For my birthday Ginger gave me The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. I did not know of the book. From the back cover I learned it is Adams’ debut novel–at least in print–and the premise is a teenage girl who is working in a library finds a reading list in a returned copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and decides not only to work her way down the list but also to share it with others she meets–or so it says in the synopsis on the back cover. I am only a couple of chapters in.
But I’m hooked. The writing is engaging, the characters are intriguing, and I imagine I may work my way down the reading list as well once I get through the book. The reason I bring it up tonight, however, is a paragraph that is part of the prologue. The book opens with someone named Aidan entering the library branch.
He wanders over to the fiction shelves, the crime section, and runs his fingers over the spines, landing on Black Water Rising by Attica Locke. He has read it before, years ago. Maybe even more than once. As he starts to turn the pages, looking for an escape, memories rush in . . . of Attica Locke’s Houston, the city alive, vibrant, dark, full of contradictions and contrasts. Today he needs that kind of familiarity, he needs to step back into a world where there are scares, twists, turns, but a world where he knows how everything will end.
He needs to know how something will end.
In the years I taught high school, I read a lot of novels beyond the ones I read repeatedly with students. One reason was I wanted to read some new sentences other than those that were required, even though many of those books I still love. The other reason was I wanted to be a writer, which meant (I thought) I needed to write the Great American Novel, so I read as many novels as I could get my hands on, trying to learn how to tell a story.
Fiction or nonfiction, it is good practice to read while you write. In my work as an editor, that was my consistent advice to my authors. Beyond the research they were doing for their book, they needed to read things that made them believe in good writing, read sentences and paragraphs that caught their breath, read writers they wanted to emulate.
While I was teaching at Charlestown High School in Boston, I wrote a novel–Destiny–about the son of a Texas preacher who was trying to figure out who he was. Thanks to the folks at the Humber School for Writers and Timothy Findley, a Canadian author who was my mentor, I managed to figure out how that story ended and got it down on paper, but it never made it past the copy I turned in at the end of the course.
As I kept writing, I began to realize that what flowed out of me most easily was nonfiction–the stuff that fills my blog and my three books–and I also found my way into poetry, but I have not written more fiction. I don’t know if that is why my novel reading dropped off. It was not a conscious decision on my part. But the two novels I got for my birthday (the other one was Horse by Geraldine Brooks) have nudged me into deciding that the new year will begin with fiction, whether or not I write another novel, and beyond these two books I may go back to some old friends much like Aidan did when he picked up Black Water Rising.
And that leads me to thinking of my own reading list. I won’t give away the list in Adam’s novel, other than to say it holds eight books and is titled, “Just in Case You Need It.” Without claiming my list to be exhaustive or even permanent, here is a list of books that have been lifelong friends.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy
Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
As soon as I publish this post I know I will think of revisions, mostly additions, to the list, but that’s alright.
Perhaps the power of a good story is that is offers us a chance to experience a real ending. Whatever happens between the covers of the book, there is a last page, a last sentence, a last word. Life, as you know already, is not like that. All of our endings are in the middle of something else that is continuing. Wherever we are, we are sustained by stories, whether printed ones we carry with us or those we tell each other when we stop to listen to one another as we move from middle to end to beginning to middle to whatever has yet to happen.
Reading lists make good guides for the journey. Who travels with you?
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