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.” 

First Book Tag Ever

I’m very excited to be posting my first book tag ever! I think it’s a perfect excuse to share some books I love even if they’re not very recent reads (basically I just want to rant about books). My friend DianaHerself tagged me and I’m happy to oblige. The theme: Avatar, The Last Airbender. So here we go:

Katara and Sokka: Best Sibling Relationship

I’ll have to go with Aaron and Caleb Trask from East of Eden* by John Steinbeck. I have such a crush on this book, I think I have talked about it to every person I’ve seen this year.

Yue: Favourite Star-crossed Lovers

This is really hard. I really have a thing for 19th-century romances, so I’ll go with Caroline Helstone and Robert Moore from Shirley* by Charlotte Brontë. Shirley is such a wonderful novel and, even when it focuses more than her other works on social and political issues—especially the position of women—, it has such a passionate and lively set of characters. Their circumstances are very unfortunate and they’re kind of stubborn too, hence the star-crossed tag.

Bloodbending: A Book With an Unsettling Concept

The most unsettling thing I have read in a while has to be Mysteries of Winterthurn* by Joyce Carol Oates. Before that, I read The Accursed*, which was also very creepy, but her writing is just mesmerising. Winterthurn is composed of three short stories, three different cases that Xavier, our hero, comes across in the village of Winterthurn. They all have a hint of the supernatural and are not really solved in the end. Instead, very disturbing possibilities are suggested. I can’t really say more without spoiling it, but if you’re into mystery, modern gothic and creepy stuff, look no further.

Toph: A Character Whose Strength Is Surprising

Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind* came to mind immediately! I know she’s kind of unpopular, but she is undeniably strong and brave, even when her motivations might not be entirely selfless. I mean, she survived widowhood and poverty, the loss of her parents, unrequited love, took care of an entire plantation, started a business, shot a man, married three times, etc. Remarkable achievements, all because “burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them”.

The Tales of Ba Sing Se: Best Short Story/Poetry Collection

Tough. For short story, I’ll go with Bestiario* by Julio Cortázar. For poetry, I’ll choose The Wasteland and Other Poems* by T.S. Eliot. Both are all-time favourites.

Koshi Warrior: Best Warrior Character

There are so many options! I’ll choose Lyra Belacqua from the His Dark Materials saga. She’s just awesome and I can’t wait for the second part of The Book of Dust* to come out.

Zuko: Best Redemption Arc/Redemption Arc That Should Have Happened

This might sound cliché but I have to say Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment*! I still cry when I think of the Bible scene between Sonya and Raskolnikov. Ivan Ilych also came to mind, what is it with Russians and redemption?

Iroh: Wisest Character

I was tempted to say Dumbledore, but I think I’ll choose a more recent read: Katie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith. I finished this one recently and am still heartbroken. Will post about it soon.

Azula: Best Downfall

Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary*) obviously.

Appa: Favourite Fictional Animal

Hedwig!! Still not over this.

Aang: Purest Cinnamon Roll

Dawsey Adams from The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society*. The whole book is a sweet, warm cinnamon roll but Dawsey, oh God.

Avatar State: A Stubborn Character/A Character That Struggles With Letting Go

Laurie from One Day in December*. You gotta be stubborn to spend a year looking for a stranger you saw briefly at a bus stop. It all goes to show stubbornness might work magic.

I tag whoever wants to do it! Don’t forget to tag me so I can read your answers.

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

Edinburgh: A literature lover’s paradise

“And yet [Edinburgh] establishes an interest in people’s hearts; go where they will, they find no city of the same distinction.”
–Robert Louis Stevenson

If I had to choose a place where it rains more than half of the year to live in, it would be Edinburgh. The clouds there seem to be heavier, immune to the strong winds, forever set upon every turret and tower in the city.  Edinburgh’s Old Town just be one of the most mysterious and enigmatic places in the world. Great part of the city is built on mass graves and ancient graveyards, so it is no wonder that the city is still the centre of many urban legends and the “most haunted place in Europe”. However, it is also an astoundingly beautiful city, and it’s no surprise many writers have found inspiration while living there. I have been in Edinburgh two times now, during winter and Spring, and have visited some places that I’m sure any fellow book lover would love to hear about, so here we go:

The Elephant House

This is a big, comfortable café in which J.K. Rowling spent many hours writing and imagining the world of Harry Potter. There’s usually a queue to order and have a table, but if you’re a fellow potterhead, you just can’t miss it. Coffee and food are okay (the macchiato is really good), but it’s the vibe that is amazing. There are some locals there getting coffee or reading the table, but mostly there are HP fans looking around. The walls are covered in fan art (and elephants, hence the name) and the toilets are completely covered in quotes and messages from the fans. If you have some time to spare, it is a good idea to wait for a table, have coffee or breakfast and take a look around.


