The List by Naomi Shihab Nye


I am reading poetry with my middle school students. The deeper we enter our poetic universe, the more sure I am that winter is the right season to explore poetry. There is over a foot of snow outside, the days are cold and often frustrating — for example, a very nice representative of AAA just left my house after he “extricated” my car from a snow bank at the end of our driveway. But, tonight I am reading poetry written by twelve and thirteen year-old kids, and they make me smile and laugh. A few of them make me sad. I’m not sure it would feel the same in the spring. Maybe the poems of adolescence are best read in the winter.

Among our lists of things that we have to cover, we are taking the time to just read. Kids bring poems they find, poems they are writing, and I always bring a few to share. Above all, I don’t want poetry to feel “hard.” I want it to be what it is – word play and another form of expression. One of my favorite poets is Naomi Shihab Nye. We’re reading lots of her poems. Today we read one of my favorites, The List.

Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet and novelist who lives in Texas. The daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, Nye writes about what we share and about the importance of putting our common humanity ahead of geography and politics.  

The List
By Naomi Shihab Nye

A man told me he had calculated
the exact number of books
he would be able to read before he died
by figuring the average number
of books he read per month
and his probable earth span,
(averaging how long
his dad and grandpa had lived,
adding on a few years since he
exercised more than they did).
Then he made a list of necessary books,
nonfiction mostly, history, philosophy,
fiction, and poetry from different time periods
so there wouldn’t be large gaps in his mind.
He had given up frivolous reading entirely.
There are only so many days.

Oh, I felt sad to hear such an organized plan.
What about the books that aren’t written yet,
the books his friends might recommend
that aren’t on the list,
the yummy magazine that might fall
into his hand at a silly moment after all?
What about the mystery search
through the delectable library shelves?
I felt the heartbeat of forgotten precious books
calling for his hand.


4 thoughts on “The List by Naomi Shihab Nye

    • I agree. It’s like visiting a foreign country, deciding what you will see in advance, and refusing to go “off the list.” You can miss great things if you’re not open to chance. I love discovering a book I didn’t know about and adding it to my bedside “to read” pile.

  1. Thanks, dear Shelley, for sharing my poems and being so nice to me at JFK Library! I forgot to give you the book I promised – MINT SNOWBALL. If you’d still like it, please write to me! Sorry I was swept away. It was a very fun day and meeting you a high point! Say hello to your lucky students.

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