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Why I Read: Some Reflections (and the Books I Read in 2016)

Aslam Kakar

Aslam Kakar

I grew up in a small village on the periphery of Pakistan. In childhood and till my undergraduate studies in Lahore, I did not read at all. Perhaps, I did not have the opportunity or perhaps I just did not care. Or may be I did not care because of the environment. There was no library where I lived. I never saw a book store till the age of 18 when I went to Quetta city for college. It was then when I also saw a living room size library for the first time in my college. I can hardly recall someone in family, relatives or friends who was interested in reading books. The only exception I believe was my brother-in-law who introduced me and my siblings to books and novels. It was not that he was an avid reader and influenced my reading habits, but he wanted us to read nonetheless. So, I give him credit for that. 

Though I started reading after going to Government College Lahore (GCU), my interest in it had already begun in Quetta. I used to visit book stores, which were only couple in the entire city, every week. I was intrigued by all kinds of books. Given that there was less to be inspired from, I do not know why my interest in books developed. I do not remember any particular event or idea that influenced me back then. I believe it is just the way I have always been without realizing it. I might have liked reading as a child and while growing up if only I had a chance to. When I joined GCU, the environment and teachers influenced my thinking and curiosity about reading. I became more conscious of its advantages. I spent five years in Lahore. One of my chief hobbies was collecting books from Mall Road and other modern book stores in the city’s wealthy areas. I read more books than I studied for my classes. That is why my reading mates and I prepared for exams at the end of every semester. At GCU, I began to to understand my curiosity to know more of myself and the world.

After I came to the U.S. in 2013, my interest developed further in reading. Partly, I was inspired by the great number of people reading and, partly, by the wonderful libraries and humungous book stores. I have seen people reading at train stations, in restaurants and coffee shops and in book stores. I have seen the old, young, men and women reading. There are huge book stores in every town. Big cities like New York have tons of them. Almost all book stores have sitting areas. Some even have coffee shops. You can sit there and read for free. You can read an entire section of books without spending a penny. There are also public libraries in every town which provide reading and membership services.

In 2016, I read 34 books which are shown in the list below. I re-read some of them. These are books on politics, philosophy, ethics, psychology, literature, writing and etc. Compared to the number that the most avid readers suggest, the books I read are not a lot. Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft suggests to read more than 70 books in a year. That is why one of my new year’s resolution is to finish fifty books in 2017. While reading my blog and going through the list may be you can also set a number for yourself for this year. Below I am sharing some of the lessons about what reading means to me. I would like to know what you learn from reading in the comments section. I hope you enjoy it. 

Intellectual Honesty: I feel the more you read, the more you realize that you understand very little or nothing at all about many things in life. This realization makes you doubt and question things. It makes you strive for attaining intellectual humility and honesty. There is no doubt that the world and its affairs are difficult to understand. That is why most of us have confused or biased opinions about a number of things. Many have no clue about engaging in a civilized dissent and would rather get angry than offer cogent arguments for their disagreement with or disbelief in something. Reading I believe is an effective tool which helps to clarify such confusions so to engage in reason instead of force. For instance, if you read books on social and political philosophy, you will realize that you have to understand things logically and in principle than out of gut feeling and personal biases. I was a hardcore conservative and not a big fan of women’s education and freedom years back before my exposure to new ideas through reading. After reading books on a number of difficult social and political questions, I have liberal opinions (politically) on women’s issues, LGBT and etc. I believe that is a positive change. There is no way but to think harder and clearer when you get intellectually challenged. Reading more and more does that precisely. 

