Susan Sontag said something wonderful: “My library is an archive of my longings”. I think you gain a sense of self from your books. Among other things it gives you a sense of who and what you longed to be at every given point in time. So when you have a personal library, you have that archive you can always refer back to. Other than that, for more practical reasons, engagement with one’s books doesn’t end with the first reading, that’s actually the beginning of one’s engagement with one’s books. That engagement is over a lifetime, and I think having a personal library is making a commitment to that long term relationship, if you may, with your books.
To what lengths have you gone to acquire a book you wanted?
When I was a kid I think I upset my parents a lot of times with my obstinance to acquire a particular book which was either a little too expensive or because I had finished the last book much too quickly and they were reluctant to give me more money to buy more books which I would get through very quickly as well..
[quote]I think I have risked upsetting people[/quote]
I think I have risked upsetting people. That is one thing I am shameless about asking my friends. I think that has probably strained my social capital as well. When I did not have money as an undergraduate I would ask people for money to buy books, and after a certain point people would get upset and tell me they can’t give me any more money to indulge my habit. So I think that is really the worst thing I have done, but I ignored them and persisted.
What do you currently have on your bedside table?
I just finished reading Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables, which is a fabulous book. And am currently reading Aman Sethi’s ‘A Free Man’, an ethnography of a day wage labourer. It’s wonderful, very entertaining, fun, but Prakash’s book is stunning. Other than that I have Intezar Husain’s Chiraghon ka Dhu’an. The Sounds of Things falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Aleksander Hamon’s The Book of My Lives and a book of poems by Adam Zagajewski.
The three books you’d take with you on a desert island?
If I can consider Daastaan-e-Ameer Hamza to be one book – that’s 50 volumes or something – that would definitely be there to would keep me occupied for a while.
And maybe I would take one of the more complex texts, like the Qur’an with its commentaries. Something you can pore over. Because I am that kind of reader. I love deep textual reading and I love spending extended time with texts.
And a book of poems – Ghalib, maybe. There is no other poet I can think of who would supersede Ghalib’s poetry.
An author you would like to dine with
David Foster Wallace. And of the ones that are alive, Aleksander Hemon. Milan Kundera is another one.
And what’s the reason for these choices
David Foster Wallace, I think, has taught me so much about writing itself, what one must risk in order to write well, the length one must go. The degree of honesty I see in his writing I don’t see in any other writer.
Aleksandar Hemon because I think he is the most consistently insightful writer. Whatever he says resonates with me deeply.
Milan Kundera, again, because he is so insightful, though his misogyny is overwhelming.
[quote]I love reading poetry mainly because I am trying to read something that is not a novel[/quote]
Poetry. Fiction is something I do professionally so I’m looking for reasons to run away from it. I love reading philosophical texts, I love reading poetry, mainly because I am just trying to read something that is not a novel.
A book everyone should read
I am not for that sort of oppression, but if I had to say maybe Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Anna Karenina is a very important book for me, personally.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is a really good book. I think it resonated with me being in this particular context in Pakistan, thinking about colonial modernity and how radically it altered the local reality.
A book you think is highly over-rated
Lots of them. In the last couple of months I have ditched so many books. Of the most recent one I have read, one I found hard to plod through for many different reasons was Gary Shytengart’s Absurdistan. Also, Katherine Boo’s Behind Beautiful Forevers.
Do you feel guilty about ditching a book in the middle?
Yes, absolutely I do. But I’m a bit of a flirt when it comes to books. I have no scruples about this. And I am easily bored. There are books I leave halfway. That’s why I love poetry; I just think it’s perfect for me. With poetry you can just go hang out. There aren’t 500 pages that you need to stay with. After a while I can just say I want to be away from you, I don’t like you anymore.
What kind of reader are you? Unbroken spine, not a speck on the pages, or everything underlined, lots of marginalia?
Lots of marginalia. Of both a personal and academic nature.
Despite my best efforts, I was unable to complete…
Can’t really remember a book I gave my best to and didn’t get to the end of. I get to the end of books if I absolutely need to. I resent it but I do it.