Many readers and aspiring readers wonder how to pick good books, as if there is a one-size-fits-all formula that you can apply to books and pick the best. It all depends on how you define a good book and what characteristics you attribute to good reading.
Let’s start with history books, one of my favorite disciplines. Perhaps it would be useful to start with various strands of historiography. Traditionally, in most civilizations, historiography has become a tool of rulers. The more a historiographer was associated with the court of his time, the more likely he was to propagate the official version of history. Such history books are full of praise for the ruling dynasty and slander anyone who opposed it or resisted the tyranny of the rulers. The ruling dynasty emerges as the savior of the people, and others emerge as villains.
If you want to choose a good history book, first try to check how close the writer has been to the circles of power. Most civilian and military bureaucrats fall into this category. They have held high-level positions, have been an integral part of all bad deeds inflicted on the people, and then try to whitewash their own role in the sad situation. Most of these people are not historians but authors of autobiographies that should be read with a pinch of salt. Some of these autobiographies can also be a good source of vital information.
Even if a historiographer is a properly qualified historian with a terminal degree in history, one must look at his driving ideology. For example, IH Qureshi was a skilled historian but he was too close to the circles of power. He remained the vice-chancellor of the University of Karachi for eight years during the military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan and took full advantage of his position. He led the historiography of this country in a particular direction which was dominated by the official ideology of the state of Pakistan.
Qureshi has guided and taught hundreds – if not thousands – of history students in Pakistan, many of whom have become, or claim to be, historians. They wrote history textbooks with a heavy dose of ideology and religion. Most Pakistan-Studies textbooks are the product of “research” – or lack of research – by such “historians”. Books like this have tried to shape the minds of our younger generations for decades, resulting in adults lacking analytical thinking about what they have read as history. Pakistan today is full of people with no critical skills to assess history.
If you want to pick a good history book, go for writers who have critically analyzed Pakistan’s past and refrain from regurgitating platitudes about ideology and religion. They may not be professional historians, because to make history a profession in Pakistan is to follow the official line. These writers may be activists who have carefully observed developments in Pakistan history and politics. They can range from columnists like Ammar Masood, Harris Khalique, Khaled Ahmed, Mazhar Abbas, Wajahat Masood and Yasir Pirzada to people like Pervez Hoodbhoy, Tauseef Ahmed and Zaheda Hina; but also development experts like Aziz Ali Dad, Kazim Saeed and Zubair Torwali.
A critical Pakistani student must read economists such as Akbar Zaidi, Asad Saeed, Asim Bashir Khan, Hafeez Pasha, Hamza Alvi, Harris Gazdar, and Kaiser Bengali. Some of Pakistan’s top economic journalists include Khurram Hussain, Mehtab Haider and Ziauddin. They are not professional historians but their writings enlighten us in our understanding of society. A history student in Pakistan must also read articles and books by Ahmed Salim, Ali Raza, Ali Usman Qasmi, Anwar Shaheen, Ghaafir Shehzad, Huma Ghaffar, Ishtiaq Ahmed, Jaffar Ahmed, Kamran Asdar Ali, KK Aziz, Mubarak Ali , Riaz Shaikh, Sibte Hasan, Tahir Kamran, and many others.
The key is to have a popular point of view, not an official point of view. History books that only give you the official version are of little value. The same goes for books on international relations. There are many officially controlled “think tanks” that continue to produce articles and essays on peace and security in the region. They have plenty of resources to organize conferences and seminars and publish glossy books and articles, but they lack critical analysis of Pakistan’s own foreign policy and the mistakes we have made as a country. There are hardly any good books on international relations that critically analyze Pakistan’s defense and foreign policies.
Most diplomats, foreign service officials, and former foreign ministers who have written books that present their own views. Writers like Abdul Sattar, Ayesha Siddiqa, Mahir Ali and Moonis Ahmer take a critical approach and help us understand Pakistan’s role in world affairs. Political science is another area in which we lack substantial academic work. Most Pakistani universities have political science departments, but they have failed to produce a single academic of international stature in political science. Some Pakistani writers, who are not exactly political scientists, have contributed to our understanding of this field from a different perspective.
Articles and books by Amir Rana, Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, Benazir Bhutto, Eqbal Ahmed, Dr Feroze Ahmed, Hamid Khan, Dr Jaffar Ahmed, Jami Chandio, Raza Rabbani, Zafrullah Khan, and a few others are very helpful in understanding history and Pakistan’s politics. To come to books on religion and its historical development, one should be able to read all schools of thought with an open mind. From the stories of Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Kaseer to Tabari, and from Shah Waliullah and Ashraf Ali Thanvi to Maulana Maudoodi, Pervez and Ghamidi, all deserve attention as they have influenced millions of people.
You can agree or disagree with them, but you cannot and should not ignore them. Some people may see it as a waste of time, but I can’t, as it helps me develop a broader perspective to look at society. And, yes, we can’t forget about literature. How to judge a good literary book? Just by reading it. But maybe it is better to read a little history first, as it develops your sense of social development. This sense tells us if a piece of literature is good.
If you are too influenced by a metaphysical and religious sense of history, you can consider writers like Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia, Mumtaz Mufti and their new followers as worth reading. To me, there are much better writers than these. In English literature, a modern version of Chaucer is a good place to start. Then you can’t ignore at least four writers – Shakespeare, Swift, Dickens, and Hardy. In American literature, Hemingway and Faulkner are leading. In Russian literature, don’t start with the big volumes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; instead, start with short stories by Chekhov, Gogol, Gorky and Turgenev.
In French literature, start with Maupassant, Balzac, Flaubert and Zola. In German, Brecht and Thomas Mann are essential. There may be a long list of such writers in world literature, but I don’t want to overload my readers with a heavy dose. Speaking of Urdu literature, start with short stories by Premchand, Krishan Chandar, Ismat Chughtai, Bedi, and Manto. Devour the entire work of Intizar Hussain, Qurratulain Hyder, Shaukat Siddiqui and Zahida Hina. Hameed Shahid and Irfan Urfi are also worth reading. I can continue to recommend writers in other languages as well, but you have to make your own list of writers to read.
I would like to conclude by saying that reading is an interesting activity which must take precedence over many other activities that we practice.
E-mail: [email protected]
The writer has a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK, and works in Islamabad.