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The Reading List, a Novel: Can You Learn About Life by Reading Books?

There's power in the pages

hand with pen writing a list
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Book lovers will relate

If you've ever escaped from a hostile world by falling into the pages of a book...

If you've ever read a book and felt like the characters were standing in the room with you...

If you've ever struck up a conversation with someone reading a book that you've read, too...

If you've ever finished a novel and felt like you understood more about the world...

Then you are a book lover bound to relate to The Reading List, a 2022 novel by Sara Nisha Adams.

Two lost people

Mukesh is a bereaved widower, lost after his wife, Nana, dies of cancer. He has three grown daughters and three grandchildren, but he's especially fond of a granddaughter, Priya. Priya was very close to her grandmother who instilled in her a love of reading. Priya, like her grandfather, Mukesh, is lost after Nana's death, but Priya can lose herself in books. Mukesh has never been a reader and doesn't have that solace.

Aleisha is a seventeen-year-old girl who, along with her brother, is caring for their mother, Leila, who suffers from severe, chronic depression. Once a successful designer, she is no longer working, but stays inside in a darkened room, often crying and barely talking. Aleisha and her older brother, Aiden, take shifts caring for their mom, a duty that takes Aleisha away from the mainstream lives of other teenagers.

Not a reader but in need of a job, Aleisha takes a job at the Harrow Road Library at the urging of her brother who loves the library. There is talk that the library will be shut down soon because people no longer utilize it. It's a quiet place, and Aleisha is bored. Then she finds a crumpled piece of paper with a reading list of eight books, and she begins reading the books one by one. The first book is To Kill a Mockingbird.

A sad old man meets a surly teenager

When Mukesh forces himself to get out of the house after Nana dies, he does it only because he's desperate to help his lonely and grieving granddaughter. Since Priya (and Nana) loved to read, and since Mukesh has found his wife's dog-eared copy of The Time Traveler's Wife and read it, he decides to make his first outing to the library.

Mukesh is scared and unsure, and at the library, a surly Aleisha offers him no help. But Mukesh wants to read so he can connect with his granddaughter, and he goes back to the library. Aleisha feels terrible about how she treated him and offers him a book recommendation: To Kill a Mockingbird.

A friendship develops as Aleisha begins to read the books on the list so she can recommend them to Mukesh and they can talk about what they've read. They have no one else, after all, and discussing books is the common denominator that leads them to more personal disclosures.

The Reading List

As Mukesh and Aleisha discover the joy of reading, they experience the very things that all book lovers have felt. They begin to see the characters in the book in the rooms around them. They recognize situations in their lives that are similar to situations in the books. They learn about their own emotions through the feelings of the people in the stories.

They can't wait to start their next book. (Readers understand that, for sure, and I can prove it with a stack of 23 to-be-read hardcovers just waiting for me to open them, not counting the dozens of books I've downloaded on my Kindle.)

The Harrow Street Library becomes a refuge for Mukesh and Aleisha, and the undercurrent of the book is the idea that communities NEED libraries as a place of safety, solace, and peace. Libraries provide books, of course, but they also provide a place for people to come together as evidenced in the friendship between one sad old man and one surly teenager.

The library is Mukesh's motivation to come back to life after the death of his wife and then help his friend, Aleisha, get through her own grief when tragedy strikes her family.

Books on the reading list

The reading list with titles handwritten on a crumpled paper prompted the reading cycle that redeemed Mukesh. The books on the list are classics: To Kill a Mockingbird; Rebecca; The Kite Runner; The Life of Pi; Little Women; Pride & Prejudice; Beloved; and A Suitable Boy.

I can't help it. My crazy brain can't quit thinking about what books I'd put on a list to leave around my small city, hoping that the volumes on the list would help someone else. I'd drop the lists in the grocery store occasionally. Tuck them in-between random books in a bookstore. Leave them on the seat at a movie theater.

I'd make different lists at different times, peppering them with great reads that I found helpful at various stages of my life. I'd mix fiction with nonfiction titles, long novels with short stories, serious themes with humor sketches, and old classics with new releases, and I'd hope that someone, somewhere, discovered one of my lists and found joy or comfort in a book.

The obvious takeaway from The Reading List is that reading is an escape, a solace, a unifier, a teacher of how to deal with problems, and a connector of people. (But those of us who are readers already know that.)

The book offers other takeaways as well, and questions to ponder, too.

If you're a reader, is it important that your partner is a reader, too?

Should you marry someone who is a reader? If your partner is a reader, should you become one if you're not already? Is a relationship enriched if you can engage in book talk?

One of the most poignant passages is when Mukesh speaks of his regret that he didn't try to share Nana's love of reading. He mourned all the conversations they could have had but didn't because he hadn't made the effort to understand the thing she loved most - books. It was only after Nana had died that Mukesh realized how much he had missed by not reading, too.

The Reading List is not just a book about the power of the written word but also about the need for libraries. It's an appeal to cities to maintain the public space that so often gives quiet comfort to those who need it. The novel also deals with relationships between generations and how to re-engage with life after grieving.

What the reviews say

...A thoughtful look into loneliness, community, and the benefits of reading—suited for true bibliophiles. Kirkus Reviews
There’s no magical realism in this debut novel set in multicultural London, but nevertheless a kind of magic propels this love letter to books and libraries. - Murali Kamma in The New York Journal of Books
"This moving debut demonstrates the power of novels to provide comfort in the face of devastating loss and loneliness, with relatable characters and a heartwarming tone throughout. Readers who enjoyed Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry and Nina George's The Little Paris Bookshop will find themselves drawn in by this book." - Booklist

I enjoyed this book. It made me remember the pure, unadulterated joy that comes when you're first immersed in a story. I recall being totally engrossed and staying up late with my head under the covers, trying to finish Nancy Drew's current adventure so I could move on to her next one as soon as possible.

Delicious feeling. Sweet memory. Wonderful book that could bring it all back.


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