24 Books That Marked Me

Yesterday I turned 24. Scary. I’ve had the fortune to read many things along the years, and most of them have taught me something or challenged me in some way. Looking over all the things I’ve read, as one is bound to do when feeling nostalgic, I noticed that while there are hundreds of books I love, the ones that have actually changed me or that became an important part of who I am today are few, so I thought, why not choose a book that has marked me for each time I’ve completed a lap around the sun? These are the books I can’t imagine my life without (order is alphabetical).

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

††††“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dram all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” 

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us […] Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their arrive and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil […] There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, ill have left only the hard, clean questions Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them.” 

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” 

Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Hymns to the Night, Novalis

“At no grave can weep
Any who love and pray.”

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

“The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life? 

Answer.

That you are here—that life exists, and identity; 
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

“Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t ever see them fading.” 

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” 

Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Trust thyself. Every heart virbates to that iron string”

The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

“If a coin comes down heads, that means that the possibility of its coming down tails has collapsed. Until that moment the two possibilities were equal. 
But on another world, it does come down tails. And when that happens, the two worlds split apart.” 

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector

“The world’s continual breathing is what we hear and call silence.” 

The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe

“I am proud of my heart alone, it is the sole source of everything, all our strength, happiness and misery. All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own” 

The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Janice Galloway

“No matter how often I think I can’t stand it anymore, I always do. There is no alternative. I don’t fall, I don’t foam at the mouth, faint, collapse or die. It’s the same for all of us. You can’t get out of the inside of your own head. Something keeps you going. Something always does.”

The Waste Land and Other Poems, T. S. Eliot

“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Villette, Charlotte Bronte

“So peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star.”

Walden, Henry David Thoreau

“Not until we are lost do we being to understand ourselves.”

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

“… perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant i too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” 

“The World Was Hers For The Reading”: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

In 1943, Betty Smith published what would become her most famous work and one of the most representative pieces of American literature. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* was an instant hit, at the time being only surpassed by Gone With the Wind * in sales.

The novel narrates the life of Francie Nolan and her family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Francie’s parents are both first-generation Americans, of Austrian and Irish ascendance, which is one of the aspects that mirror the life of Betty Smith, herself the daughter of German immigrants. The social dynamics of the Brooklyn described in the novel are greatly determined by nationalities and religious beliefs, so the Nolans live in a mainly Catholic and Irish neighbourhood, Catholicism being also an important part of Francie’s upbringing and it’s present throughout the novel.

The way in which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is narrated is fairly traditional, but has various peculiarities. We are first introduced to Francie: she’s hiding in a corner between the fire escape and a window of her building, out of sight, a book in hand, observing the world around her. This first description is already telling us a lot about the protagonist, who is six years old at the beginning of the novel. We then are taken through a series of passages about every day Williamsburg and are introduced to Francie’s family: her little brother Neeley, her father Johnnie, and her mother Katie. Some pages later the narrative goes back to Katie and Johnnie’s youth. From here, the novel often goes back and forth in time to tell of events or give other character’s backgrounds. Betty Smith is also the kind of narrator that actively introduces her voice to assess and give opinions about the event’s she’s narrating.

So what is the story? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book about poverty and hardship, but it is not a moral made out of poor people. Being partly biographic (Francie Nolan and the author even share the same birthday, 15th of December), Smith manages to include all the hard and uncomfortable aspects of poverty without glorifying or martyrising her characters. The result is an amazing and endearing set of characters whose personalities and stories are not entirely about their social circumstances.

It could be said the story focuses on how education and sacrifice can better lives—certainly Francie’s love for reading is a great part of her character’s arc throughout the novel—, but if I had to define the novel I would say it is about dignity and character, about resilience and hope, about the universality of human experience and the search for beauty. It is also a book about a people who read, and I think those are usually my favourites.

The highlight of the book is, of course, Francie Nolan. What a character! She is a voracious reader, a quiet observer, a determined and stubborn girl. Her family is far from perfect, her father is an alcoholic and her mother supports them all by cleaning houses. Growing up, Francie goes through a lot—her family can barely afford food, she suffers bullying and harassment, has to quit school to work, is told by a teacher not to write about her family for it is “shameful”.

She is a lonely, shy child, and yet she exhilarates so much life through her reading and writing, her feelings and observations. She is one of those character’s whose internal life is far richer than what their appearances might give out, which is perhaps why I sympathised so much with her. One of my favourite parts of the book is actually a description of Francie:

“She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly […] She was all of these things and something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only—the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life—the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”

At the very beginning of the novel, Francie observes a tree. It is a small, weak-looking kind of tree that grows right outside her building, out of concrete. Not a beautiful tree, perhaps, but a strong one. The whole novel then revolves around the similarities between Francie and this tree, their similarities as resilient beings, gathering strength from scarcity and hardship.

