One Book, Two Book. Good Book? Review Book!--Alumni, friends share favorite titles for rereading

March is National Reading Month — or so I read somewhere on the World Wide Web. Even if that’s not entirely accurate, I do know that many elementary school students across the country celebrated reading earlier this month to mark the anniversary of Dr. Seuss’ birth. Plus, it’s always a good time to talk about books, right? Especially here at the Writing University…

I’ll kick-start the discussion by sharing my go-to reads: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield makes me laugh out loud every time, and as a writer I am always impressed by Salinger’s consistent and convincing voice. And Lee’s Atticus Finch never fails to amaze me; in fact, I last read the book when I was pregnant with my first child, and I found his patience, kindness, integrity, and dignity particularly inspiring as I anticipated my impending parenthood.

What books do you pull off the shelf again and again, and why? We asked Spectator readers to send in their favorites, and we also put some UI faculty and staff members on the spot. Read below to see what they submitted. And it’s not too late to weigh in with your own picks — send titles to, and we’ll post them in our Letters section.

Sara Epstein Moninger

John D’Agata (M.F.A. ’98),
associate professor in the UI Nonfiction Writing Program:

Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son is a terrifying, absurd, and hilarious book. Its creepy premise —once you catch on to it — should be enough to turn a reader off from ever wanting to enter into the book again. And yet Camilo José Cela, the brilliant Spanish novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989, never forgets his role as entertainer and provocateur. You’ll feel empathy and you’ll feel disgust, and then, with any luck, you’ll feel you want to experience both all over again. So far no one has hated me for recommending the book. So, fingers crossed.

Ed Folsom,
UI Roy J. Carver Professor of English and editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review:

As an English professor, rereading books is a vital part of my life. I’m always rereading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I teach them almost every year, and, as Whitman commanded, I read those leaves “in the open air every season of every year of my life”; fortunately, they are inexhaustible, and (often guided by my students) I find new things in them every time I re-encounter them. In the spirit of Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, I’m rereading Great Expectations, the very first Dickens novel I ever read (back in ninth grade) and am amazed at how much of it remains familiar after all those years. The other novelist I never tire of rereading is Willa Cather, whose subjects span the history and the geography of our continent and whose quietly allusive style always nudges me to go off and read other works too.

David D. Perlmutter,
director of the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication:

Every few years I reread Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Stewart practically invented two literary genres: the disaster novel, where a force of nature such as a fire or storm takes on its own persona and becomes a character; and the genre that Earth Abides fall into, the post-apocalyptic, last-man-on-Earth novel. Earth Abides is one of the best of the genre because its emphasis is less on action-filled plot and lurid combat than on introspection on human nature and philosophizing about the stability of civilization itself.

Lisa Gray Giurato (B.A. ’10),
M.F.A. student in the UI Nonfiction Writing Program, Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings — when I read his poetry out loud, I feel what a musician must feel when he hears a masterful arrangement of music. It truly thrills me. My copy is dog-eared and I’m sure it is only going to get worse as I get older. I’m going to go read it again right now.

Jan Weissmiller,
(B.A. ’79, M.F.A. ’84) co-owner of Prairie Lights Books,
Iowa City, Iowa:

I reread poetry all of the time, but, of course, that’s what poetry is for. Poetry is haunting, and when a fragment of something loved returns to me, I look it up. The reason — if reason is the word — that a fragment comes back to me will then give me new insight into — or feeling for — that poem. Wallace Stevens haunts me, as do Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, and Donald Justice, Auden, and Yeats. And, of course, Shakespeare, who haunts them all. Rereading any one of these will lead to rereading others — many others.

Carol Severino,
associate professor of rhetoric and director of the UI Writing Center:

I read a lot of books, especially travel writing, ethnic literature, and comedic academic novels, and if I like them, I pass them on to my friends and move on to the next one. But I’m not a big re-reader for leisure.

When I reread books, it’s usually because I’m teaching them or teaching from them. Books I have reread include, for example, Best American Travel Essays collections, Julia Alvarez’s novels (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Yo, In the Time of the Butterflies), and lately Ralph Fletcher’s wonderful book about writing and teaching writing called What a Writer Needs.

Horace Porter,
UI F. Wendell Miller Professor of English and American Studies:

The Great Gatsby — A magical evocation of various American habits of being

Kelli Andresen,
editor in UI Communication and Marketing:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I was quite the tomboy growing up and Jo was one of the first characters I really identified with as a young reader — such daring aspirations, such love for her family, so spunky and independent, a bookworm and a writer, and, like me, she was the second of four girls! Whenever I reread it, it reminds me that I’m still the young girl who so badly wanted to be Jo March.

Tom Dean (Ph.D. ’91),
UI senior presidential writer/editor:

Three books that I regularly reread deal with a subject that is near and dear to me: nature and place. First is Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which is arguably the most important environmental book of the 20th century — and Aldo Leopold is an Iowa native! Next is Paul Gruchow’s Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, a book of essays on home, nature, place, and community, all in the context of the Midwest. The last book is Sigurd Olson’s The Singing Wilderness, another very important book of nature writing.

Julie Meredith (B.A. ’04),
Washington, DC:

One of my favorite “classics” to reread is Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf — each new reading brings another layer of understanding to both the text and Woolf’s own experiences.

