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Gabriel García Márquez’s Formative Reading List: 24 Books That Shaped One of Humanity’s Greatest Writers

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“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

The most reliable portal into another’s psyche is the mental library of that person’s favorite books — those foundational idea-bricks of which we build the home for our interior lives, the integral support beams of our personhood and values. And who doesn’t long for such a portal into humanity’s most robust yet spacious minds? Joining history’s notable reading lists — including those of Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson — is Gabriel García Márquez.

Woven into Living to Tell the Tale (public library) — the autobiography that gave us the emboldening story of García Márquez’s unlikely beginnings as a writer — is the reading that shaped his mind and creative destiny. “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it,” García Márquez writes, and kindred-spirited readers instantly know that memorable books are the existential markers of life’s lived and remembered chapters.

Here are the books that most influenced García Márquez — beginning with his teenage years at boarding school, of which he recalls: “The best thing at the liceo were the books read aloud before we went to sleep.” — along with some of the endearing anecdotes he tells about them.

  1. The Magic Mountain (public library) by Thomas Mann
  2. The thundering success of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain … required the intervention of the rector to keep us from spending the whole night awake, waiting for Hans Castorp and Clavdia Chauchat to kiss. Or the rare tension of all of us sitting up on our beds in order not to miss a word of the disordered philosophical duels between Naptha and his friend Settembrini. The reading that night lasted for more than an hour and was celebrated in the dormitory with a round of applause.

  3. The Man in the Iron Mask (free ebook | public library) by Alexandre Dumas
  4. Ulysses (free ebook | public library) by James Joyce
  5. One day Jorge Álvaro Espinosa, a law student who had taught me to navigate the Bible and made me learn by heart the complete names of Job’s companions, placed an awesome tome on the table in front of me and declared with his bishop’s authority:

    “This is the other Bible.”

    It was, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I read in bits and pieces and fits and starts until I lost all patience. It was premature brashness. Years later, as a docile adult, I set myself the task of reading it again in a serious way, and it not only was the discovery of a genuine world that I never suspected inside me, but it also provided invaluable technical help to me in freeing language and in handling time and structures in my books.

  6. The Sound and the Fury (public library) by William Faulkner
  7. I became aware that my adventure in reading Ulysses at the age of twenty, and later The Sound and the Fury, were premature audacities without a future, and I decided to reread them with a less biased eye. In effect, much of what had seemed pedantic or hermetic in Joyce and Faulkner was revealed to me then with a terrifying beauty and simplicity.

  8. As I Lay Dying (public library) by William Faulkner
  9. The Wild Palms (public library) by William Faulkner
  10. Oedipus Rex (free ebook | public library) by Sophocles
  11. [The writer] Gustavo [Ibarra Merlano] brought me the systematic rigor that my improvised and scattered ideas, and the frivolity of my heart, were in real need of. And all that with great tenderness and an iron character.

    […]

    His readings were long and varied but sustained by a thorough knowledge of the Catholic intellectuals of the day, whom I had never heard of. He knew everything that one should know about poetry, in particular the Greek and Latin classics, which he read in their original versions… I found it remarkable that in addition to having so many intellectual and civic virtues, he swam like an Olympic champion and had a body trained to be one. What concerned him most about me was my dangerous contempt for the Greek and Latin classics, which seemed boring and useless to me, except for the Odyssey, which I had read and reread in bits and pieces several times at the liceo. And so before we said goodbye, he chose a leather-bound book from the library and handed it to me with a certain solemnity. “You may become a good writer,” he said, “but you’ll never become very good if you don’t have a good knowledge of the Greek classics.” The book was the complete works of Sophocles. From that moment on Gustavo was one of the decisive beings in my life, for Oedipus Rex revealed itself to me on first reading as the perfect work.

  12. The House of the Seven Gables (free ebook | public library) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  13. [Gustavo Ibarra] lent me Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, which marked me for life. Together we attempted a theory of the fatality of nostalgia in the wanderings of Ulysses Odysseus, where we became lost and never found our way out. Half a century later I discovered it resolved in a masterful text by Milan Kundera.

