Kamila Shamsie: ‘There’s nothing more comforting than Seinfeld scripts’

The novelist on the dangerous allure of Gone With the Wind, taking comfort in comedy and discovering George Eliot’s Middlemarch

My earliest reading memory
An illustrated version of Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was probably three or so, in Karachi, and according to my parents I couldn’t yet read but had learned the book by heart so knew when to tell them to turn the page. I have a clear memory of looking at words on the page beneath the illustration of a flying car.

My favourite book growing up
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. I was in a room full of adults, bored, when I first noticed this book with an appealing title on a shelf and drew it out. I entered that novel in much the same way as Lucy enters the wardrobe and emerges into Narnia, everything became wondrous when just minutes before it had been dull.

The book that changed me as a teenager
Gone With the Wind. I read it when I was 12 – so just pre-teen. I was completely drawn in by it but I also understood how abhorrent its take on history and race was. It was the first time I recognised how dangerously wrong a book can be, even when you find yourself completely immersed in it.

The writer who changed my mind
Bapsi Sidhwa. I had wanted to be a writer from an improbably young age, but there was a part of my brain that also said the English-language novel didn’t really have space in it for a writer from Pakistan. But Sidhwa’s wonderful Partition novel, Ice Candy Man, which I read when I was 15 or 16, allowed me to discard that idea.

The book I came back to
I reread Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina during a Covid winter in Karachi. I had previously read it aged 12 (the same summer as Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell). I would like to say that I saw it in all its brilliance as an adult, as I couldn’t when I was a child, but the strongest distinction in the two reading experiences is that I was far less interested in Levin’s talk of agriculture and rural life at 47 than at 12.

The book I reread
Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain. When I first read it, as a teenager, I was distracted by it real-life resonances (Attia was my great-aunt). In my 20s, I read it particularly for its feminist heroine. And in my 40s I’ve read it for its understanding of how complex a process change is – gain and loss so entwined. It’s a book that becomes increasingly subtle the older I get.

The book I could never read again
Gone With the Wind. I may have recognised what was so wrong in it at 12, but I read and reread it. Never again.

The book I discovered later in life
In the same way that Columbus discovered America or Fleming discovered penicillin? In the spirit of the former I’m going to claim to have discovered Eliot’s Middlemarch, in December 2016. Really rather good.

The book I am currently reading
O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

My comfort read
The Seinfeld Scripts: The First and Second Seasons by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. There’s nothing more comforting than returning to jokes that first made you laugh a quarter of a century ago.

• Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie is out in paperback, published by Bloomsbury. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


Kamila Shamsie

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