John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Sunday, August 27, 2017

It was so nice I read it twice

Yesterday I registered disappointment on Facebook and Twitter over a published list of twenty-five supposedly important and essential books that turned out to include Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf and The Elements of Style. I looked once at a list of a hundred supposedly important books, only to discover a damned Dan Brown novel.

Lists of important or best or essential books are going to be so arbitrary, idiosyncratic, or boringly conventional that they are a waste of your time. I have a better idea for identifying important books: Tell me which ones you have read more than once.

I'll go first.

As winter approaches, I'm hoping for a snowed-in day, on which I can brew a pot of tea and settle down with Trollope's Barchester Towers, which I re-read with profound satisfaction every ten years or so. (Or perhaps I will pick up Eliot's Middlemarch, which I read forty years ago. I can't stand any of Eliot's other novels, but I loved every word of Middlemarch. And if it is more than one snow day in a row, I may pick up Boswell's Life of Johnson, one of the best books ever written.)

I have read Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution three or four times since discovering as an undergraduate at Michigan State in Roger Meiners's class on the midcentury American poets. It's an academic novel, urbane and epigrammatic.

The other academic novel I've returned to repeatedly is Nabokov's Pnin. Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada, splendid as they are, require some work from the reader, but Pnin is pure delight throughout.

All of Barbara Pym's novels, particularly Excellent Women. Very British, quiet and understated, like Jane Austen, and, also like Austen, merciless about her characters without being cruel.

I go back from time to time to John Cheever's collected short stories and Joan Didion's essays.

For the low tastes that every writer and editor should cultivate, since high school I periodically re-read my way through Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe murder mysteries. As I have said before on a number of occasions, at the end of a long day of working with professional journalists, nothing gives greater pleasure than a comfortable chair, a good light, a drink at your elbow, and a book in which disagreeable people meet violent death.

Your turn.


  1. Tolkein, Pratchett's Discworld (I finished his penultimate book just as he passed), O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin, all of them over and over and over. Also Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles. Stephen King's The Stand, Larry McMurtry Lonesome Dove, Ken Follett Pillars of the Earth. And Gone With the Wind. Oh, and Harry Potter. Rereading a series is to me like getting back together with old friends. The Aubrey-Maturin in particular gives so many moments of hilarity, poignance, and joy that never get old.

  2. I love The Warden and Barchester Towers. Delightful. Hmm. What have I read more than once? Pride and Prejudice. Eudora Welty's Why I Live at the P.O.; Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions; True Grit.