Compassion and Tolerance : As difficult as it is, reading makes you considerate towards other people. A world in which happiness is constantly threatened by its arch rival pain, people suffer from all kinds of issues. Some issues are deeply personal and inexplicable. One way to know about the lives and sufferings of others is when you suffer yourself. Another is to know people yourself in your social circle. Yet another way is to read other people’s stories who you have never met or known. Thanks to the wisdom and courage of writers and novelists for bringing to our attention a vast number of such stories from all over. After all, all stories are a human story. Our story. When you read fiction for example, you find out that people go through terrible things in life. On the face of it, fiction seems like a lie but Stephen King says, ‘Fiction is the truth inside the lie.’ I am not saying that suffering is all that stories or life offer or one should look only for it in books. There is a lot of thriving happiness and love out there in the world. But, I just feel that the pain and sadness of others warrant more caution and attention from us. From my list, three books An Obedient Father, The Space Between Us and  The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat made me realize why we should be more careful and kind in our relations with others. Such an understanding of people and differences in the world will make you a more tolerant and kind human being.   

Curiosity for Finding Answers: Although many may not realize or understand, deep down most of us have an inborn curiosity about some very fundamental, philosophical questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What is good life like? Why we die? How big is the universe? Who created it and how?  As most of these questions seem to defy answers from us, for many the answer, out of convenience, is just not thinking about them and accepting things as they are. But, some of us spend lives and careers in the pursuit of answers to these and other questions. By reading one can get more educated and curious about seeking the truth to such riddles though it may not be possible to fully understand all that is noumenal. The books like Cosmos and Ultimate Questions opened my mind to a broad range of possibilities of knowledge which I had no idea about. Similarly, about questions pertaining to the somewhat phenomenal aspects of life, we can easily seek insights in the works and life stories of others. I learned much from the Man’s Search for Meaning, Owning Your Own Shadow and the Untethered Soul. Besides this, what reading does is makes you more curious. The more you read the more enthusiastic you become about life, God, politics, nature, religion, human mind and psyche, love, etc. Reading helps to renew curiosity and energizes the human mind to explore new ideas and questions. And it is the endeavor for acquiring such knowledge that produces thinkers, philosophers, leaders and visionary men and women in vibrant civilizations. 

Mental Peace and Happiness: As anxiety from trying to understand the much bigger and harder questions about life is inevitable, reading brings you mental peace. One way is that it detaches you from the harsh realities of life and gives you aesthetic pleasure as most of art does. This relief seems temporary. But it may turn into something permanent and real as you begin to receive (not avoid) and integrate reality well into your life though it may be hard for many of us to comprehend and practice it. Freud says, ‘We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men.’ There are no quick and easy fixes to these issues except a more compassionate, intelligent and calm attitude towards life. I believe reading fills you with self-compassion, loving kindness towards others and a more holistic understanding of life. It also helps in thriving your mental and social life. Some would disagree and claim that bookish knowledge is ideal and contravenes real life and practical wisdom. I take issue with that because I believe that our knowledge of the world and diverse ideas broadens our horizons. Of course it does not fix any of our problems in practical sense, but it does work as an effective method to carefully handle them. 

  1. Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee
  2. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel
  3. How to be a Philosopher by Gary Cox 
  4. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Nathalie Goldberg 
  5. Winning Arguments: What Works And Doesn’t Work in Ploitics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom by Stanley Fish
  6. Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking by D.Q. McInerny
  7. Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky
  8. As You Think by James Allen 
  9. Free Will by Sam Harris
  10. Lying by Sam Harris
  11. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
  12. Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by Robert A. Johnson
  13. The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer
  14. Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives by Dan Millman
  15. Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid 
  16. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships by Daniel Goleman
  17. The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz
  18. The Future of An Illusion by Sigmund Freud
  19. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
  20. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat 
  21. The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar
  22. If Today be Sweet by Thrity Umrigar
  23. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmed  
  24. The Prisoner: A Novel by Omar Shaid Hamid
  25. The Space between Us by Thrity Umrigar
  26. Family Life by Akhil Sharma 
  27. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
  28. An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma
  29. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
  30. On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
  31. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future Vali Nasr
  32. Civilization and its Discontents by Sigmund Freud 
  33. Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction 
  34. Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression by Charb and Adam Gopnik

(The article was first published in Pak Tea House)

Writer: Aslam Kakar

The writer is a recent graduate student of Peace Studies from the University of San Diego. He tweets at @aslamk_kakar and can be reached at aslam@sandiego.edu


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