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.” 

“Trouble with mice is you always kill’em”: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

In 1937, John Steinbeck published what would be considered by many his finest novel, Of Mice and Men*. It is a book, I hear, that appears in many basic courses of American Literature. It is also an introduction to Steinbeck’s California and its many injustices, its changing landscapes, burning suns and many struggles at the beginnings of the 20th century. Also, it is only a hundred pages long and composed mainly of dialogue.

It was only this year that I was introduced to Mr Steinbeck’s work. I read Travels with Charley in Search of America* in January, then East of Eden* in February and The Grapes of Wrath* in March. Needless to say, I am fascinated with Steinbeck and very surprised about the fact that I didn’t read him for any of my university modules, not even for North American Literature. But I am trying to repair the damage here, so Of Mice and Men seemed like the obvious choice. What can I even say about this book? It is heartbreaking in a way only Steinbeck could achieve, masterful in its narrative and its characters, engrossing and gripping, somewhat of a punch in the gut. It seems to be a more mature work than both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath even though it was published before both (and even though East of Eden will always be my favourite).

“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” 

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

I know this is a very common high school read, so I probably won’t spoil anything here. Basically, it is the story of two friends: George, who is small and cunning, and Lennie, who is big, strong and has an undescribed mental disability. George takes care of Lennie, but Lennie’s strenght often gets them both in trouble because he’s not aware of it. Lennie also has a characteristic trait: he loves to pet soft animals, such as mice, but he often kills them involuntarily.

When we meet them, George has found a new job for the two of them at a ranch close to Salinas. The ranch is okay and Lennie is even promised a puppy, but things get complicated when the son of the ranch owner, Curley, picks at Lennie. In addition to this, his wife is always flirting with the ranch labourers. Anyway, George has a plan for him and Lennie, whose only relative died and left him in charge of George: if they can handle a season of work, then they’ll have enough money to buy their own piece of land. The topic of lower classes looking for a piece of land in the still unexploited California and the relations drawn between the state and the Promised Land is common throughout Steinbeck’s work, the impossible achievement of the American Dream:

“Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.” 

This small book is really perfect, every word seems to be in place, every dialogue has a cadence and rhythm that brings the world of ranch labourers to life in just a couple of pages. Every character exhilarates life and a rich personality of which we learn through other characters and a few, scant lines of description.

What is probably more interesting about the book is its structure, that of Matryoshka dolls: events repeat themselves in different layers, over and over. For example, when Lennie kills a mouse at the beginning for petting it too hard, you kind of expect this will happen with the ranch puppies, and later when Curley’s wife mentions she has really soft hair, well, you see what is coming. Another story that repeats itself is that of the dog, although here the circle is broken by choice (a very important topic in Steinbeck, too: free will). Candy, the oldest labourer, can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog, his companion for so long, and other labourer does it for him. Candy can’t get over this and regrets not having done it himself, “I oughtta of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t oughtta of let no stranger shoot my dog.” Shooting a friend or let strangers do it is a choice George faces later, in the tragic ending of the novel. Also, the plot of the novel is advanced by hints continually, which is why there is so much tension in it. Of Mice and Men is read compulsively like a thriller, you really get a sense of what is going to happen, yet you have to keep reading.

The theme of the novel reminded me of East of Eden for its appraisal of free will and choice. There is always a search for the motivations of people in Steinbeck’s works, a try to understand the meanness and evil that we’re capable of, but there is often a flicker of light—friendship, love, sacrifice— found at the heart of the smallest acts.

Finally, who is the protagonist of the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one since I’m still thinking about it. Even though I think the main theme is friendship—the relationship between George and Lennie—, I believe the main character is George. They are both unlucky, tragic characters: Lennie seems doomed to kill everything he loves, and George seems doomed to have all his plans ruined by his friendship to Lennie, he promised his dying aunt he would take care of him. But George does have a choice, and he chooses to stay with Lennie over and over again, even if it costs him his jobs. It’s a heartbreaking piece of literature, definitely one that I’ll be thinking about for a while.

Have you read it? What did you think of it? If not, I couldn’t recommend the book more! I just finished another American classic I loved, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith.

Right now I’m stepping away from heartbreak for a while and enjoying In a Sunburned Country* by Bill Bryson.

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*Disclaimer: If you do buy any of these titles from the links, I receive a commission from Amazon. This does not affect the price of the books anyhow.

‘Thou Mayest’: John Steinbeck on Free Will

“‘I am mine, I am my own’,
Said the ancients years ago”
–”I am mine”, Beta Radio
 

A couple of months ago I found a copy of Travels with Charlie in Search of America by John Steinbeck at O’Hare Airport. I had never read anything by him before, but this memoir was on my travel books list. Being traveling at the time, I thought it was only fitting to read it. This book marked me deeply, and it was the beginning of my current love affair with John Steinbeck’s work. I learned many things from and because of the book, amongst them a refreshened sense of accountability and what it means to be free.

