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June 14, 2021

How to select good books

Many readers and aspiring readers ask about how to select good books, as if there is a universal formula that one can apply on books and select the best ones. It all depends on how one defines a good book, and what characteristics one assigns to a good read.

Let’s begin with books on history, one of my favourite disciplines. Perhaps, beginning with various strands of historiography would be helpful. Traditionally, in most civilizations historiography became a tool of the rulers. The more associated a historiographer was 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 malign all those who opposed it or resisted the tyranny of the rulers. The ruling dynasty emerges as the saviour of the people, and others emerge as villains.

If you want to select a good book of history, first try to check how close the writer has been with the circles of power. Most civil and military bureaucrats fall in that category. They have occupied top positions, have been part and parcel of all the wrong doings inflicted on the people and then try to whitewash their own role in the sorry state of affairs. Most of these people are not historians but writers of autobiographies that one needs to read with a pinch of salt. Some of these autobiographies may be a good source of vital information too.

Even if a historiographer is a properly qualified historian, having a terminal degree in history, one needs to look at his or her driving ideology. For example, I H Qureshi was a qualified 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 drove the historiography in this country in a particular direction that was dominated by the official ideology of the state of Pakistan.

Qureshi guided and taught hundreds – or maybe thousands – of history students in Pakistan, many of whom became, or claimed to be, historians. They wrote history textbooks with a heavy dose of ideology and religion. Most of the Pakistan-Studies textbooks are the products of ‘research’ – or lack thereof – by such ‘historians’. Such books have tried to shape the minds of our young generations for decades, resulting in adults who lack analytical thinking about what they have read as history. Today’s Pakistan is replete with people without critical skills to evaluate history.

If you want to select a good book on history, go for writers who have critically analyzed Pakistan’s past and who refrain from regurgitating platitudes about ideology and religion. They may not be professional historians, as making history a profession in Pakistan is tantamount to following the official line. Such writers may be activists who have keenly observed developments in history and politics of Pakistan. They may be 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; and also development experts such as 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 best journalists specializing in the economy of Pakistan include Khurram Hussain, Mehtab Haider, and Ziauddin. These are not professional historians but their writings enlighten us in our understanding of society. A student of history 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, K K Aziz, Mubarak Ali, Riaz Shaikh, Sibte Hasan, Tahir Kamran, and many others.

The key is to have a people’s perspective, not an official one. History books giving you only the official version are of little value. The same applies to books on international relations. There are many officially controlled ‘think tanks’ that keep churning out 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 papers, but they lack critical analysis of Pakistan’s own foreign policy and the mistakes we as a country have been making. There are hardly any good books on international relations critically analyzing Pakistan’s defence and foreign policies.

Most diplomats, Foreign Service officials and former foreign ministers who have penned books that present their own points of view. Writers such as Abdul Sattar, Ayesha Siddiqa, Mahir Ali and Moonis Ahmer do have a critical approach and help us understand Pakistan’s role in world affairs. Political Science is another area in which we lack substantial scholarly work. Most universities in Pakistan have departments of political science but they have failed to produce a single scholar of international stature in political science. Some Pakistani writers who are not exactly political scientists, have contributed to our understanding of this field with 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 some others are highly useful in understanding history and politics of Pakistan. Coming to books on religion and its historical development, one should be able to read all schools of thought with an open mind. From the histories 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 may agree or disagree with them but you can’t and should not ignore them. Some people may consider it a waste of time, but I don’t, as they help me develop a broader perspective to look at society. And, yes, we can’t forget literature. How to judge a good book of literature? Just by reading it. But perhaps it is better to read some 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 may consider writers such as Ashfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia, Mumtaz Mufti, and their new followers as worth reading. For me, there are much better writers than these. In English literature, a modern version of Chaucer is a good starting point. Then you can’t skip at least four writers – Shakespeare, Swift, Dickens, and Hardy. In American literature, Hemingway and Faulkner are on top. In Russian literature, don’t begin with the thick tomes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; rather start with short stories of Chekhov, Gogol, Gorky, and Turgenev.

In French literature, begin with Maupassant, Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. In German, Brecht and Thomas Mann are a must. There can be a long list of such writers in world literature, but I don’t want to burden my readers with a heavy dose. Talking about Urdu literature, begin with short stories of Premchand, Krishan Chandar, Ismat Chughtai, Bedi, and Manto. Devour the entire oeuvre of Intizar Hussain, Qurratulain Hyder, Shaukat Siddiqui, and Zahida Hina. Hameed Shahid and Irfan Urfi are also worth reading. I can go on to recommend writers in other languages too, but one should make one’s own list of writers to read. I would like to conclude this by saying reading is a worthwhile activity that must take precedence on many other activities that we do.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]