  14. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (free ebook | public library) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  15. Moby-Dick (free ebook | public library) by Herman Melville
  16. Sons and Lovers (free ebook | public library) by D.H. Lawrence
  17. The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights (free ebook | public library)
  18. I even dared to think that the marvels recounted by Scheherazade really happened in the daily life of her time, and stopped happening because of the incredulity and realistic cowardice of subsequent generations. By the same token, it seemed impossible that anyone from our time would ever believe again that you could fly over cities and mountains on a carpet, or that a slave from Cartagena de Indias would live for two hundred years in a bottle as a punishment, unless the author of the story could make his readers believe it.

  19. The Metamorphosis (public library) by Franz Kafka
  20. I never again slept with my former serenity. [The book] determined a new direction for my life from its first line, which today is one of the great devices in world literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” [I realized that] it was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice. It was Scheherazade all over again, not in her millenary world where everything was possible but in another irreparable world where everything had already been lost. When I finished reading The Metamorphosis I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise.

  21. The Aleph and Other Stories (public library) by Jorge Luis Borges
  22. The Collected Stories (public library) by Ernest Hemingway
  23. Point Counter Point (public library) by Aldous Huxley
  24. Of Mice and Men (public library) by John Steinbeck
  25. The Grapes of Wrath (public library) by John Steinbeck
  26. Tobacco Road (public library) by Erskine Caldwell
  27. Stories (public library) by Katherine Mansfield
  28. Manhattan Transfer (public library) by John Dos Passos
  29. Portrait of Jennie (public library) by Robert Nathan
  30. Orlando (public library) by Virginia Woolf
  31. Mrs. Dalloway (public library) by Virginia Woolf
  32. It was the first time I heard the name of Virginia Woolf, whom he [Gustavo Ibarra] called Old Lady Woolf, like Old Man Faulkner. My amazement inspired him to the point of delirium. He seized the pile of books he had shown me as his favorites and placed them in my hands.

    “Don’t be an asshole,” he said, “take them all, and when you finish reading them we’ll come get them no matter where you are.”

    For me they were an inconceivable treasure that I did not dare put at risk when I did not have even a miserable hole where I could keep them. At last he resigned himself to giving me the Spanish version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, with the unappealable prediction that I would learn it by heart.

    […]

    I went [home] with the air of someone who had discovered the world.

Living to Tell the Tale is a glorious read in its entirety — the humbling and infinitely heartening life-story of one of the greatest writers humanity ever produced. Couple it with Old Lady Woolf on how one should read a book.

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Richard Feynman on How His Father Taught Him about What Is Most Important

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How to plant the seed for the lifelong pleasure of finding things out.

Theoretical physicist and legendary science communicator Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) remains known as “The Great Explainer” — a moniker at least as deserved as his Nobel Prize, merited by his enchanting explanations of such seemingly ordinary things as the magic of a flower, how rubber bands work, and why everything is connected to everything else.

In this wonderful short film — the second installment in Blank on Blank’s mini-series celebrating visionary innovators in science, which also gave us Jane Goodall on life — animator Paul Ruttledge brings to life a forgotten 1966 interview, in which The Great Explainer shares the story of how his father planted in him the seed for what would blossom into his life’s work: the art of extracting what is most important in science and translating it into a language at once widely understandable and universally captivating, an art rewarded not by honors and accolades but by “the pleasure of finding things out.”

The thing that was very important about my father was not the facts but the process. How we find out.

How exquisitely Feynman’s father embodies what the great Simone Weil wrote in her notebook in 1933: “The most important part of teaching = to teach what is to know (in the scientific sense).”

Complement with Feynman on the key to science in 63 seconds, his little-known drawings collected by his daughter, the role of scientific culture in modern society, his magnificent 1974 Caltech commencement address on integrity, and his mischievous Nobel Prize wager, then revisit this irresistible graphic-novel biography of The Great Explainer.

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When Leaving Becomes Arriving: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Ending Relationships

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“Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside you.”

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh cautioned in his illuminating treatise on love. But even when this incremental laceration finally becomes an irreparable rupture, leaving love behind is never easy, for it also asks that we leave behind the part of ourselves that did the loving. And yet for all but the very fortunate and the very foolish, this difficult transition is an inevitable part of the human experience, of the ceaseless learning journey that is life — because, after all, anything worth pursuing is worth failing at, and fail we do as we pursue.

