I’d like to preface this blog post with a statement which avid readers know all too well: don’t take me to a bookstore.
More than once have I, like many bookworms, been deserted at a bookstore by non-reading friends and family who “just needed to leave”- only to be found hours later, curled up behind a bookshelf, lost in a book with a stack of novels beside me and, on rare occassions, the bookshop’s cat in my lap.
Why do I love reading? One of the most valuable investments one can make is an investment in education (whether formal or informal). Once knowledge is acquired it cannot be taken away, nor lose its value. Reading, whether it be for the intentional acquisition of knowledge or simply for pleasure, opens our minds to windows to the past, glimpses of possible futures, fantasies, solutions and new ways of thought.
That being said, here are 15 of my favorite books in a number of genres.
What I’ve been reading the past few weeks:
1.// The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
I originally picked up The Alchemist as a quick in-flight read for a recent work trip to Chicago. Yet I’ve never had so many people approach me in public and comment on a book I was reading. Responses varied from the burly man in a Green Bay Packers jersey seated next to me with his little boy on the flight saying, “that’s my favorite book” and proceeding to help me with my heavy luggage off the plane, to an East Coast couple inviting me to share their table at a restaurant in Chicago where I was eating dinner alone because “they loved the book”, to an eighteen year old kid seated beside me at a coffee shop in West Hollywood commenting, “that book inspired me to move to LA”.
My takeaway from The Alchemist wasn’t exclusively the lessons in the book, but rather the real-world reactions of those around me whom had also read it: that everyone has a dream (or in the words of Paulo Coelho, a “Personal Legend”). Everyone has a desire to discover their purpose, to feel at one with the Universe or whatever higher power they acknowledge. This desire transcends race, gender, religion, age or socioeconomic status.
When we realize we are not alone in the pursuit of our dreams no matter how lofty or how simple they may be, it allows us to connect with and love those around us who we would otherwise find very different than ourselves. Perhaps, also in the words of Coelho, this is a reflection of the “Language of the World”.
I got into the habit of reading this book with a pen in hand, making notes in the margins of my favorite passages. Here’s a few of my highlighted favorites:
“Intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life.”
“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
“When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”
“There was a language in the world that everyone understood, a language the boy had used throughout the time that he was trying to improve things at the shop. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired.”
2.// A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
A Thousand Splendid Suns is, without a doubt, one of my favorite literary works that I’ve read in my lifetime. Khaled Hosseini’s story chronicles the lives of Mariam and Laila, two very different women brought together during thirty years of Afghan history. The novel was lyrical, moving and exquisitely written. As a story of family, faith and love in all its forms, it reminded me of why I fell in love with literature in the first place.
Beautifully written and heart-wrenching, I found myself becoming teary-eyed while reading A Thousand Splendid Suns. It’s the type of book which makes one cry not just for the pain of the protagonists, but cry knowing the hardships the characters endure reflects reality, and the suffering of innocent bystanders in the midst of war, power and conflict. Yet, we are also reminded of the beauty of human connection, of love and compassion and of the power of quiet strength in the face of adversity.
SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY
Moving onto more speculative, scientific works, here are some of my favorites.
3.// A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
To say A Brief History of Time is popular would be an understatement: more than 10 million copies have been sold since its 1988 publication. What I most appreciate about A Brief History of Time is the late Steven Hawking’s conversational (and occasionally humorous) approach to cosmology.
One of my favorite passages:
“But the idea that God might want to change his mind is an example of the fallacy, pointed out by St. Augustine, of imagining God as a being existing in time: time is a property only of the universe that God created.”
― Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
4.// A Beautiful Question – Frank Wilczek
The equations for atoms and light are almost the same ones that govern musical instruments and sound; the subatomic particles that are responsible for most of our mass are determined by simple geometric symmetries.
Is the Universe governed by beautiful ideas? A Beautiful Question is a rumination of the world’s beauty, founded on complex quantum mechanics and explained through understandable principles.
5.// Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion – Sam Harris
Waking Up addresses the 20 percent of Americans who are “spiritual”, suggesting important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other figures throughout history. Harris explores the mind, consciousness and meditation, grounded on the concept that our minds determine our quality of life, not our circumstances.
It addresses the conundrums that many of us face: that religious teachings can often lack the logic of scientific principles, yet science is so data-centric that it ignores the higher connecting truths found across all religions.
6.// The Essential Rumi – (Translations by Coleman Barks with John Moyne)
I’ll be the first to admit, life gets busy and I don’t always have time to read. If I’m looking for a short escape before bed without the heaviness of a novel, or some quick inspiration to cure writer’s block, sometimes all it takes is reading a few beautifully written verses.
That’s why I love reading (and writing) poetry. Written word is communication, yet at its core, written word is art. Poetry’s beauty and the lyrical nature of language can elicit real human emotion, through something as simple as marks on a page. To me, that concept is nothing short of an everyday miracle and celebration of the human experience.
