"Books show us the world; they don't hide it." ~ Mukesh Patel
I don't know if all bibliophiles enjoy books that are about reading itself, but I can imagine that there are quite a few of us that do. When we've read most or all the books discussed or mentioned, then the thrill increases exponentially. Several books have become favorites for me because, either by fiction or personal experience, the books tell of how important reading is to their lives and others' lives. Reading transports us to the stories in those books and how they so often relate to our own lives. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, and The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes are all books that show how reading books positively impacts lives. Books are deceptively powerful. They can be an affirmation when you need one, an escape when you need one, a friend when you need one, a learning experience when you don't realize you need one, or a bridge to others when you need that. They can bring communities together, with programs like "One Book, One City" or just by the public library reaching out to involve the community. The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams is a rediscovery of community, started by an unlikely friendship and reading.
Aleisha Thomas is working at the local library in the Wembley area of greater London. It's a small library with not much to do, and Aleisha is both bored and angry. Her other classmates are off on vacation or having a summer of fun before attending uni cuts into their lives of leisure. Aleisha's life is anything but carefree. She needs to work to help with finances at home, where her older brother works hard, but her mother is suffering from mental problems and needs close supervision. The mother, Leilah, imposes her gloom on Aleisha and her brother Aiden by insisting that the house be shut up, windows closed and curtains drawn, so it's hot and dark, not a pleasant place for a seventeen-year-old and a young man in his mid-twenties. Aidan had encouraged Aleisha to take the library job, a job he had worked when he was younger and enjoyed. Of course, Aidan is a reader and Aleisha isn't.
So, it's not entirely unexpected that Aleisha was grumpy. She was especially grump to an older man named Mukesh Patel, who came wandering into the library as if it were an alien space ship and he didn't know where he was or what he was looking for. Mukesh's wife Naina had been the reader, not him. But, after Naina being dead for two years, Mukesh had finally picked up a book, The Time Traveler's Wife, which Naina had checked out but hadn't returned to the library. He read it, and it made him feel closer to his wife. Just having the book in the house helped him feel her presence, but he knew he needed to return it to the Harrow Street Library and so he was now there with the book in his bag. He thought he might ask the librarian behind the desk to suggest something else to read, as his granddaughter Priya was a voracious reader, and it might help them connect more.
The librarian or helper who is on duty is Aleisha, grumpy Aleisha. She is in no mood for questions from anyone, even an old man who is looking for a lifeline. Of course, Aleisha doesn't yet know he needs a lifeline. To put it mildly, she doesn't have any recommendations for Mukesh. To put it bluntly, she runs him out of the library. Mukesh calls the library the next day and reports Aleisha's rudeness, which results in a dressing down from Kyle, another library employee. Kyle reminds her that she is lucky to have the job and that she needs to engage in some reading, so that she will have actual books to recommend. His suggestion is that she start with To Kill a Mockingbird. She takes his suggestion and inside the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, she finds a list of eight books with the words "Just in case you need it" written at the top. Aleisha feels bad about how she treated Mukesh, and she decides to use the list as a recommendation list for him, with her reading each book ahead of his reading.
As Aleisha and Mukesh read through the list of books together, they talk about them, and Mukesh's insights surprise me most of all. We discover just what a deep thinking man he is and how much he needs these books and Aleisha to reconnect to the world. It's an eclectic list, with titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, The Kite Runner, and Little Women. They are, of course, what have come to be thought of as classics, and both Aleisha and Mukesh glean relevance from all of them. Mukesh starts coming out of his shell of mourning more and more, and like all good connections, his and Aleisha's reaches beyond themselves. What's particularly eye-opening is how important this small community library is to the people who use it and those who will now discover it.
Sara Nisha Adams has written an outstanding debut. I feel like she looked inside my mind and heart, and she wrote a book for me. That's always the best feeling when reading a book, those little gasps of how did the author know that's what I felt. The Reading List is a book about reading, but it's a story about people, too, people we come to care about and want the best for. Major issues are a part of these two characters, including death, grief, mental illness, loneliness, and aging. Adams throws a lot at these two, but there really is strength in numbers, whether they come from real life or the pages of a story. I know I have read one of my favorite books of the year (and beyond) in The Reading List. I do think the book is more meaningful if you've read at least some of the books on the list. And, now I need to visit my library and check out one that I missed on the list.