This summer I reread a lot of books sitting on my shelves. I reread The Grapes of Wrath, which I encountered the first time in high school. I am embarrassed to say that in my youth it made little impression on me. I thought it was a story about something that happened a long time ago, and would never happen again. There was an entire chapter about a turtle crossing the road! I was unmoved.

This time was different. I found it painfully current. It wasn’t much of a stretch to make a connection between the immigration problems in today’s world to the migrant workers fleeing Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. I could easily substitute the tenant farmers in the novel with people today who have spent a lifetime working in factories or coalmines and who are watching their work and livelihoods disappear. I could even appreciate the metaphor of the journey of the tortoise crossing the road. Steinbeck’s writing didn’t just move me this time around, it left me shaken for days.

I also reread Choices by Mary Lee Settle. When I read it maybe 20 years ago, I promptly declared that it was one of my top five favorite books ever. I was curious to see if I still thought so. I do. Top. Five. Favorite. Books. Ever.

And then in the past month, I reread two books by amateur musicians: Never Too Late by John Holt and Play It Again by Alan Rusbridger. While I knew neither book had ever made my Top Five List, I was curious if they still warranted a place on my overflowing shelves. They do. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about them.

John Holt was an educator and a writer who he wrote such groundbreaking books in the 1960’s as How Children Fail and How Children Learn. In Never Too Late, he writes about taking up the cello in his forties. He writes about attending Boston Symphony concerts and joining community orchestras. He writes about the quartets he rehearses with and his different cello teachers. But mostly, he writes about what it means to be a serious amateur musician.

The everyday definition of the word “amateur” simply means someone who engages in an activity without pay, but the root of the word “amateur” stems from the verb “to love.” And man alive, does John Holt love the cello. His passion and practice habits would put many professionals to shame. It is fascinating to read how he carves out practice time from his otherwise busy life. After all, Holt already had a successful, engaging career. And yet, he made room (and a lot of room!) for something else: the cello.

Right on the heels of rereading this book, I pulled off my shelf Play It Again written by The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. Like Holt, here was another man with a compelling and time-consuming career. But unlike Holt, Rusbridger was not taking up the piano in his middle years; he had played piano his whole life, taking lessons as a child, playing in ensembles in college. He even had a regular practice of sight reading duets with other pianists on random free Sunday nights.

But then Rusbridger was inspired to learn Chopin’s G-Minor Ballade, one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. Play It Again is a journal of the eighteen months he was learning the piece, a period of time in which the British paper he edited covered both the WikiLeaks story and the U.K. phone hacking scandal. It was the year of the Japanese tsunami, the Arab Spring and the death of Osama Bin Laden. In other words, things happened.

And yet, he kept practicing. As the editor of a major British newspaper in a world of 24-hour news cycles, Rusbridger’s work never stopped. He writes about last-minute international trips and breaking news arriving by email at 2am. There was a weekend he spent in Libya trying to negotiate the release of a journalist. He oversaw the construction of a music studio in his house in the Cotswalds. By my calculations, most days he slept about four hours a night.

Rusbridger’s practice goals are modest at best: 20 minutes a day, and he readily admits that he doesn’t even manage that many days. But in spite of the turmoil in the world and the very real demands of his job, he keeps returning to the Chopin.

Holt, writing during the 1970’s, is living in a very different world than Rusbridger. Holt is writing before cell phones or internet, Facebook or Netflix, but even so, he speaks of having to make difficult decisions and give up many things he loves in order to have time to practice the cello. There isn’t time for everything, he laments, and then he goes back to practicing.

If I wanted to, I could get high and mighty about all sorts of things when reading these two books, namely the rather inappropriate repertoire these two men choose to tackle. In fact, it’s clear by their own admissions that the rep they play is ridiculously over their heads. As I teacher, I was painfully reminded of all the adult students who have come through my door with no piano skills whatsoever and who are, nevertheless, determined to start, that very day, “Clair de lune” because “my mother always played it.” Oh dear, I always find myself thinking, this is not going to go well.

But in rereading these two books, I realized that while I was somewhat appalled as a teacher, as a reader I was all in. I was on their side, rooting for the amateur to conquer the mountain of the Chopin G-Minor Ballade. I was terribly interested in what made these people (and countless others like them), who otherwise had full and complete lives, decide to devote their time and resources into tackling huge and difficult—indeed, perhaps impossible—music. I found myself marveling at their passion, curiosity and enthusiasm for their musical “hobby.” Towards the end of the process of learning the Ballade, Rusbridger muses, “The real point is not that I can play it to concert standard: it’s been part of a much broader experiment in how to use your time, how to relish—and revel in—being an amateur.”

Likewise, Holt admits that “time is my chief problem . . . I once read a story about a nineteenth-century British writer, I think Matthew Arnold. Someone once asked him how, with all he had to do, he was able to find time to practice and play the piano. He said, ‘I cleared a space.’”

I cleared a space. How lovely. I say, revel on, friends. Revel on.