written well transports us into events being narrated. It makes names and places and events come alive with significance. It can inspire, instruct, and warn. It makes whole civilizations spring to life. And re-reading it may be like going through old family records in the attic. It reminds us of the family from which we descend. The human family.

Science Books I Would Re-read

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Some of us simply don’t pick up books on science because we fear we will never understand them. The gift of great science writers is that they can explain complex ideas for the non-specialist in a way that piques interest and never feels like the writer is talking down. One often has the sense of being in the lab or in the field with the person saying, “let me show you this!” The books I’ve listed are ones I’ve read that I’d be happy to come back to for another read. As with other posts in this series, I’ve limited myself to ten. Between the ones I’ve just left off, and those I haven’t even read once, I’m sure you will want to add to this list!

Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us. Most of us know Carson for Silent Spring, but her lyrical accounts of the wonders of life under the sea and the topography of oceans are ones I easily could read again and again in a book free of environmental advocacy.

Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. The book is still controversial, long after Gould’s death, but it is incredible writing about the Cambrian explosion of life discovered in fossil deposits.

Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe. My wife turned me on to this. Greene is wonderful in explaining physics, and introducing us to multiple dimensions and the nature of string theory.

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. Hawking was probably the first to introduce me to things like the Big Bank, quarks, and the nature of time and the challenges of reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Edward Larson, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. Whatever you think about evolution (and let’s not get into that here), this is a great history of how the theory developed, the controversies both outside and inside the scientific communities, and present day developments. Don’t read this for polemics, but for understanding.

Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac. Strictly speaking this is more nature- than science writing, but Leopold’s careful observation of an ecosystem and his love for the land he observes makes this a wonderful read.

Matthew Ridley, Genome. What is all this “human genome” stuff? The book has a chapter for each of our 23 gene pairs, and explores how the genome provides the blueprint for our “self assembly,” genetic diseases, and the different ways genes express in men and women.

Francis Su, Mathematics for Human Flourishing. I read this just recently and it rekindled an interest in math for me. Su explores the way mathematics both answers to deep human longings and nurtures human virtues that contribute to our flourishing in life.

Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell. This is a wonderful collection of essays that I probably read sometime in the 1980’s. The first essay introduced me to the truth that the mitochondria in every human being, originated in another organism, but became a critical part of our own cells. It just gets better from there.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I have friends who are astrophysicists and Tyson helped me understand things like dark matter, and what a weird and wonderful universe we inhabit.

Science writing opens our eyes to the wonders of our own bodies, other life, the planet, and our universe. We truly are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and part of a wonder-filled universe. We care for what we love. Reading such books help re-enchant a world we often take for granted.

Biographies I Would Re-read


Some of the biographies I would re-read, Photo by Bob Trube © 2020.

I’m a lover of biographies. Reading the life stories of others is one way I make sense of my own. Leadership fascinates me and reading about those who have led well makes for an interesting study, and it accentuates the importance of the leaders we choose, whether in government, education, business, or as faith leaders. Some of these biographies have been among my most memorable reads, a few in recent years, many going back twenty years or more. Once again, re-reading them could occupy me for many months. Most are big books, and some stretch into multiple volumes.

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Blight captures both the sheer perseverance of Douglass in the pursuit of freedom and justice for his people, and the eloquence that was his gift.

Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson (4 volumes in print, one still being written). I hope Robert Caro lives long enough to complete his study of the life of Johnson, and that I live long enough to re-read the series.

Ron Chernow, Grant. Chernow has given us a series of great biographies. Here he gives us one of the man who struggled in civilian life, was a magnificent and focused military leader, and a great president whose reputation was marred by those around him.

Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci. A magnificent study in print and image of this profligate genius. One wonders what he might have accomplished with greater discipline and focus.

Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. There was deep conviction and principle behind the gentle greatness of Mr. Rogers that drew children and adults to listen to him.

Nancy Koester, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life. In a well-researched work, Koester traces Stowe from her Calvinist youth to her years at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, where she saw so much of what she wrote in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, galvanizing her abolitionist work. She became the most successful American writer of the 19th century, later moving away from the Calvinism of her youth.

William Manchester (with Paul Reid on volume 3), The Last Lion. Whether this is the best history of Churchill, it is certainly the best written.

David McCullough, John Adams and Truman. Each of these presidents followed one far more famous, yet McCullough brings them out of the shadows and helps us appreciate the unique gifts each were to American history.

Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt. Morris tells the story of this larger than life figure magnificently from the somewhat frail boy who heeded his father’s encouragements to build up his strength, to the cowboy in the west, the Rough Rider, the president who invented the bully pulpit, and the world explorer who nearly lost his life in the Amazon.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times. He chronicles Kennedy’s growth from the McCarthy era to his work as Attorney General under his brother, the agony of the Johnson years, and his final presidential campaign cut short by an assassin’s bullet. One of his greatest moments was his on-the-spot response to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., facing an angry crowd in Indianapolis.