LIGHTER “Just-For-Fun” READS
Onto a lighter note! What would a 20-something year old woman’s reading list be without some light reads? (It can’t all be poetry, literature and quantum physics)
7.// Honey Girl – Lisa Freeman
A few years ago I attended Santa Monica College and took a creative writing elective. Once a week, my professor would begrudgingly bring boxes of books to class (complaining that his wife was making him clear out his “excessive book collection” at home *all too relatable*). As a result, I received a copy of Honey Girl, written by his friend, Lisa Freeman.
Published in 2015, Honey Girl takes place in Santa Monica in the 1970s. It’s a light read in the YA fiction genre. In the novel, 15 year-old surfer Haunani “Nani” Grace Nuuhiwa is transplanted from her home in Hawaii to Santa Monica, California after her father’s fatal heart attack. The novel is an honest portrayal of Nani’s desire to fit in, the grieving process of losing her father and an exploration of her sexuality as she falls in love with her female friend.
8.// #GIRLBOSS- Sophia Amoruso
#GIRLBOSS chronicals the journey of Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal. Amoruso tells her unconventional journey to success from being a fashion savvy college drop out, committing petty theft and dumpster-diving, to becoming founder of a successful online retailer, Nasty Gal.
The book was turned into a Netflix show, but was not renewed for a second season, most notably, because the character was thought to be “too abrasive” to appeal to audiences (*ironically, I thought she was a badass*). #GIRLBOSS is about rolling up your sleeves, trusting your instincts, breaking the rules and following the unconventional path to success.
9.// Eat Pray Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
What woman hasn’t read Eat Pray Love, or at least seen the film? The memoir chronicles Gilbert’s trip around the world, namely Italy, India and Bali, after her divorce and what she discovered during her travels.
(Admittedly, Eat Pray Love was a welcome distraction during my own rough breakup, as I spent a few nights reciting its Italian verses aloud, fantasizing of following Elizabeth’s suit and escaping across the world.)
10.// The Mermaid Collector – Erika Marks
Moving on to highly underrated works of beautiful literature: The Mermaid Collector. Both heartbreaking and mesmerizing, The Mermaid Collector takes place in a seaside village in Maine, chronicling two stories. The first is a love triangle between the lighthouse keeper and his wife in the 1800s and a mysterious disappearance due to “mermaids”. The second story is the modern-day folklore surrounding the town, which grounds the book in reality. The Mermaid Collector is a mesmerizing story about saving ourselves by saving each other.
11.// Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Set nearly 600 years in the future, Brave New World enters a society where human life has been industrialized. Humans are genetically bred, socially indoctrinated, and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively uphold an authoritarian government.
What is most astounding about this book is its 1932 publication, where Huxley anticipates a society overtaken by technology rather than politicians, something eerily real in our modern world of AI, genetic engineering and corporate-owned data of the masses. How is Brave New World’s population kept under control? By sex, drugs and music. This is a chilling reminder of the very technologies which govern and monitor our lives today harnessing us through trivial pleasures and entertainment…
12.// When the Wind Blows – James Patterson
When the Wind Blows follows six genetically engineered avian-human hybrid children escaping from a lab, hidden by a FBI agent and veterinarian. While a large organization of renegade genetic manipulators operating hidden from law enforcement and murdering its adversaries is a bit of a reach, and the novel reads more like a summer blockbuster than literary fiction, When the Wind Blows does raise some interesting questions.
What are the ethical implications of genetic engineering? What is the degree of experimentation carried out privately in the world today? What might the future hold if genetic engineering were unrestricted?
SHORT STORIES AND CLASSIC LITERATURE
13.// The Long Valley – John Steinbeck
A classic work of American literature, I adore The Long Valley for Steinbeck’s rich, descriptive writing style. My favorite story in The Long Valley, “The Chrysanthemums”, is an understated but pointed critique of a society that has no place for intelligent women. Everything, from the setting in the Salinas Valley to the weather and dress of the characters illustrates Steinbeck’s message, leaving the work as one of my personal favorite inspirations for short story writing.
14.// A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
Traditionally a feminist work published in 1929, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own discusses the literal and figurative space for women writers within a patriarchal society. The work raises questions such as ‘what if Shakespeare was a woman’ and ‘why did Jane Austen hide her manuscripts from guests’? What creates a woman’s writing and is that different from the writing of a man?
A Room of One’s Own emphasizes the importance of every woman having a room and money of her own, to be truly independent. Nearly 100 years later, Woolf’s message of having “a room of one’s own” is still widely relevant, and not just in developing countries.
15.// The Allegory of the Cave – Plato
A short excerpt from the book seven of Plato’s book, The Republic, The Allegory of the Cave is one of the most well-recognized passages in Western philosophy. While the passage can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, a standalone truth is that knowledge and enlightenment may lead one’s thinking down paths society does not support.
To conclude this reading list, here’s a great explanation of The Allegory of the Cave by Ted-Ed, worth watching:
Bonus: *CURRENTLY READING*
What’s next on my reading list? These four:
Any recommendations? What are your favorite books?
x. Natasha Overin