“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”

And Francie is strong, but she is strong in quiet ways. As it happens with many readers, she dreams too much and expects much out of life: she wants to experience everything books have told her exists, she wants to be, in her words, “drunk with life”. This is perhaps why every description of things from her perspective is so lively, from a bakery to a firework show.

“But she didn’t want to recall things. She wanted to live things—or as a compromise, re-live rather than reminisce. She decided to fix this time in her life exactly the way it was this instant. Perhaps that way she could hold on to it as a living thing and not have it become something called a memory.”

For me, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the kind of book that says, okay, these are the cards you were dealt, what the hell are you gonna do with them? how’re you gonna make it into an interesting story? No self-pity in it. I sure saw many things of myself in Francie Nolan and many familiar things in her family, that is perhaps why I enjoyed the book so much. I also loved how it approaches reading and literature.

From the moment Francie learns to read, she becomes a voracious reader and then a writer, and throughout the novel the book poses important questions about both: do we read to escape life, or to have a bit more of it? What is really the purpose of fiction, why do we need it so much? To help us cope with living, or to allow us to live more, if only vicariously?

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book every day as long as she lived.”

I think we read and write for both reasons. What are your thoughts on that? Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I am currently reading A Discovery of Witches* by Deborah Harkness, but I am afraid I’m not enjoying it that much. I took a break from it in which I read V for Vendetta*. That was a wild ride. I’ll finish this post with another beautiful quote from Betty Smith.

“‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.'”

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*Disclaimer: If you do buy any of the books mentioned through these links, I will receive a commission. This does not affect the prices whatsoever.

What I Read: May

May is finally over! Does anyone else feel like it dragged on forever? It was a very productive month for me, but I have big plans for June: reading challenges, trips and other projects. I’m really not sad May it’s over, but here’s to the books I read in it.

The Thorn Birds* by Colleen McCullough

Started the month strong with these thick, beautiful novel about a family who moves to the Australian Outback at the beginnings of the 20th century. More hype about it can be found here, but long story short, it’s a family saga full of forbidden passions, natural dangers, great characters and a sexy priest. I must say I’m not a fan of McCullough’s style, but boy can she come up with a good plot.

Finding North* by George Michelsen Foy

Another one towards my goal to read more nonfiction. This book was really interesting! It tells of a man’s efforts to recreate a fatal trip one of his ancestors did in the 19th century. Meanwhile, he also explains a lot of things about the importance of navigation, from how our brains manage to perceive and recognise spaces to a historical account of how we’ve managed to survive in the wilderness/the sea. I did not love this one, but I found it really interesting. More about it here.

Ojos de Papel Volando* by María Luisa Mendoza

This was a recommendation by a friend and I really liked it! I’m only surprised I hadn’t heard about María Luisa Mendoza (not once!) in any of my university courses (I studied Latin American Literature). This is a collection of short stories focused on remembering, on reliving experiences through memory, it has a Proustian vibe that I really liked. It is a lovely book with major references to Guanajuato, the state in which both the author and I were born. A must-read for anyone interested in Mexican contemporary literature.

Of Mice and Men* by John Steinbeck

Awesomeness! Can’t believe I hadn’t read this also, just wow. More about it here.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith

Another book I couldn’t put down! This book made me cry so many times. It is the story of Francie Nolan, a girl born in Brooklyn at the beginning of the 20th century. Francie’s family is really poor, her father is an alcoholic and her mother works as a cleaning lady to support the whole family. They just go through a lot, and yet the book is always gracious and elegant, even sassy at times. I’m writing a review about it and I’ll post it soon. I honestly think it became one of my favourite novels.

In a Sunburned Country* by Bill Bryson

More nonfiction! I just love Bill Bryson, he’s so witty and funny and I think it would be awesome to have a conversation with him in real life. I fell in love with him his writing after reading A Walk in the Woods and later read Notes from a Small Island, which I also enjoyed but not that much. Well, In a Sunburned Country is really cool. It’s a travel book about Australia (yes, I’m currently obsessed with Australia but I have a reason 🤞🏼) and I just think no one could approach the many dangers—spiders, snakes, poisonous jellyfish and arm-devouring sharks— of the country in such a funny way. Recommended for any travel lit reader.

That was it! I did not read that many books (Goodreads kindly reminds me that I’m 7 books behind my reading goal, thanks) but I enjoyed everything I read! Now I’m back to some fantasy with A Discovery of Witches and have ordered The Secret History* by Donna Tartt as my first book for the Penguin Reading Challenge. You can subscribe for the challenge here! What are you guys reading? Any thoughts about the books in this list?

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*Disclaimer: If you buy any of the books mentioned through the link provided, I will receive a commission. This does not affect the price of the items whatsoever!