How My Love of Books Saved Me — Aijaz Zaka Syed


AIJAZ ZAKA SYED | Caravan Daily

CAN reading make you happy? Apparently, yes.  Anyone who has grown up with books would nod in agreement.  Author Ceridwen Dovey tackles the question in a fascinating article in the New Yorker. That good books are one’s best friends is a truism nearly done to death.    

Roman philosopher Cicero compared a room without books to a body without a soul. Good books are said to bring out the best in us, making us better human beings. Charles de Secondat believed there is no trouble in the world that an hour’s reading cannot assuage.

In his 1905 essay celebrating the joys of reading, Marcel Proust wrote, “With books, there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends—books—it is because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret.”

While a good book is the best antidote to boredom and ennui, besides broadening our intellectual horizons, books are now being increasingly recognised and used in the West for their therapeutic powers. 

With the new research suggesting that good books can be good for your mental health and your relationships wit others, bibliotheraphy has become a global trend.  Bibliotherapists are prescribing certain books to help and treat people with problems like depression, loneliness, and the trauma of losing loved ones etc.

In his New Yorker article, Dovey talks about an extraordinary book, The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You, by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. The duo prescribes a set of books for every physical and mental condition. In fact, their belief in the curative powers of books has led them to set up a formal bibliotherapy service “for life’s ailments”.

By the way, they mostly prescribe fiction (“the purest and best form of bibliotherapy”), and apart from occasional excursions into the classics, concentrate on books written within the last couple of centuries. The Novel Cure is the distillation of those recommendations.

“Our apothecary contains Balzacian balms and Tolstoyan tourniquets,” they tell us in their introduction, “the salves of Saramago and the purges of Perec and Proust”.

Today, bibliotherapy takes many forms, from literature courses run for prison inmates to reading circles for the elderly suffering from dementia or plain old age blues.

Berthoud and her long-time friend and fellow bibliotherapist Elderkin practise “affective” bibliotherapy, advocating the restorative power of reading fiction.

They trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” After the First World War, traumatised soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading.

But why only fiction? Because reading fiction apparently generates empathy for one’s fellow beings and makes us better human beings, if you will. 

I do not know about that but books have been a source of survival for me.  Being a hopeless loner and social recluse all my life, I do not know what I would have done without the guidance and emotional support provided by some of my favourite books and authors. They have helped me retain my sanity; simple as that.      

Being the children of an author and poet father, who wrote and read voraciously and literally lived with books, reading came naturally to us. We devoured everything that came our way.  

Like all children who love a good yarn, we were hooked to fiction from an early age, beginning with children’s magazines and digests in Urdu such as Hilal, Noor, and Khilona. We did not have access to English comics except for Chandamama, a monthly magazine of comics, or even books by authors like Enid Blyton. Of course, JK Rowling, my children’s favourite, had not exploded on the horizon like a burning star until then with her fascinating world of Harry Potter’s wizardry.      

I remain eternally indebted to my father for introducing us to the joy of reading, among other things of course. Without that burning love of books and the infinitely fascinating world of knowledge that they opened, I do not know what I would have done with myself.  For reading and writing is all that I can do.  I am good at nothing else. 

Besides, books have been more than a tool and excuse to keep myself occupied and informed. They have been a vital support system in these trying times. Especially in the past few years when I have had to live away from my family and go through the ordeal of losing jobs, what with my big mouth and the overarching influence of powers that be back home. Even newspapers in the Gulf are beginning to feel the heat. In these most uncertain of times, I would have probably gone stark raving mad without the comforting company and support of books.

One author who has cast a spell on my whole family is Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, who passed away recently. A banker and former civil servant who moved to Pakistan after the Partition, Yusufi wrote in Urdu and published just five books. But each one of them, known for their sheer brilliant humour, wit and sublime prose, had been a true gem. My absolute favourite remains his fictionalised autobiography titled Zarguzisht, based on his hilarious experiences in one of Pakistan’s leading banks. There will perhaps be no other Yusufi in Urdu, a language fallen on hard times in the land of its birth.     

While fiction remains a constant as I juggle between various authors in print or on my iPhone and iPad (I love the ios app iBooks and the convenience it offers of ‘saving’ and carrying a number of e-books in your phone or tablet and reading them at night in the comfort of your bed or whenever and wherever you want it —  there is nothing like poetry to keep oneself going.

I love Shakespeare and return to him and latter poets like Browning, Shelley, Yeats and, from the 20th century, Robert Frost, WH Auden, Bob Dylan and TS Eliot of course from time to time. However, it is the Urdu poetry that remains my absolute passion. I go back to Iqbal, Ghalib and Faiz, in that order, again and again. The other all-time favourite is Parveen Shakir.   

Despite being a student of English literature, I subscribe to Khushwant Singh’s view that when it comes to poetry, no language perhaps with the exception of Persian comes close to Urdu. It is on a different plain altogether — sublime, soul-stirring and totally out of this world. 

While reading Ghalib is like sharing the wisdom of an understanding, philosopher friend with an extraordinary sensibility, Iqbal and Faiz revive your spirits instantly. You forget about your own loss and think about the world out there that needs to be changed. 

Iqbal addresses himself to you like a biblical prophet, urging you to find your voice, speak up and act while you can. The philosopher-poet spent much of his time exploring the Quran and it manifests itself in much of his poetry. Every time I feel low, I go to Iqbal for help and guidance and he never lets you down.  Over the past few years, I have also started following my hero in trying to glean the divine wisdom.  After all, it offers to cure all ailments. 


Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former editor. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @AijazZaka


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