It is often said that travelling broadens your horizons and helps you understand the ways of the world. As someone who has lived in different countries and visited many more, I wholeheartedly agree with this thought. Travelling has shown me the diversity of culture, language, and history that exists. However, the honest truth is that, perhaps due to opportunity, financial constraints, or personal reasons, not everyone has the chance to travel. Yet, there is a way to wander the world without getting on a plane! Literature allows us to be curious and delve into foreign places, different eras, and make new friends. Here are some books to understand the world better IMHO.
1. Falling in Love With Barcelona With The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
´Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it.´
This book stood unread for many years on my shelf, despite the many amazing recommendations from my mum. When I eventually opened it as a teenager, I stayed up all night under my duvet, reading it from cover to cover. The Shadow of the Wind tells the story of Daniel, an 11-year-old boy in Barcelona during the Franco dictatorship. Taken by his father, who is a second-hand bookseller, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, he finds a copy of The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. He, like me, reads the book in one night and is determined to find other books by the author. However, finding out more about Julian Carax opens up a nest of intricate mystery and dark secrets, which is a reflection of the guarded times in Francoist Spain.
When I read Zafón’s description of his Barcelona, I felt as though I was in those streets. I imagined myself walking along the Ramblas, having a cortado outside the bohemian cafe Els Quatre Gats or getting on the tram up to Avenida del Tibidabo. Never before have I felt so transported by prose. His details of the shops, labyrinthine alleyways, and Gothic architecture made me desperate to visit Barcelona. I recently went to Barcelona and found myself looking for the mentioned streets and monuments. It was like literature coming to life, and the book acted as my map around the city! I often say that this novel is my favourite book for the reason that I completely lose myself when reading it and feel that I, too, am ambling through the streets of Zafón’s Barcelona.
2. Living With loneliness With Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
‘Sometimes you simply needed someone kind to sit with you while you dealt with things.’
Gail Honeyman’s first novel really spoke to me on a personal level. Eleanor Oliphant is a 29-year-old finance clerk living in Scotland. She is good at her job but has no friends and very little social interaction. Every weekend, she drinks two bottles of vodka alone in her house. She is a very lonely person who we discover has a very dark, traumatic past. As her mental health deteriorates, emerging relationships bring her back to a better place. While I do not identify with the character completely, there are elements of her life that resonate with me.
Mental health is something I have always struggled with. As a child, I was very shy and anxious, which led me to have little self-confidence. The school was definitely not the place for me! When I went to university, I came out of my shell and gathered an amazing group of friends around me. On my travels, I have expanded my friendship group, which has now become my second family. However, recently I have felt the longing to settle somewhere more permanent as saying goodbye to people when I move somewhere else never gets easier. I have never felt settled in a community, and this has led me to experience bouts of loneliness. The covid lockdown really pronounced this feeling as I was away from a lot of my friends, most of whom live in other countries.
Reading Eleanor Oliphant’s story reinforced my thinking that surrounding yourself with even a few intimate friendships can really help you when you are in a dark place. A friend doesn’t need to talk to you about your innermost worries for the loneliness to subside. Simply sitting near them or talking about nonsense can make the world seem a little brighter.
3. The Magic of Coming of Age With Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
“You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!”
As with most adults of my generation, I grew up with Harry Potter. I eagerly awaited my letter from Hogwarts, which never came. Drawn in by the story and characters as a child, when I look back on the Harry Potter series now, I realise it was much more than a children’s story. The series truly shows the journey from child to adult, facing up to serious responsibilities, coping with loss, and cultivating important relationships. For me, the fourth instalment marks the turning point from Harry Potter the boy to the beginnings of adulthood. In The Goblet of Fire, Harry’s friendships are put to the test. He has challenges in the form of Triwizard tasks and confronts evil and death.
The important message of personal growth and acceptance of self-identity, which is present in the book, has helped the way I see my own journey. The transition from child to adult is not an easy road, and it can feel fraught with dangers, heartbreak, and setbacks. To know that everyone has the power to reach the other side is a positive lesson. The magic of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is that the adventures and struggles of one boy reflect the journey of many, including my own. It is a book that will always be close to my heart as I have read it as a child, a teenager, and an adult and still learn more about myself.
Discovering Books to Understand the World Better
Reading can teach you so much about yourself. Opening a book is an experience that can change your mind about many things. It can inspire you to travel the world, it can act as a friend when you are lonely, and it can instruct on personal growth. All I can say is, if you are feeling as if you are in a rut or feeling uninspired, why not try to find books to understand the world better? Who knows? The book that is sitting on your shelf may just change your life.
by Niamh Moran