From the New York Times Interview of Author Mohsin Hamid

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Mohsin Hamid Is Working Through Literature, From the Top”:

“About five years ago, alongside my more contemporary reading, I decided to read from back to front, historically speaking,” says the author, whose new novel is “The Last White Man.” “I began with the Sumerian ‘Instructions of Shuruppak,’ first written in cuneiform on clay tablets around 4,600 years ago.”

“The Story of a Brief Marriage,” by Anuk Arudpragasam, “The Bad Guys in They’re Bee-hind You!” (Bad Guys No. 14), by Aaron Blabey, “Principles for Dealing With the Changing World Order,” by Ray Dalio, and “The Last Children of Tokyo,” by Yoko Tawada. There are many more books on my wife’s night stand. Although it is precisely the same size as mine, mysteriously it also seems to be larger. She reads much more quickly than I do. We often share books, and I consider some of those on her side as also being, in a sense, on mine, but it is uncertain if she entirely feels the same, so I have not ventured to list them here.

About five years ago, alongside my more contemporary reading, I decided to read from back to front, historically speaking. I started with the oldest surviving texts deemed by the sages of Wikipedia and other such online sources to be of the highest value and worked my way forward, intentionally reading chronologically rather than by language or “civilization” or genre. I began with the Sumerian “Instructions of Shuruppak,” first written in cuneiform on clay tablets around 4,600 years ago (it opens: “In those days, in those far remote days, in those nights, in those faraway nights…”), made my way through Egypt’s “The Maxims of Ptahhotep” and various of the Pyramid Texts, including the “Cannibal Hymn,” reached the Sumerian poems referred to as “Enheduanna’s Hymns” (I was struck by the fact that the first named author in human history was a woman, Enheduanna, and that I did not know this, and indeed that I had never heard of her or her poems before, which raised all sorts of questions in my mind, as it is perhaps now doing in yours), and eventually read “Gilgamesh,” written over 4,000 years ago, and while “Gilgamesh” is not exactly a novel (it is an epic told in verse), it certainly has much to teach us about narrative fiction, and I wish I had read it before and alongside the “Odyssey,” which I read in my first semester of college. They make for quite a pairing.

After an absence of many years I found myself in San Francisco, a city I had visited often in my childhood, when I had lived an hour to the south. It was the beginning of the millennium, just before the wars. I walked into City Lights bookshop. An Italian woman suggested a slender novel by her compatriot, Antonio Tabucchi. It was set in Lisbon, a port city of rolling hills on the western edge of a continent, at a time when Europe was descending into fascism. I read it in a moving rectangle of sunlight on a hotel room bed. I felt time and place blurring. I had no idea then that this blurring would not stop, that it was not merely the product of a similarity of geography, of Lisbon eliding into San Francisco, but of impending history as well. It was a beautiful moment, like youth, soon gone, and forever with me.

If you have not read “Pereira Maintains,” by Antonio Tabucchi, you should.

There are far too many to list here. I will just mention five who got me thinking as a young man: Toni Morrison and Cornel West (both of whom I was fortunate enough to study with in college), and James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe and Edward Said (all of whom I read and admired around that time).

Yes. When I have fallen in love, an exchange of books was always involved.

I learned that if you read “The Great Gatsby” aloud to your 12-year-old daughter she might not want to stop and go to bed in the middle of a chapter, even if it is getting late.

It is not for me to wish subjects on other authors, but I would like to offer an observation. The dominant modes of mass-reproduced storytelling in our historical moment are the screen storytelling modes: film and, even more, television. By their very nature, these modes tend to emphasize what things look like and how people speak. They also come to us more fully imagined: They present worlds that appear to be like the world we inhabit. This suggests to me that literature might flourish by focusing on other things, perhaps less on physical description and dialogue, and perhaps more on how what we call reality is an interior construct, but above all on the possibilities that come from being only partially imagined in its transmitted state. Written fiction looks nothing like the world it describes. The reader imagines that world from letters and spaces and punctuation marks. Literature, it seems to me, can thrive by opening up the space for co-creation on the part of the reader, by inviting the reader to imagine, by being the mode of storytelling that involves two people playing make-believe together, the reader an active shaper, a dancer in a dance, and not a viewer, seated, observing.

I assume this question is referring to the physical configuration of the books in our home, not to the internal architecture of my novels. In our house, most of the books are in our living/dining room, broadly divided into nonfiction on one set of shelves and fiction (with a little poetry and drama) on another. Each set is further divided roughly alphabetically by author (though books move around and “roughly” becomes “very roughly” as the years go by). In our bedroom are books we are reading, intend to read, still wish to intend to read but will never read, and still pretend we are reading but have abandoned. Finally, in my study are books I expect often to refer to (dictionaries) but rarely do (atlases, almanacs, other references), books I have read recently and loved so much that I am still keeping them near, books that I need to read but do not yet intend to read, and books that I appear to have written myself, including in languages I do not know.

“Storia do Mogor; or, Mogul India 1653-1708, Vol. II,” by Niccolao Manucci, translated by William Irvine, printed in 1907, and given to me by a friend on my birthday a hundred years later, when this friend noticed that I had referred to events described by Manucci during his 17th-century stay in India (and named a character after him) in my first novel.

Enheduanna, Jorge Luis Borges and James Baldwin.

Probably early drafts of my own books fit these descriptions better than anything else I have ever read. I imagine (or rather hope) many writers feel the same.

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