To mark World Book Day, acclaimed author Mohsin Hamid chooses his 5 favourite places around the world for book lovers, from Tokyo to San Francisco
City Lights bookshop (Scott Chernis)
San Francisco is a very atmospheric place. It feels like a sort of noir place, from 1930s, 1940s and 1950s crime writing, and the Beat Generation, of course, in the 1960s.
I’ve had important moments in there. I once went in there with an Italian girlfriend, perhaps 20 years ago. She gave me a book by Antoni Tabucchi called Pereira Declares. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric book. I read it every single day in my hotel in San Francisco. It’s set in Lisbon, but it could almost have been set in San Francisco because of the geography; rolling hills, fog coming in off the ocean.
City Lights is such a great place to read and a wonderful bookshop to make discoveries in. They’ve got a wonderful assortment. One of the reasons why City Lights is such a good bookshop is because you’ll find stuff you weren’t looking for. They have a wonderful range of fiction and non-fiction from all over the world and all the items are organised in such a way so that you’re likely to bump into things.
Sensoji-ji Temple in Tokyo (Dreamstime)
I think it was William Gibson who once described Tokyo as the “default setting for our imagination of the future.” He said that a long time ago, but there is something, for me at least, that’s wonderfully Sci-Fi about Tokyo. It’s not just the scale of the city and its physicality. It’s that you see again, as in San Francisco, that the place is about the future and the past.
In Tokyo, that sense of the past and future is so stark. You see cultural things that, because you’re not from that culture, you’re not familiar with. It really made an impact on me. They have all the old shrines and their traditional way of dressing, and the cultural behaviours that seem to be from the politeness of a different era. Yet they also have the ultra-modern forms of entertainment, the nightlife, the modern architecture and bright lights. It really is like the past and the future mashed together.
I’m a big fan of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Murakami very often uses Tokyo as a departure point in his fiction. Sometimes it’s Tokyo and sometimes it’s different, perhaps not modern Tokyo itself but a kind of fantastical, ‘other’ Tokyo.
Streets of the old city of Lahore (Dreamstime)
Of course I’m biased, because Lahore is where I live. Lahore has the old city going back several centuries, with carbon dating of artefacts suggesting it goes back even earlier. The city is special not just because it’s created some of the greatest poets in this part of the world, producing important writers from this part of the world for many centuries, even to the present day. But also because of the status that the city’s given some of those writers.
The most important shrine in Lahore, or the most popular one, is called Data Saab, a shrine to a man/writer called Data Saab. He wrote a thesis on the Sufi path many centuries ago. Even today, hundreds of thousands of people go there every single day to pay to ask for wisdom or perseverance or sustenance or help. The idea that the ancient writers and poets continue to draw these crowds of people gives a special feeling.
Lahore is a city where there are memorials to writers and poets in the way that other cities have memorials to emperors and kings. People go organically on a daily basis to the places that writers or poets went to, and in particular the writers and poets who spoke of transcendence and moving beyond the quotidian and the self-centred, the writers who talked about having a relationship with the universe that was more profound.
Lisbon street with fado graffiti (Dreamstime)
Lisbon is a great city. I read the novel I just mentioned, Pereira Declares by Antoni Tabucchi, in San Francisco, but it’s set in Lisbon. The author was an Italian who lived in Portugal for many years. That novel was so atmospheric. It talks about the sun bursting across the city, the cold Atlantic breeze and the sound of music in the distance, and when I went to Lisbon, it still feels very much like that.
It is a city in some senses like San Francisco. It’s a port city overlooking a great ocean. It has all these hills, the dramatic geography. It’s very atmospheric.
There’s a kind of music there called fado, a kind of singing, which is very powerful. Lisbon is a place where you can go and read. It’s also a place where you can go even if you’re not reading and, at least for me, there is a feeling of inhabiting a magical novel-like world.
Old Colonial Town of Paraty (Dreamstime)
I shouldn’t pick a single literary festival as the greatest, but one that had a really powerful impact on me was Paraty Literature Festival in Brazil. What was wonderful about the Paraty Literature Festival was, of course, the town of Paraty which in some ways reminded me of Amsterdam in the sense that it had all of these merchant houses open to the square.
Inside, in the interior of the square was the garden, and on the outside would be the homes. Paraty was an early trading post in the outset of the European colonisation of that part of South America.
It’s a beautiful place. But the festival in particular was lovely because people from all over, from Rio to Sao Paolo, come to this little town. Thousands of people show up for the event. You wander the streets late at night and see the old, cobbled streets of Paraty and the revellers who are book fans.
It’s a wonderful setting for a book festival, among the nicest festivals I know anywhere. My wife and I were standing in line to buy some food from a vendor on the streets, and we had very pleasant conversations with people around us. You find perhaps one out of five people might speak English.
The festival had much less of the feeling of being separate. Often you go to festivals and the writers are sort of separate from the people or the audience, but here it felt that the two floated together much more. I liked Paraty for the combination of the beauty of it and the wonderful collection of writers from all over the world that they manage to gather, but also the way in which the readers meld with the writers is very special.
Mohsin Hamid’s new novel Exit West is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99).
Mohsin Hamid is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and turned into a film starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson and Live Schreiber), Moth Smoke and How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, as well as the collection of essays Discontents And Its Civilizations. He also writes for The New York Times, The Guardian and the New York Review of Books. Born and mostly raised in Pakistan, he has lived in Lahore, London and New York. For more info, see www.mohsinhamid.com
Main image: Mohsin Hamid (Laurent Denimal)