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     Volume 7 Issue 21 | May 23, 2008 |

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Reading for Pleasure

Qaisra Shahraz

This year, the United Kingdom is celebrating the National Year of Reading, where is a focus on reading and books. Like many other authors and celebrities, I have been approached to write about my love of reading and favourite books; the aim of course being to encourage people, especially the young, to take up reading.

It is good to share with others what one has enjoyed reading and how one started on this most wonderful of all pastimes. My favourite book and the one I owe so much, both as a reader and as a novelist, has to be Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. At the age of fifteen, whilst doing my 'O' level English literature course, this novel became my debut into the world of adult literary fiction.

The poignant love story of Gabriel Oak, the wonderful, endearing rustic hero and Bathsheba Everdene, a fiery, feisty heroine beguiled and kindled teenage interest in love and human relationships. We went to see the film version of Far From the Madding Crowd, starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie as Gabriel and Bathsheba, at the local cinema with my classmates and teacher.

It was quite an interesting experience. The quaint rustic world of Dorset, in the South of England, of sweeping landscapes, with the wonderful accompanying music wooed our young minds. Hardy's world of nineteenth century England came alive before our eyes on the big screen. However, we were disappointed too; some of us quibbled over the differences in the book and the film, especially the wrong hair colouring! Bathsheba was supposed to be dark haired not fair haired. It destroyed the image we had of her in our heads! The book had fed our imagination, whilst the cinema simply dashed it away!

Of course I went onto to devour all of Hardy's other novels, yet I could never forgive him for killing off the hero in The Woodlanders. I now understand why one reader wrote to complain ,about me killing off someone important in my novel Typhoon he loved the novel but 'hated me for days' for that, he wrote. Hardy whetted my appetite for literature and I went onto to do an 'A' level course in it. It was then I discovered Jane Austen and George Eliot, both of them remain my favourite authors. George Eliot's famous novel Middlemarch, played a central part in my academic life for a number of years as I went onto to pursue it at a higher level at university, focussing on the life of the heroine, Dorothea Brooke and the provincial world at large.

I never forgot the tender story of Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth of Jane Austen's novel Persuasion. Often voted as the favourite book by many readers in the United Kingdom, I too, never tire of watching many versions of Pride and Prejudice, on the TV or in the cinema and have entered into discussions as to who was the best Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. Now as an adult and as a scriptwriter myself, I realise there is bound to be a big difference between the book and its interpretation in a film; after all they are different genres, with different demands and expectations.

Those late teenage years at school were very important in discovering the world of books, literature and bookshops. I would dive straight through to the literature section in the bookshops. How I loved to browse through the rows of glossy paperbacks with satiny soft and very attractive covers of beautiful women and landscapes, trying to decide which one to go for.

A Penguin classics paperback was my weekly treat back then, bought with my pocket money. My mother was quite generous, knowing that I spent the money on books. There was a lot of pleasure in reading, collecting and also of shelving away with pride the rows of books by different authors in my bookcase.

On Friday afternoons straight after school had finished I would dash into the bookshop near the Central Library. Sadly that bookshop, like my school, Central High School for Girls, in the city centre of Manchester has gone; respectively replaced by a dry cleaners shop and a college.

The books were read over the holidays or during the weekends, sandwiched between homework, revision, writing of essays and being the eldest child helping mother with the housework. The novels would transport me into another time and place and into other peoples' lives.

Reading became a sheer joy, and in particular the books instilled a passion for nineteenth century English, American and European novels. My literary journey through the works of other favourite authors took me beyond Manchester in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford and London in William Thackeray, Vanity Fair; to other lands. To America in Nathanial Hawthorne's world with his The Scarlet Letter, to nineteenth century France via the French writers Emile Zola (Therese Raquin) and Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary).

The two Russian giants of literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov) and Leo Tolstoy simply captivated. I never managed to finish War and Peace to this day but I was hooked on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, my heart going to the poor heroine Anna and her ill treatment by society. It ended up alongside George Eliot's Middlemarch as part of my M.A. literature thesis, entitled: Prison of Womanhood.

All three authors, Hardy, Austen and Eliot, influenced me to some extent as a novelist, in the writing of my own novels. The Holy Woman my first novel is a powerful love story introducing the reader to the world of present day Pakistan and three other countries. In Typhoon how a woman caught in the arms of another woman's husband unleashes a storm, typhoon in a village.

Buchi Emecheta, the Nigerian UK based writer also influenced me; particularly by her two books The Bride Price and The Wrestling Match. I really enjoyed reading them and learnt about culture, customs and life in a Nigerian village. These books whet my appetite for books beyond the European borders, from Africa and Asia.

I have enjoyed reading many other books over a period of time since Far From the Madding Crowd, far too many to list here, but a recent favourite has to be A Suitable Boy by the Indian author Vikram Seth which is set in India. How I loved this huge blockbuster of a novel! Amazingly I managed to glide through it in six days whilst on holiday in Devon; with my lovely seven years old niece, Sara, sharing pages of it, for her to practise reading. I did not want to part from either the wonderful characters or their world. Simply wanted the book to go on and on - even after 1200 pages!

Qaisra Shahraz is the author of two highly acclaimed novels, The Holy Woman and Typhoon.


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