How to Find Books to Understand the World Better

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. 

NiamhMoranBioby Niamh Moran 

An American Experience While Studying Abroad

Carlos Balbuena is 29 years old and was born in Mexico City. I had the pleasure of teaching him English while he was studying at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida. Carlos was a quiet student who was eager and curious. I remember when I took a group of students to Barnes and Noble. Carlos was the student who had picked out at least six books that he wanted to buy. The first week he arrived, he spent half of his spending money on books for leisure time. He has a very well-read mind and is very inquisitive — this is what makes his writing so unique.

student group

What sparked your dream to study abroad?

“Definitely pop culture and literature. I grew up watching movies and seeing all those places, landmarks, and people traveling. I read my father’s city travel guides all the time. By the time I was an adolescent, studying abroad was something I was really looking forward to. Then I began to read literature – specifically Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That was pretty much the final bump that led me to actually pursue studying abroad and do it.”

student abroad

What were your expectations before you left? How have they changed?

“I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everything I thought came from pop culture, books, and my imagination. I wanted to have a great experience, so in order to do that, I knew I had to leave any expectations behind and just enjoy things as they would occur. I needed to be receptive and open to everything in order to get a real grasp of what life is like in the US.

As I grew older, my perceptions of the US changed. I was a little scared of being targeted in some way. In general, us Mexicans hold a (wrong) opinion about the average American, so we are constantly defending ourselves. I think this works both ways, as Americans generally have a wrong opinion about us as well. Yes, radical people exist, but they exist despite their nationality or political affiliation. It’s human nature at its worst and it could happen anywhere or anytime.

The important thing is that there are always more good people than bad ones. In the end, I’m really happy I went because every single person I met in the US was amazing to me. Oftentimes, I hear loose comments on what Americans are like. I hope I left a good impression on the people I met in America so they feel the same way I do when they hear a loose comment about Mexicans.”

What did you not expect?

“I didn’t expect to talk to so many people. I was able to look back and be very glad that I went, and I actually miss it all the time. Talking to lots of people, especially as an introvert, was a huge success for me. It was also a warm and welcome surprise to be complimented on my English. It made me realize that I was going in the right direction.

interview abroad

I wasn’t expecting to end in bad terms with my fellow Mexican travel companions, though. I guess it’s ironic that I got along pretty well with the locals but not with most of my countrywomen.”

What’s your next step?

“It’s been a very hard year for me, guys. Everything that could have gone wrong is going wrong. So, in all honesty, I’m not sure what my next step is. This year, to me, is about getting the hang of things as they are now. Recently, I had a difficult loss in my family. Right now, it’s all about taking care of things. I want to travel again, soon, but now isn’t the right time. I would like to live someplace else but I’ve become aware that it may take a little bit longer than I thought it would originally. Ultimately, it’s still what I want to do with my life. I’ll just have to be patient.”

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to study abroad?

“Surf the Internet: search for local scholarship programs and see if you fit the requirements. If not, then work to fit them. Study and improve your notes, then apply again. If you have an interest in a specific country or a city, soak yourself in it. Watch YouTube video blogs about it, listen to local music, read books related in any possible way to it, and study the local language. Don’t let fear grip you. It will be hard, but it would be harder to look back with regret for not trying.”

florida agricultural and mechanical university

Good Memories of an American Experience While Studying Abroad

Carlos made friends while in the US, which is arguably one of the most important parts of studying abroad. He made an everlasting impression on many of the people he interacted with in Tallahassee and I am so glad I had the pleasure of teaching him. I was able to catch up with Carlos this past April in Mexico City while visiting on a vacation. I met Carlos before my grandma passed away and since then, I have moved to Madrid and have moved back. While living in Madrid, I experienced the greatest loss of my life… my grandma passed while I was abroad.

My own grief has taught me that the way to let someone know you care about them is to tell them. When we met, Carlos was experiencing grief and I could sense that it was very painful. I want our readers and Carlos to know that the memory of our loved ones who pass never fades. The pain gets better with time and life sorts itself out. Hang onto the good memories and let go of the bad ones. Carlos, life is full of opportunity and for you — it’s just begun.

The American experience studying abroad not only provides education but also introduces you to new cultures. Many students who leave to study abroad are leaving their home for the first time. Dreams Abroad has created a Facebook community for travelers, students, and educators to share their passions and stories.

by Leesa Truesdell