Great biographies to me combine the singular greatness of the person with writing that accentuates that greatness, while rendering a true account, and not a hagiography of their lives. Each of these biographies did that for me. I think they will for you. More than once. If I’ve left one off the list you think worth a re-read, I’d love to hear about it. It has to be worth at least one read!


Mysteries I Would Re-read


Mystery Writers,” by Nana B Agyei licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the second installment of “books I would re-read” I consider mysteries. This strikes me as perhaps a peculiar category because once you’ve read a mystery, you know how it turns out. That is, unless you’ve forgotten, which for some of the mysteries on this page, is the case for me. For all of them, it is the mastery of the story-telling, how the author has woven the plot. So here are some mysteries so good, I’d be happy to enjoy them again.

G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday. This fantastic story, subtitled “A Nightmare” concerns the infiltration of an anarchist group, where nothing that occurs is as it seems. A wild romp!

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Many consider this one of her best. Poirot comes out of retirement to solve this murder, and I loved the surprise ending.

Agatha Christie, 4:50 from Paddington. Mrs. McGillicuddy is sure she has witnessed a murder, yet no body is found. Enter her good friend, Miss Marple! With Agatha Christie, I just had to include two to get in a Poirot and a Marple.

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone. This is considered the first and one of the greatest mysteries, centering around a diamond from India. Collins created the art. Another of his masterpieces is The Woman in White.

P.D. James, A Taste for Death. James’ Adam Dalgliesh, a poet and detective, has some of the most penetrating insights into the human soul of any detective. This is one of the best in the series, but it might be time for me to re-read them all!

Charlie Lovett, The Bookman’s Tale. Peter Byerly has recently lost is wife at a young age and moved to the village of Kingham, England, living in the cottage he and Amanda renovated just before her death. In an effort to resume his bookselling career he peruses the shelves of a local bookseller. Inside a volume on literary forgeries, he discovers a watercolor that must be a hundred years old that could have been a painting of his wife. His quest to find the origin of this work results in his being framed for a murder.

Louise Penny, Still Life. This work introduces us to Chief Inspector Gamache and Three Pines. I am new to this series and only beginning my first reading. But I can tell there is plenty here for re-readings should I live that long!

Elizabeth Peters, The Crocodile on the Sandbank. This is the first of Elizabeth Peters’ (Barbara Mertz) Amelia Peabody stories. My wife and I had ten years of delight reading through this series, but that was a decade ago.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors. The setting, in a country church, the nine bells that are the nine tailors, provide a wonderful backdrop for a mystery regarding a mysterious scrap of paper, a grave with the wrong body in it, and an absent-minded rector. Many consider this Sayers’ best. I concur.

Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar. Brat Farrar is an orphan, a doppelganger of Simon Ashby’s missing brother Patrick, and is persuaded by a former friend of Simon’s to impersonate the brother. He succeeds, yet unknown to him, Simon is on to him but does not say anything. The plot hinges on discovering why.

I’m sure you will have many others to add to this list and that you might have a few of your own. But these, especially the ones that are part of a series, offer the promise of many diverting evenings sheltering at home.


Fiction I Would Re-Read

close up of books on shelf

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I wrote yesterday about having a hoard of books to read during stay at home orders or whatever they are called in your part of the world I suggested that at least part of our hoard might be those that you would want to re-read. Here are some of the fiction titles I have loved that I want to come back to and give another read.

Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter. Really I could have included any of the Port William stories, but this one of tracing a love, the scars of warfare, and generations was quite wonderful.

Anthony Doerr, All The Light We Cannot See. This story of a German boy and a blind French girl whose paths cross as the Germans occupy Saint Malo is one of the most stunningly beautiful books published in the last ten years in my opinion.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield. A big book. Memorable characters. The mirror image of Dickens (Dickens initials reversed).

Fyodor Doestoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. For the depths of psychological insights into family and the philosophical explorations of the book.

C.S. Lewis. Till We Have Faces. The book Lewis thought his best, that readers thought his most difficult, and that has grown with each reading.

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country. Paton’s novel, set in apartheid Africa, focuses on love of country and land and the possibility of reconciliation despite grievous loss.

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. The writing of a history of family becomes the summing up of one’s life. I love all of his writing about the American West.

John Steinbeck, East of Eden. Steinbeck considered it his magnum opus. I would agree.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. People hate Tolkien or love him. I’m in the latter camp, and find each reading richer than the last. My first was in college. My last was around the time of the movies. It might be time again

Homer, The Odyssey. One of the oldest works of fiction and one of the longest journeys home.

