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Elif Shafak’s 10 Favorite Books

Elif Shafak. Photo: Shutterstock and Vulture

Bookseller One Grand Books has asked celebrities to name the ten titles they’d take to a desert island, and they’ve shared the results with Vulture. Below is novelist Elif Safak’s list.

Orlando, by Virginia Woolf

I was a student when I read Orlando for the first time, and I remember how for many days afterwards I walked around in a happy daze. Daring to transcend boundaries of gender, class, history, culture, geography … this is a story — Woolf called it a biography — like no other. Our hero wakes up and finds himself turned into a woman, and delightfully, this transition takes place in Istanbul — Constantinople. Orlando is a novel about transformations and journeys — from man into woman, from the West to the East, from one existence to the next and vice versa. It is a book far ahead of its time, and even today, continues to blow our minds.

The Arcades Project, by Walter Benjamin

This book is a house with multiple doors, endless corridors and windows into eternity. No two readings of The Arcades Project can ever be identical. After you finish it, the way you perceive the city you live in won’t be the same again. Streets and arcades, modernity with its illusions and promises, all told through the eyes and wanderings of a flaneur … It is an unfinished project, but then again, perhaps a book of this magnitude could never have a definite end. Benjamin is an extraordinary thinker, a lonely rebel, an odd revolutionary that doesn’t quite fit into any tribe, a man of immense intellect and hopeful despair, and in the words of Hannah Arendt, a failed mystic. I love all of that about him.

Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin

Istanbul, London, Madrid, Boston … ever since my childhood I lived in numerous countries. One of the downsides of a nomadic life is that you can never keep a proper library. At some point, I had boxes of books in Istanbul, waiting to be shipped, boxes of books in Arizona. You have to let go of even your most beloved possessions when you live a peripatetic life, but there was one author whose voice I could never do without: James Baldwin — the observer, the commuter, the rebel. Notes of a Native Son is a collection of essays about language, racism, hatred, and ultimately, resilience and dignity.

You Will Hear Thunder, by Anna Akhmatova

How do you continue to write, to create beauty and aspire for freedom, under the darkest regimes? Akhmatova is brilliant — she is a fighter, a witness of her time, a thunder. The woman who makes me wish I could speak Russian. But reading her in translation is no less a treat for the mind and the soul.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

You can adore this book for multiple reasons. The story, the style, the craft … There are no heroes here, just human beings, with all their flaws and failures. Although it is a book about a certain place and a time, and the dark side of the American Dream, it equally feels timeless and placeless, such is its universal appeal. The Great Gatsby is not a story you can read once and put aside, it is a book that deserves to be reread at different stages of life — a companion rather than a classic.

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

One of the most beautifully told family sagas in world literature. Exploring gender identity, ethnic identity, the American dream, immigrants, family memories, and collective myths … but to me this is primarily a novel about belonging — how we fail but still somehow find the hope and the will to continue to try to belong.

Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde

A remarkable collection of essays by a remarkable woman. Lorde’s views on race, gender, homophobia, xenophobia, class discrimination … To me this book is a manifesto of multiplicity. In an age in which we are all reduced to single identities and pushed into artificial tribes, Lorde’s intersectional and touchingly human approach is like a balm. It is a book about love, resilience, and sisterhood.

The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz

Much has been written about authoritarianism and its multiple manifestations, but little has been said about the ways in which people, even the most educated, seemingly open-minded people, internalize authoritarianism in their daily life. What happens to politics and politicians under a corrupt system is obvious. But what happens to a society and a culture under authoritarianism is a question less understood. The Polish poet, essayist, and thinker [Czeslaw] Milosz wrote extensively about home, homeland, exile, memory, history … As a writer who comes from a turbulent land of collective amnesia, I have always read him with a sense of affinity.

Tales From the One Thousand and One Nights, by Anonymous

Many in the West have no idea how much this collection means to young women across the Middle East. Not only each particular story, and sub-story, but also the very storyteller behind, the great Shehrazad, is inspiring. The style is playful, the themes both universal and daring. Forget the sugar-coated Disney version; there is a core inside this world classic that was, and still is, quite forward-looking.

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Set in post-second World War Japan, this is a masterfully written novel by the British-Japanese author about ageing, solitude, art, memory, and the endless tricks it plays on our minds … Ishiguro is the kind of writer who each time asks the reader to trust him, come along for a walk in an unknown territory, and if need be, change perspective. But he does all this with an unwavering modesty and quiet intelligence that only further contributes to his literary strength.

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Elif Shafak’s 10 Favorite Books