Greyfriars Kirk

This graveyard is both creepy and amazing. It is amazing because of all the centuries of history buried there and because its connection with Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling took some of the names for her characters from some graves here. You can actually see Thomas Riddell’s stone and the place from where Sirius Black’s one was stolen (presumably by a fan). To go during the day I recommend taking a free walking tour of the city offered by Kick Ass Hostels, that’s the one I took and it was amazing (and staying there is a good idea if you’re on a budget). There are many legends about the graveyard, my favourites include (and read at your own risk) grave-robbing and the Mackenzie poltergeist.

And if you’re a bit more daring, Greyfriars Kirk is also open for midnight tours. When I was there I took a tour with City of the Dead tours, which also included a night visit to the South Bridge Vaults. Needless to say, I was scared out of my wits. But hey, it’s fun if you don’t have a heart condition.


Bookshops

Edinburgh is swarming with bookshops. Whether they’re second-hand or not, most of them are really pretty and have a wide variety of titles. These are some of my favourites: The Edinburgh Bookshop, Elvis Shakespeare, Armchair Books, Transreal Fiction and Golden Hare Books.


Edinburgh Castle

The most famous landmark of the city. A 12th century castle built on top of an extinct volcano, Castle Rock.

The view you get from Castle Rock is pretty amazing too, so it’s worth the walk.


The Royal Mile, Victoria Street, the Grassmarket

These are the most picturesque and chic streets of Edinburgh. Rowling is said to have been inspired by the colorful and cramped houses and shops of Victoria Street to create Diagon Alley. Also, Princes Street has beautiful gardens and some of the finest architecture of the city, including Sir Walter Scott’s Monument.


Pubs, restaurants and cafés

Brew Lab Coffee and Edinburgh Larder are really cool for a morning cup. For pubs, I recommend The Last Drop and the Port O’Leith, both very traditional and picturesque. And to eat, The Witchery by the Castle for a fancy meal at this gothic hotel. and Tempting Tattie or The Haven for a cheaper, traditional meal. You can try Word of Mouth Cafe for breakfast too!

All in all, Edinburgh is an amazing city, a vibrant mix of the old and the new (see, for example, The Frankenstein, an old church converted into a nightclub). It is also city with a huge literary history and you can visit the birthplaces of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle, or recognize some of the iconic places from Welsh’s Trainspotting.

What else would you recommend doing in the city?

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Were It Not For Coffee…

“Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”
—Honoré de Balzac
“Coffee gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself.”
—Gertrude Stein

For me, it is impossible to imagine a world without coffee. It is better to believe that humanity has always counted with its help to get through everyday life, through mornings, through sleepless nights. Nevertheless, the history of the dark, hot beverage we worship today is relatively recent. The use of the coffee tree can be traced far back, to texts like the Odyssey, the Bible or the Quran. In ancient Ethiopia, coffee beans were mixed with other fruits to create a fermented beverage. In other regions of Africa, coffee was used because of its medicinal properties and later it came to the Middle East, where it was known for its stimulant effects. Time after, around the 14th century, it became popular in Rome, not without some discussion against its “demoniac” effects. As to America, coffee arrived during the Conquest and its use dispersed quickly.

The coffee plant, a slender tree with cherry-looking red fruits, does not bear much resemblance to the toasted, aromatic beans we buy in coffee shops these days. We owe this presentation of coffee to 18th century Europe, where coffee was reserved for royalty and aristocracy. The beverage we now know counts Louis XV of France and Rousseau among its first adepts, also Voltaire, who it is said used to drink around 40 cups of coffee mixed with chocolate a day.

It makes sense that a beverage capable of dispelling sleep and improving attention became more and more popular as the world entered the Industrial Age. It also became available not only for the rich, but also for the middle classes and the intellectual circles. Coffee’s popularity caused the emergence of places specialized in its preparation and distribution, cafés. Today we can find many kinds of cafés, but despite their inoffensive image, their history is related to political meetings, literary debates and revolutionary gatherings.