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Also, I have a crush on him.

Almost at the beginning of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck justifies his desire of going on a road trip at his age (he was sixty) with the following quote:

“For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as consequence, not as punishment.”

It is the last part, about acknowledging the consequences of our actions as such, where the possibility of freedom lies. Far from romanticizing free will, Steinbeck does not seek it in the possibility of doing whatever one chooses, but rather in recognizing the outcomes of our actions as completely our own. Free will resides in being individually accountable for our actions, however good or bad, fortunate or ill-timed, as completely our doing. Free will requires therefore a rejection of all superstition and religious fatality.

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Later on in his memoir, Steinbeck attends mass at a small church in Vermont. After describing the harsh manner of the priest and his straightforward attitude about hell and sinning, he writes:

“The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control.”

The problem with the “sinning nature” of humanity shared by many a religion lies exactly there: it is not possible to be accountable of something we are not guilty of, something we cannot help. But without accountability there cannot be choice, not self-reliance, no freedom. The priest Steinbeck writes about did not see it that way, and assured everyone in the service that they would indeed burn in hell if they did not change their ways. Instead of being frightening, this thought is uplifting for Steinbeck; there is choice then, and if one is to burn in hell, it is because of his or her own doing:

“I hadn’t been thinking very well of myself for some years, but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left. I wasn’t a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it.”

Funny as this passage might be, it had me thinking for a long time after finishing the book how damaging it is to find excuses for our wrong doings (in our religious belief, in our upbringing, in our family history, in our social or economic circumstances). Not only because it takes from us the pride there is in any achievement (if our wrongdoings are not our own, surely our successes can’t be completely ours either) but because it completely alters the light under which we see ourselves. There is no greater danger than believing we are not accountable for our actions, good or bad.

A few weeks after reading Travels with Charley, I bough a copy of East of Eden. I couldn’t wait to see if his novels were as compelling as what I had read so far. I was not disappointed. Out of the many things that are praise-worthy in the book, I was surprised to see the whole novel revolves about the same dilemma on free-will and accountability.

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East of Eden, as its name suggests, is in some ways a reenacting of the Book of Genesis, specially the story about Cain and Abel. The novel follows various generations of two families that settle in the Salinas Valley at the end of the 19th century: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. There is a wonderful chapter in the middle of the novel in which the characters discuss the story of Cain and Abel. As Lee, a Chinese employee in the Trask ranch, says, the different translations of the story alter its meaning completely.

When God, in the Book of Genesis, finds out Cain killed his brother Abel, he banishes Cain to the East of Eden and He says to him, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?, and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door”. This is the choice given to Cain, however the next part of the dialogue varies depending on the translation. The King James versions says, “And unto thee shalt be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him”. This is, as Lee acknowledges, a  promise: Cain will conquer sin, therefore his free will is taken from him.

Another version of the Bible, the American Standard, says “do thou rule over him” instead. This is not a promise, but an order, also taking free will out of the question. Lee is also not satisfied with this translation, so he consults some scholars on the Hebrew word used in the passage. The word is timshel and it does not mean either “thou shalt” or “do thou”. It means “thou mayest”, thou mayest rule over sin:

“… the Hebrew word, the word timshel‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on man. For if ‘Thou mayest’, then it’s also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see? […] Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and in his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win […]

I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed—because ‘Thou mayest’.”

Timshel is the motif of the whole novel, a retelling of the book of Genesis with an emphasis in the possibility of choosing. The novel follows the hardships of a varied set of characters, and each one of the is confronted with difficult choices, some great and some small, but not all of them are accountable for the paths they choose.

The same respect towards accountably that an older Steinbeck would put down in his travel memoir can be seen in East of Eden, and also his belief that literature is nothing but an attempt to explain this struggle, this search for and fear of free will:

“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?”

East of Eden was published ten years before Travels with Charley, and both follow the same line of thought on free will. They both speak of a complex kind of freedom, a kind of freedom that rejects the two main myths about humanity, that people are inherently good or evil; a kind of freedom that places a huge responsibility on being human: “You see, there is responsibility in being a person. It’s more than just taking up space where air would be”. And it is in the responsibility and in the hardship where beauty lies, for if we are capable of the worst evil, we are also capable of the greatest good; “I am my own”, Caleb says in the novel, “If I’m mean, it’s my own mean”.


I am currently reading The Grapes of Wrath (I am obsessed with Steinbeck, I know). Have you read anything by him? Any recommendations on what to read next?

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Also, here are two relevant songs:

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