Paul Ingram (B.A. ’70),
book buyer at Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City, Iowa:

During the last year, I’ve reread 12 of my favorite books running a book club at Prairie Lights, and each experience was a delight. Most recently, I reread William Trevor’s Story of Lucy Gault, a semi-tragic Irish tale of loss and redemption. I’d read it 10 years ago and everything sparkled with the freshness of Trevor’s prose. The story is a subtle one, and I found myself understanding the tale itself in different ways on second reading.

The book club also read Harriet Doerr’s quietly beautiful Stones for Ibarra about a pair of American expats who’ve moved to Mexico to revive a family copper mine. No sooner do they arrive in the tiny town they'll be living in than one of them comes down with cancer. On rereading I felt differently about the characters themselves. The Mexican characters felt vivid and wise in ways that the sophisticated Americans were unable to manage. My much earlier reading felt zen-like. In my second reading, the harshness of the landscape dominated, highlighting Ms. Doerr’s extraordinary prose.

Brian Jones (M.A. ’84),
Indianapolis, Ind.:

I’ve read This Stubborn Soil by William A. Owens five times since I found it at a library book sale over 20 years ago. I paid 10 cents for it. It’s Owen’s own autobiography about growing up on a farm with his widowed mother in east central Texas in the 1910s-20s. Despite only obtaining an eighth grade education, Mr. Owens is able to get into a teachers college at age 18. It’s the classic “boy versus the world” story. Very uplifting.

Mr. Owens later received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1941. He went to teach at Columbia University, and wrote numerous books about Texas folklore.

Randy Fordice (B.A. ’96),
Golden Valley, Minn.:

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I read it at least every other year. Owen’s probably the deepest character in any book I’ve ever read (and it helps that Irving is a Writers’ Workshop alum).

Audrey Henry (M.A. ’57):

Books that I have reread over and over again over several decades are Jane Austen’s novels, especially Pride and Prejudice. Why? Probably because of the wide range of strange and interesting characters and the insight into social life in the early 1800s. The recent P.D. James mystery Death Comes to Pemberley, a sequel to the Jane Austen novel, was an added incentive to reread Pride and Prejudice.

Carol Jahn (B.S. ’82),
Warrenville, Ill.:

There are two books that I enjoy rereading and always gain something each time:

On the fiction side, it’s The Stand by Stephen King. The classic tale of good versus evil, the power of courage, and the importance of being willing to “take a stand” for what is most important in life. It is also a great showcase of the power of the human race.

On the nonfiction side, my favorite is The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. Five tenets; good for leadership and good for life. Whether it’s with your direct reports, coworkers, volunteers, your family or friends, the five practices can help anyone find their true purpose, enhance confidence, and lead an authentic life.

David Lee:

Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is a wonderful, life-affirming book that includes a lot of history, geography, literature. The story is often gripping, and, although I don't usually like a lot of description, his is so VERY GOOD I DO like it. His prose is often poetic.

Margie Ortgiesen,
literacy consultant, Iowa Statewide Vision Services, Vinton, Iowa:

I always return to the novel by Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout’s voice is so clear that I can hear her in my ear. This coming-of-age work is the epitome of living in the South, following the Depression. It also brings to the forefront how one should never lose one’s idealism and innocence, even in the face of evil. The book rejuvenates me and gives me faith in individuals, if not mankind.

Dean Colton (B.S. ’75,
M.A. ’85, Ph.D. ’95):

I've read To Kill a Mockingbird many times over the years. Of course, many of the characters are interesting or loveable, but I’ve always been drawn to Atticus. His sense of morality and justice is much like that instilled in me, but in the events of the book, the steadfast Atticus lived those values in ways that I have not. As a young man, I admired him, and I still do.

Neale Kelley, Lincoln,

Two by John LeCarre: Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy and Smiley’s People. Also, The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Might not match up with the “classic” classics, but all are classics in their own way.

Teresa Hubley (M.A. ’87),
Oakland, Maine:

War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
The Tao Te Ching by Laozi

Cindy Lundine (M.A. ’77),
Alburnett, Iowa:

I totally love Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. To me it is a thrilling and contemplative masterpiece that flows gracefully as a most intricately crafted and meticulously designed plot unfolds in absolutely perfect fashion. Not a word is wasted, and the wise reader’s eyes take them all in as they each strike immediate and harmonious notes on the brain. I have several copies of the book at each of my residences where I can pick them up as often as I choose to either reread in full or simply glean some literary comfort by choosing selected chapters or passages. To me, based upon my 65 years and numerous books read, the only other book that begins to compare in quality and substance to Ms. du Maurier’s book is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, another that I would suggest as a masterpiece to be enjoyed again.

Jeffrey Thompson (B.S. ’80),
Iowa City, Iowa:

The Complete Sherlock Holmes — I have reread the entire collection when I’m sick. I’ve done this ever since I was in grade school.
The Bible – Greatest book ever with greatest variety of literature.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Amazing synthesis of eastern and western philosophies.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy — Who wouldn’t want to live in Middle Earth?

Fred Stieglitz (B.A. ’95):

Author Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth

R. Shepherd:

A book I return to for its message to the current generation is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. All government majors should read The Law by Thomas Bastiat.


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© The University of Iowa 2009