Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s book column, where authors share their most memorable books. Whether you’re looking for a book to comfort you, touch you deeply, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, just like you (since you’ve been here), love on books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours.
Mohsin Hamid says his fifth novel, The last white man (Riverhead), about a man who wakes up one morning with darker skin, has been pregnant since 9/11, when – born in Pakistan and until then mainly educated in the US and working in the UK – he was treated with suspicion and fear.
Now based in Lahore, the international bestselling author is a two-time Booker Prize finalist for 2007 The Unwilling Fundamentalistwhose film adaptation was directed by Mira Nair and starring Kate Hudson and Riz Ahmed, and 2017’s exit West, which is being adapted by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions and again starring Ahmed for Netflix. (The two discussed migration at the London Literature Festival). originally named All migrants through time, exit Westabout a couple transported around the world by walking through a black door, was also a finalist of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, given to incoming freshmen at UC Berkeley as a summer lecture, and was chosen by the Chicago Public Library for One Book, One Chicago.
After Princeton, where he was a student of Toni Morrison, who criticized what would become his first novel, moth smoke—and Harvard Law, Hamid worked as a corporate lawyer, management consultant, and lead storyteller at a creative consulting firm. He reads his work aloud as part of his editing process, walks 90 minutes a day, is married to a restorer and loves the Greek islands of Naxos and Santorini, the art of Shahzia Sikander and atlases as a child. Slip into new worlds with his rec below.
The book that:
… helped me through a loss:
I left California for Pakistan at the age of nine and never lived there again, and only when I read Joan Didion’s book Slumped to Bethlehem 30 years later I really realized how much I still missed the place and how much of me was still there.
… kept me up way too late:
James Baldwin’s Another countrythat starts with probably the best text, sentence by sentence, I’ve ever read, and made me think, damn, it’s possible to do this.
… I recommend again and again:
Pereira maintains by Antonio Tabucchi, a beautiful little masterpiece of a novel, that does so much, and that too many people haven’t read but should.
… has shaped my worldview:
When I was in high school in Lahore and about to go to college in America, I read: No longer comfortable by Chinua Achebe, the story of a young Nigerian man who was educated in England and returns to Nigeria, and I’ve thought about it over and over ever since.
… I would gift a recent graduate:
At that age you are ready to blow your mind and fictions by Jorge Luis Borges will do it.
…made me laugh out loud:
Nabokov is very, very funny, and for me pale fire is his funniest.
…broke my heart:
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. What can I say? If you read it as a kid and didn’t break yours, you’re much tougher than me.
…describes a place I would like to visit:
Bapsi Sidhwas Ice Candy Manwho would take me to my grandparents’ Lahore before it changed irrevocably.
…should be on every college syllabus:
The Epic of Gilgamesh. If you are going to read literature, it makes sense to start at the beginning.
… I consider literary comfort food:
Hemingway’s A movable partybecause it is.
…I would have faded if asked:
The hymns of Enheduanna, because she was the first author in human history, over 4,000 years ago, and so when I called her groundbreaking, no one would argue with me.
… a friendship sealed:
Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian woodwhich I gave to my wife on our second date, expecting that we would never see each other again.
…I would like an autograph from the author:
loverby Toni Morrison because when I was a student she caught me with a copy of Jazzwhich I was devouring, and she signed it but said, “Read loverit’s good,” and I did, and, well, you don’t have to tell me this, but: it was really, really.
Riza Cruz is an editor and writer based in New York.