These ten books could carry me a long way through this quarantine (which for me really means until there is a vaccine). What books would be on your list?

Forgetful Reading

Anna KareninaHave you ever had this happen to you? You are talking with a friend about books and a title comes up that you remember really enjoying, but darned if you can remember much of what it was about? And yet, when watching the Lord of the Rings movies, I could spot every deviation from Tolkien’s text. How can this be?

New York Review of Books blog article by Tim Parks titled “Reading is Forgetting” helped make some sense of this for me. He quoted Vladimir Nabokov, who once commented, “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Nabokov observes that the physical effort of reading line by line down a page and absorbing what is there makes it almost impossible to fully grasp the meaning of what we’ve read on a first reading. In fact, I can never fully recall all the richness of any book, even with multiple readings. But what happens with re-reading is that I’m reminded of some of what I’ve forgotten, I begin to make connections, and see more of the depths of what came out of the writer’s mind.

I wrote yesterday about reviewing, and I can see how we reviewers can sometimes get a book wrong. Most of the books I read, I read only once. And many books don’t deserve more than one reading. I can see particularly how reviewers who are assigned books and must review a number of so-so, or outright bad books may get a book wrong, even if they’ve read it through. We may miss or forget important things on a first reading. What we most remembered was our affective response to the book–how we felt about it. And, at least for me, that lingers long after my reading, and long after I recall the details of characters, plot, and quality of writing.

Reviewing, as I’ve commented before, is partly a memory device for me. That works in two ways. One is that it actually makes me more attentive while I’m reading. I’m thinking, what are the main points of the writer’s argument? What are the main elements of the plot, the significant characters? And I’m thinking about my reactions. Why don’t I like this writing? Where am I in agreement and where not with the argument of this book? I don’t tend to take notes or write things down as I read so much as have a continuing mental dialogue with the book. Then, writing the review serves to crystallize this mental summary of and dialogue with the book I’ve been reading. Almost always, I will write the review after one reading, unless I feel I just haven’t grasped the book and yet think it worth writing about. I will skim most books again before writing to try to get the book as a whole in clearer focus.

Then there are those treasured few books that I read and re-read. Tolkien is one, that I’ve read about five or six times over forty years. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is another that I’ve read four or five times over about thirty-five years. Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country seems to engage me in new ways each time I read it. The Bible falls in this category as well. It is a massive work written over a thousand years by numerous human writers and yet continued reading and grasping more of the connections between parts of the text make this an ever-rich encounter for me.

One of my vacation book buys was the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Like so many, I read this book back in high school. I’ve also gathered from many (including the bookseller who rang up my purchase) that re-reading this work is an engaging experience. We’ll see, and see what memories, hopefully good ones, it brings back of my high school reading.

Have you had this experience of forgetting a book you liked? And are there books you remember, that have become friends as you’ve read and re-read them?

Re-reading by Mistake

Have you ever had this happen? You picked up a book that looked interesting, began reading it and had this vague suspicion that the book you thought you were reading for the first time was in fact one you had read before? And as you go along, suspicion becomes certainty. This is what happened to me recently when I started reading an edition of John Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent. Not only did the plot seem familiar, but I discovered I had read this book a couple years ago and had written a Goodreads review.

Sigh! I suspect this reflects one of the hazards of reading lots of books! From the date of the review, I’ve probably read over two hundred books since then. I suspect the different edition may have thrown me, leading me to believe I hadn’t read this book. At least my memory isn’t totally failing–I recognized the plot and characters as familiar once I began reading!

John Steinbeck during his trip to accept Nobel Prize in 1962 Attribution: By Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Steinbeck during his trip to accept Nobel Prize in 1962
Attribution: By Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So what do you do? Do you lay it down because you’ve already read the book? There are probably some books where the answer would be yes. But this is Steinbeck and I’ve come to love his writing. I know that I would someday like to re-read East of Eden for example. In the case of this book, Steinbeck explores the issue of personal integrity and the choice many of us wrestle with between integrity and “playing the game” where one maintains a veneer of being upstanding while cutting all kinds of ethical corners because that is just what it takes to get ahead.

I’m glad I’ve re-read the book. My previous reading focused on the main character, Ethan Allan Hawley, and his personal “winter of discontent”. What I’ve noticed this time through is social context and Steinbeck’s treatment of the hypocrisies of prevailing morality and the ironies of who is really “honest”.

There are books I’ve re-read intentionally, sometimes four or five times over the years. I do so because of their richness that seems to grow with each re-reading, perhaps because I’m at a different place in life as well, and the book reads me differently. I think something like that is going on with my “accidental” re-reading of Steinbeck.

Have you ever had this happen? What books have you come back to and re-read and what was that experience like for you?