avatarMatthew Woodall



Resurrect the Past

Why you should revisit books and articles you haven’t touched in years

Photo by Pontus Wellgraf on Unsplash

For the past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting a book that’s been on my shelf since I first read it over a decade ago. The Unthinkable, a 2008 book by Amanda Ripley, was one of the first books I read as I was getting into emergency management, and one that has shaped how I think about emergencies and disasters of all types. It has been so fundamental that I’m preparing to introduce it to my nascent advisory committee to help them better understand how to think about emergencies and disasters.

This has given me an opportunity to re-read the book with the benefit of a few years of hands-on emergency management experience, plus more as a firefighter, medical first responder, and dispatcher. Not to mention being a parent and having worked on some major incidents of different types.

While I’ve looked at it (or more specifically, certain portions of it) in the years since I first read it, I’ve never read it cover to cover with the benefit of experience, education, and training.

By a quick count, I have roughly six dozen books on the shelf at my office. This doesn’t include the various multi-volume reports, plans, training materials, or other documents that are part of my daily life.

That’s 72 books that someone else wrote and I have acquired (usually purchased, sometimes salvaged, and in at least one case had donated to me) with the purpose of educating myself. Of those 72 books, roughly 12 are best described as reference books — ones that are designed to provide deep information on a topic and not necessarily to be read cover to cover.

Of the remaining 60, I’ve fully read about half of those. Some I’ve started and just not had time to finish, some are aspirational reading, and some are so hyper-specific that I can’t quite justify spending time reading them at the moment. A history of disinformation and political warfare is something I definitely need to read at some point — but it just doesn’t quite fit with my work plan right now.

So why have I chosen to go all-out and re-read The Unthinkable from cover to cover? I’ve finished it once, have a good idea of what it contains, and know that the the information inside of it is actually really good considering that it was published 15 years ago. I could very easily just go off my memory and skim through it, right? Why bother to deeply re-read and take notes on the entire book?

Because I’ve never done it before.

I’ve never gone back to a book after I’ve read it and looked at it deeply with the benefit and perspective of new experience and (hopefully) wisdom. I want to see if my opinion of this book has changed since I read it the first time.

More importantly, I want to know if I take away new ideas and thoughts that I either didn’t catch or wasn’t ready to find the first time.

As I write this, I’m about a third of the way through my re-reading — and there’s lots in here to harvest and consider. I’m on page 90 with three pages of point-form notes, thoughts, and important quotes.

It’s taking me a while because of the fact that I need to understand and consider everything that’s included so that I can lead the discussion when we analyze it as a group.

More importantly, I’m taking my time because I want to better understand how my own thinking has shifted and how this book (among others) has shaped my perspectives on my calling. With some work, I can then break down those perspectives and hopefully develop more nuanced and detailed perspectives as I go forward.

When I’m done, I’ll post a full review of the book and my thoughts on it.

Bringing this book to my committee gave me an opportunity to re-read it, and an opportunity to deeply consider whether there are more “foundational” books that I need to re-read. Emergency Management is always changing, and we need to change and evolve alongside it — sometimes that means going back and re-reading something that shaped my perspectives to begin with in the hopes of finding new and better perspectives.

I am an Emergency Manager based on the East Coast of Canada whose experience includes responses to major incidents along with prevention, mitigation, preparedness, and recovery in various circumstances. I believe in inclusive and diverse emergency management that elevates those who are historically marginalized and vulnerable. For more about me and my work, please visit my (permanently under construction) website.

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