Kelly’s Book Bucket List: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas By: David Mitchell
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Do you ever read a book and think that everyone else in existence needs to read it immediately? I certainly do. Over the years I’ve read many books I’ve enjoyed, but sometimes I read something so amazing that makes me completely reevaluate my life. I know I’ve read a truly life-changing book when I finish reading the last page and feel physically unable to close the book. Sometimes it’s because I don’t want the story to end, and other times it’s because I’m so mind blown by what I’ve read that I sort of just stop functioning for a moment.

Through this blog I’d like to share with you some of these books, which I like to think of as required reading material for all of humanity–or Kelly’s Book Bucket List, because that’s a lot catchier. These books have affected my life so profoundly that I’d like to share them with you in hopes that maybe some of them will be just as important to you.

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The first book I’d like to introduce you to is perhaps the most important to me: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I frequently refer to it as “my bible” when recommending it to friends. The story is also extremely difficult to explain, so I apologize in advance. Cloud Atlas begins in the year 1850 in the point of view of Adam Ewing, an American notary who is voyaging through the South Pacific. During his travels he meets a physician who joins him and diagnoses him with a rare brain parasite–and this is where things get interesting.

After Ewing begins to be treated for this strange parasite, the story jumps forward to Belgium in 1931. The point of view is intercepted by Robert Frobisher, a bisexual composer who is working in-house for a very dysfunctional family. The story continues in this pattern by shifting to the point of view of Luisa Rey, a West Coast reporter in the 1970s who accidentally entangles herself in a dangerous under-wraps corporate story. Then the story jumps to modern England where Timothy Cavendish is unwillingly admitted to an English nursing home he can’t escape, to a dystopian future state of Korea where we meet the genetically engineered Somni~451, and finally to a postapocalpyic Hawaii. At this point in the novel, the stories continue in the opposite direction, until we reunite with Ewing.

While these characters and setting may seem random, there are little details that connect them. Frobisher stumbles across Adam Ewing’s diary in his employers’ home, Rey finds Frobisher’s only published work, and so on. But the biggest identifier is something that physically ties each character together, despite the fact that none of them lived on earth at the same time… you didn’t think I’d spoil what it was, did you?

A common explanation for the eclectic string of characters in this novel is reincarnation, but I’m not sure that’s the case–or, at the very least, I don’t think the explanation is particularly important. Not only is this novel filled with engaging puzzles and connections, but it also offers a powerful positive message without being sappy and obvious: no matter how small and insignificant you think your life is, each and everyone’s existence has a profound impact.

The strange this about this book is that while it’s the most important to me, I wouldn’t call it my favorite; I’m not sure I’ll even read it again, and I’m a compulsive re-reader. This was one of those books that I stumbled across at the exact right time in my life. I was 19 when I read Cloud Atlas, and I was probably like any 19-year-old you’ve ever met. I didn’t know how to handle my inevitable transition into a “real” adult, and felt incredibly aimless and unimportant in terms of my life direction.

Cloud Atlas writer, David Mitchell
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This book was a real eye-opener for me at that age; even though I felt as though I was fumbling through life, that didn’t mean I wasn’t important. My life had an impact on everyone I knew, and by extension everyone they knew, and so on. My mere existence is a part of a huge chain reaction that would create an unspeakably different world if I lived my life even a little differently.

I realize this is bordering Eat, Pray, Love territory at this point, but it’s difficult to put into words exactly how important this concept is to me. Cloud Atlas was basically the coming-of-age novel I needed to read, despite the fact that it probably doesn’t even classify as a coming-of-age story.

To close, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from Cloud Atlas, and possibly even by favorite quote from any novel: “‘& only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’ Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

— Kelly Lyons, Fiction and Non-Fiction Editor

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