The books you come back to

The books you come back to July 15, 2011
The books you come back to
Meddygarnet, Flickr

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about books you come back to, books you re-read, books that become as familiar as old jeans. For him it was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. You could hear the joy in his voice as he talked. He said I should read it and offered to buy the copy from me if I didn’t like it — sort of a money-back guarantee.

I have another friend who reads Thomas Howard’s Evangelical is Not Enough about once a year. It had a profound influence on his life when he first read it many years ago, and I imagine that his annual return helps him keep the edge on the blade. He talks about it like a guy recalling an old mentor.

What I find in such conversations is that people often have a few titles like this. Re-reading books is one of life’s joys, and for many of us it’s a necessary part of our literary experience.

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once,” wrote C.S. Lewis in a letter to his friend, Arthur Greeves. Greeves was apparently not much of a re-reader, but Lewis confessed it “is one of my greatest pleasures.”

One the volumes to which I make frequent pilgrimage is Lewis’s own Till We Have Faces. It’s a stark and beautiful novel about all the good stuff, love and pride and jealousy. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it now, but I just can’t stop.

Montaigne’s Essays are like that for me as well. My copy migrates from room to room over the year as I pick it up and casually read a few essays here and there. I find him funny, shrewd, thoughtful, deeply feeling. If someone were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I might say Montaigne.

I think that’s partly why we re-read books. We see something of ourselves in them. They are like inky mirrors that give us glimpses of our hearts and hopes. We add their words to the sentences that describe ourselves.

Perhaps it’s a value they extol, or a character we admire, or an adventure we wish we could join. Whatever the particular reasons for the particular book, we identify with them and just can’t do without.

Question: What are the books you come back to?

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  • Warren

    Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy

    • I’ve got a copy but have not yet read it. I’ve always heard great things about it.

  • Old Literature

    1. A tale of two cities Charles Dickens
    2. Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

    I think i have read about four versions of each of those books

  • My Upmost for His Highest. Oswald Chambers

    • Good one.

    • George Minerva

      I’ve been back to this classic for years. Sometimes span a couple of years, but I’m always surprised by how I’m touched consistently by this classic.

  • The Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll

    I read it every 3 or 4 months and no matter how many times I read it, I am always excited and encouraged!

    • That’s great. I think that’s probably one of his most popular books.

  • George Minerva

    Elizabeth Elliott Leach’s “Liberty of Obedience” is a short, powerful book. Makes me think through my theology time and time again.

    Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” treatment of the human condition finds me on many of the pages. It becomes my examen at points. I once listened to a Buddhist lit professor from Japan talk about the Od Testament theological themes of this book, very enlightening to hear from another culture and religion. What a reflection. Just like what happens in the book!

    That’s the theme of both books, How does my faith succumb to my culture? Then again,” ‘What is REAL?’ asked the rabbit when they were laying side by side against the nursery fender….” Another re-reader, Velveteen Rabbit.

    • I’m totally out of the loop on Steinbeck but need to read some. I love the reference to children’s books. I’m a big fan of The Wind and Willows and Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy.

  • I don’t re-read a lot of books, but I do a lot of highlighting and I try to review highlights, especially in books that impact me.

    But one book that I have re-read a couple times (and will continue from time to time) is Andy Stanley and Lane Jones’ “Communicating for a Change.”

    And, along the same lines, a book that I’m reading now that I’ll need to come back to is Nancy Duarte’s, “Resonate.”

    • What sticks with you about the Stanley and Jones book?

      • The book argues for one-point preaching and offers a map/outline, ME-WE-GOD-YOU-WE.

        I’ve been using this approach in my weekly preachings since I read the book in 2006. It has helped me to be more creative (by focusing on one point instead of multiples points) and it has allowed me to use minimal notes.

        By the way, my post on the book is the all-time most popular post on my blog:

      • Randy: Just checked out the map/outline. Looks simple but effective. Thanks!

  • I have many I return to but at the top of the list would be A Sacred Thirst (M. Craig Barnes) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving).

    • Irving! I love how many novels are coming up in this list. I frankly don’t read enough of them.

  • T.F. Torrance’s “The Mediation of Christ” is the book I return to the most.

    • I’m not much familiar with Torrance. Wasn’t he a student/colleague of Karl Barth?

      • Yes, he was a student of Barth. Robert Letham (author of “The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship”) says that Torrance is the only student of Barth who taught Barth more than Barth taught a student. Whether or not that’s entirely accurate, Torrance was a brilliant theologian. Probably the greatest theologian in the English speaking world for the 20th century.

    • Only tangentially related, but Letham wrote a book about Eastern Orthodoxy that I found very helpful, Through Western Eyes.

  • Kate

    Walking on Water by L’Engle (inspiration)
    The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Mogel (parenting)
    The Chosen by Potok (fiction)

  • Atlas Shrugged. I don’t read many novels, but I keep coming back to this one. Far and away my favorite.

    • I find Ayn Rand pretty fascinating as a person. Every generation has a few absorbing figures (for good or ill); she was one of them. The main thing I remember about Atlas was the nearly 100-page address by Galt at the end.

  • Ali

    I don’t reread many books in my life. The Bible is really the obvious one for me that I do reread. I read the Inferno in high school and set out to read The Divine Comedy in its entirety this summer. I am only on canto 21 of the Inferno because I am using several commentaries. I can tell that this will be a work I will return to in years to come–and that Dante is a person I want to learn more about (which I am also currently doing).