 

Cafés oscillate between the private and the public, between the intimate and the social. The place cafés occupy in history has been crucial for the development of philosophy, politics and literature; hundreds of artists and thinkers have met there to discuss and share ideas. Even when it is a public space, it is also intimate to the extent that many private conversations happen at the same time and voices fade in the general murmur.

Also, cafés are surrounded with an intellectual aura, they used to represent the vie bohème and, even now, poetry readings and exhibitions take place in chic cafés. The characters from Cortázar’s Rayuela, listening to jazz and wandering around Paris’ cafés, the characters from Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes drinking cup after cup and gathering in ramshakled coffee shops in Mexico City, Franz Kafka reading his writings to his friends in a small café in Prague, are just some examples of the close relationship between artists and intellectuals, specifically writers, and cafés.

Even when cafés offer many commodities for groups, but they also have their charms for the lone visitor. Some of the most important literary works have been written in cafés. Hemingway speaks of his writing experiences in cafés in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter in Paris. Scott Fitzgerald and T. S. Eliot also wrote in cafés, J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a small café in the heart of Edinburgh, The Elephant House, McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café takes place in, well, a sad café.

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Apart from encouraging writing, cafés offer a discreet window to the outside world, an opportunity of solitary observation fuelled by caffeine consumption. Cafés open up a space and time where one can just be, where one can just look around or think with the excuse of drinking a cup of coffee. The action of drinking coffee is really just that, an excuse for being late, an alibi, a justification for taking time for one’s self. To drink coffee is to postpone: postpone sleep but also defer physical activity, put off the everyday routine and privilege, instead, intellectual activity, reading, conversation, thought.

Coffee is a place and an activity. The beverage in itself, the extract from coffee beans, is also linked to intellectual life and literary work. Technically, coffee is stimulant because it contains caffeine, a chemical compound that affects the central nervous system directly. Its effect is not that different from that of cocaine, but in a minor degree: it affects behaviour, mood and the answer to external stimuli.

Even when it would be necessary to consume more than 100 cups of coffee to die from it, just a couple of them can dispel sleep and improve our attention capacity. Balzac used to drink more than 50 cups a day when he was working on La Comédie humaine, and he thanked the magic elixir for his writing abilities; he wrote day and night, just taking some naps.

The work of the sleepless writer involves the voluntary deferring of sleep to satisfy a much more urgent need: writing. No matter how relieving sleep might be, night-time seems to be the favourite moment of the day for writers. It is at least the only moment they really own, that moment in which they don’t have to work, perhaps the only time they can dedicate to their personal projects, those which the course of everyday life makes them postpone indefinitely. Night-time also offers silence and a new chance for astonishment, because thins are different in darkness, when it is certain that everybody else sleeps. But night-time could be the theme of another essay; the truth is, coffee allows one to rebel against one’s own body clock, a chance to appropriate the time that shouldn’t belong to consciousness; coffee is a tool in the exploration of night-time.

If Balzac represents sleepless, coffee-addict writers, it is important to speak of the other type of sleepless, coffee addicts, the ones that defer sleep in the pursue of another necessity: reading. Maybe they have to read, maybe they want to read, but in any case, caffeine-fueled reading is a different kind of reading. The effects of coffee, agility and even nervousness, make of it an altered reading that may have some incidence in dreams, that might result in misinterpretation or overinterpretation (the best kinds of reading).

And for the sleepless writer/reader, coffee is an ally in the mornings too. This time is also about postponing, about delaying the start of the day. The morning cup represents a brief time in which we can collect strength to take us through the day. Morning coffee is an intimate moment, a chance to really wake up, with every sense, a personal time in which we may read a book or the newspaper to find out the kind of world we woke up in that day, or simply look at the coffee cup until sleepiness is finally gone.

In the end, to drink coffee is an act of faith, a possibility to be more, to write more and to read more (activities that might be the same), a door into the world. Just like ink and paper, coffee is necessary to literary life. I’m not saying other professions don’t count on coffee, but maybe those who haven’t felt the frenzy of drinking coffee after midnight just to be able to keep reading or writing, don’t feel shivers down their spines when they think that, were it not for coffee, many masterpieces would have never been written.