The delicate duality of that experience is what English poet and philosopher David Whyte, a man of immense wisdom on life’s complexities, addresses with bestirring beauty in “The Journey,” found in his altogether exquisite third book of poetry, The House of Belonging (public library) — a poem he wrote for a friend undertaking that immensely harrowing yet hopeful act of leaving a wounding relationship and rewriting what was once a shared future into a solitary turn toward the greater possibilities of the unknown.

One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much, at the end, leaving the person themselves — because, by that time, you’re ready to go; what’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow — no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you would share with them — you will never, ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate of giving away but making space for another form of reimagination.

THE JOURNEY

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

The poem calls to mind Mary Oliver’s equally but very differently emboldening masterwork of the same title. In fact, perhaps unsurprisingly, Whyte is among the millions moved by the Oliver classic, which derives its magic from how open-endedly yet pointedly it speaks to multiple dimensions of the human experience, unified by the urgency of reaching for a greater life that is possible.

Whyte’s reading of the beloved poem — the way he gasps “finally” and chants “Mend my life!” and teases out that courageous grasp for a greater life — only amplifies its resonance in the realm of love.

Complement The House of Belonging, which is a tremendous read in its totality, with Whyte on another aspect of the art of relationship — the three “marriages” of work, self, and love.

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Teenage James Joyce’s Beautiful Letter to Ibsen, His Great Hero

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“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves.”

One need only look at the canon of quiet champions behind creative icons to be reminded of how deeply and lastingly a young person setting out on a creative path can be touched by a simple word of encouragement from one of his or her heroes — one of the “spiritual and mental ancestors” we choose for ourselves, which are essential to our identity. Would Whitman be Whitman without Emerson’s generous letter? Would Sendak be Sendak without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support? Would Bukowski have remained a mere postal worker without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to be come a full-time writer? Would young Hermann Hesse have sunk into resignation without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters?

Among the beneficiaries of these small yet life-changing kindnesses was teenage James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

His first published work — a laudatory review of Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken — appeared in the influential Fortnightly Review in the spring of 1900. Joyce was only eighteen. Ibsen, who had just suffered a series of strokes, was deeply touched by the article’s benevolent sentiment. He wrote to his English translator, the prominent Scottish drama critic William Archer, to express appreciation for Joyce’s review. Archer then wrote to the young author, passing along Ibsen’s words of gratitude.

Joyce, already high on the honor of being published in the prestigious journal, was elevated to absolute elation by the knowledge that not one but two of his literary idols had not only paid attention to his work but had appreciated it. On April 28, five days after receiving Archer’s letter, he sent the following reply, found in Joyce: Selected Letters (public library):

Dear Sir I wish to thank you for your kindness in writing to me. I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life. Faithfully yours

Jas A. Joyce

But the exchange was no fleeting gratification. Almost a year later, in March of 1901, Joyce sent Ibsen a beautiful letter for the playwright’s seventy-third birthday.

Having just turned nineteen, Joyce writes:

I can hardly tell you how moved I was by your message. I am a young, a very young man, and perhaps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held as high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling.

Etching for Ulysses by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Click image for more.

And yet Joyce, perhaps gripped with youth’s dual capacity for profound admiration and stubborn pride, is quick to redact any impression of excessive adulation while assuring Ibsen that his veneration comes from a place more sincere than the vanity of superficial idolatry:

Do not think me a hero-worshipper — I am not so. And when I spoke of you in debating societies and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.

But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.

But for all his precocious mastery of thought and language, Joyce is still very much a teenager — to him, a 73-year-old is so ancient as to be practically dead. In a rather morbid passage, Joyce assumes the role of a mortality-hypnotist and writes:

Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is growing dark for you. Many write of such things, but they do not know. You have only opened the way — though you have gone as far as you could upon it… But I am sure that higher and holier enlightenment lies — onward.

Ibsen lived another five years, but the play young Joyce had reviewed was his last, which renders Joyce’s closing words triply touching:

As one of the young generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting — not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly, because you are an old man and I a young man, not presumptuously, nor sentimentally — but joyfully, with hope and with love, I give you greeting. Faithfully yours,

James A. Joyce

Perhaps Ibsen’s assuring words were what gave young Joyce “the faith in the soul” of which he wrote in his magnificent letter to Lady Gregory the following year.

Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, which is a treasure trove in its hefty totality, with Isaac Asimov’s heartwarming fan mail to young Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens’s wonderful letter to George Eliot.

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