    I can see Evangelical is Not Enough as being a good book that someone would reread periodically. I think Thomas Howard is an excellent writer. I also can see myself rereading the Great Divorce. Oh… and the one other book that I intend to reread is Middlemarch. I have heard thosse with greater knowledge of Victorian studies mention that is a book that should be reread every five years so I should be due to reread it in about two years.

    • I’ve only read through portions of the Comedy, but I want to read it in its entirety someday. What is your favorite Bible passage to revisit? I spend a lot of time in the Psalter.

      • Ali

        You definitely should read the Comedy in its entirety someday. There is so much to gold in this work, but like the Bible, I think it can only be read in bits and pieces. I usually read only three-four cantos a week.

        Like you, I love the Psalter–but as you know, as Orthodox Christians, we learn early the beauty of this part of Scripture. I also love the gospels because I clearly see and hear Christ in these books. John is a probably my favorite because of the depth and richness of its theology.

  • Celia Zehr Kallas

    Love the titles! I come back to Henri Nouwen’s, Return of the Prodigal each year, usually in the spring to prepare for Easter. I come back to anything by Nouwen, but this is a habit I have been committed to for years. Thanks for the gift of this encouragement.

  • I love rereading novels – mostly mysteries/thrillers after I’ve waited long enough to forget the ending.

    But my most treasured re-reads are usually kid’s books that had an impact on me as a young reader. Going back to read those books through adult eyes is a fascinating journey into memories and understanding who I was/am. The main ones would be The Giver, The Bridge to Terabithia, The Egypt Game, Maniac McGee, The Narnia series etc.

    Non-fiction I’ve reread a few times and plan to read again: The Call by Os Guinness!

    • The Narnia stories repay a re-read, particular as a adult reader.

  • Bethany Turner

    Captivating by John & Staci Eldridge, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, and anything by Jane Austin & Lousia May Alcott.

    • I need to reread Blue Like Jazz. Miller’s Million Miles is one I’ve read a couple of times now. It has a lot to recommend it.

  • Kathleen Sliwiak

    Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis.

    • Wonderful. I’m just finally reading that one. Glad to hear it’s a regular for you.

  • I realize this is an older post, but somehow I’m just seeing this. Amazingly, the book Evangelical is Not Enough is one of the books that spurred me toward liturgy, and ultimately – Orthodoxy. I remember giving it to my missionary “aunt” that I grew up with as a Nazarene MK in Thailand. After she read it we had this great discussion on worship and liturgy.

    My come back to book is actually a book of poetry – The Book of Hours/Love Poems to God by Rainer Maria Rilke.

    Great post!

    • I’ve heard many people say something similar about Evangelical is not Enough. I’ve nearly read it several times. I probably should.

      And Rilke! Same thing. I read very little poetry. I have a couple anthologies that I browse from time to time. But my two favorite volumes are a copy of T.S. Eliot’s collected poetry that belonged to my grandfather (who adored poetry) and a John Donne collection, which was very instrumental in my spiritual development. I come back to those again and again.

  • I was going to say Till We Have Faces but you beat me to it.

    • Joel J. Miller

      It’s such a good book. It’s been one I’ve come back to since my teens.

  • Mallory

    The only book I read over and over again is Brennan Manning’s “Ragamuffin Gospel.”

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’ve never read it, but my wife’s copy looks pretty trashed. Those are well-loved words.

  • Meagan

    Although I haven’t reread it recently, I have been through Richard Adams’ Watership Down several times since I first read it in middle school. Also, I’ve reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy multiple times (and I will more than likely be rereading The Hobbit again in anticipation of the movie!). Within the past year or so, I’ve developed a love for Dostoyevsky, and I have already reread his Notes from Underground a couple of times (which is a considerably easier feat than rereading his bulkier novels; but I did love The Brothers Karamazov, and I am anticipating loving Crime and Punishment once I get to it).

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’ve started Brothers Karamazov but have been distracted. Maybe over Christmas this year. Everyone says it’s amazing.

      • Micah

        Karamazov took me forever to read a year or so ago at 26 years old, and I liked more in the first half or so of the book than the last half. But I read Crime and Punishment as a 7th grader and loved it!

  • A book I reread is C.S.Lewis’ The Great Divorce.
    And I reread a wonderful “children’s book” The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Baily Aldrich.
    I like to reread fairy tales, too — “The Fisherman’s Wife” and the Emperor’s New Clothes seem prescient.
    I very much liked btw your commemoration of CS Lewis’ death.


  • Charles W. Baldwin

    Every other year, I reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (each reading has, without fail, been more rewarding than the last). On off years I reread the entire Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. I also, every few years, reread Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and various Old English texts (The Battle of Maldon, Dream of the Rood, etc.). I also take great pleasure in rereading Dr. Seuss, Tommy Depaola, and H. A. and Margaret Rey books to my classes.

  • Anita Berry

    Hinds’ Feet on High Places is always a go-to book for me during difficult times. Hannah Hurnard brilliantly paints a picture of our very tangible Jesus – how He longs to be our helper, our strength, to be the one we call out to when we ache, the way He leaps to our defense at a moment’s notice, fights the enemy on our behalf and most of all, purposes for us to look more like Himself. Beautiful.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I have always heard good things about that book. I should someday read it.

  • Christina

    I love all of the Chronicles of Narnia, but I re-read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader more than any of the others. Second would have to be Lewis’ Perelandra and third would be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.