They were Rushdie: Bookstores and the resistance to censorship

The attack on Rushdie foregrounds the defence of the freedom of expression put up by booksellers

Published - August 19, 2022 10:10 am IST

 The owner of the earlier avatar of Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach, defied curbs on James Joyce’s Ulysses and published it in 1922.

 The owner of the earlier avatar of Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach, defied curbs on James Joyce’s Ulysses and published it in 1922. | Photo Credit: wiki commons

On August 12, when news came that Salman Rushdie had been stabbed critically just as he was preparing to give a talk at Chautauqua Institution in New York, reports invariably harked back to February 1989, when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa for his new novel The Satanic Verses. One million dollars was the price then put on his head. A decade ago, Rushdie documented what followed thereafter in his memoir JosephAnton (Jonathan Cape), the title deriving from the alias he composed when a British police officer tasked with his safety asked him for a false name, so Rushdie could go about some of life’s transactions like issuing cheques, etc, without being identified, and one by which the “protection officers” could refer to him and not “blow his cover” in public. It would help, he said, if it wasn’t Asian.

So began an exercise in constructing a name that, in its telling in the memoir, sheds immense light on the extent to which literature sustained Rushdie especially in those fraught times when to have someone call out to him by his name (“Salman Rushdie”) in public carried huge risk. Writes Rushdie of himself: “He thought of writers he loved and tried combinations of their names. Vladimir Joyce. Marcel Beckett. Franz Sterne. He made lists of such combinations and all of them sounded ridiculous. Then he found one that did not. He wrote down, side by side the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, and there it was, his name for the next eleven years.”

But if Rushdie was compelled to retreat into an assumed name, there were others determined to identify themselves as “Salman Rushdie”. Across the Atlantic and the U.S. land mass, in March of 1989, Lewis Buzbee, then a sales rep in the book trade, was among an assorted gathering invited by the owner of Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, a small town in northern California. As he recounts in his memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (Greywolf Press, 2006): “Throughout that rainy weekend, we gathered around the wood-burning stove, huddled on the floor and in the few chairs, and read aloud to one another. In bookstores around the country, the same scene was repeated. In Mendocino and elsewhere, we all wore big white buttons with black lettering: ‘I am Salman Rushdie.’”

Indie stores

The bravery and defiance shown by bookstores at a time when anyone identified with or stocking Rushdie’s book faced the threat of violence and worse was, Buzbee reminds us, not unusual. The case for bricks-and-mortar bookstores has been made often, and it’s been made variously.

In the Internet age as algorithms enclose us in online bubbles of our previous searches, surfing and purchases, bookstores nourish discovery. In another memoir just out, A Factotum in the Book Trade (Biblioasis), Marius Kociejowski talks about different aspects of bookselling. He writes: “...bookshops are magic places: somewhere, in one of their nooks and crannies, there awaits a book that will ever so subtly alter one’s existence. And with every shop that closes so, too, goes still more of the serendipity which feeds the human spirit.”

The attack on Rushdie foregrounds the defence of the freedom of expression put up by booksellers. In the 2006 memoir, Buzbee revisits the stellar role of Sylvia Beach, owner of the iconic Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in defying curbs on James Joyce’s Ulysses and publishing and distributing a century ago. Buzbee also applauds the annual observation of Banned Books Week in the U.S. every September, during which bookstores and libraries display and discuss books that have been banned or sought to be censored.

None of these insights are new. But as Jeff Deutsch writes in In Praise of Good Bookstores (Princeton University Press): “A simple and direct justification of bookstores no longer holds. We no longer need bookstores to buy books, even serious books.” He points out there are other more efficient ways to buy books — and, I may add, more economical ways too. Booksellers will do, or occasionally may not do, what it takes to defend their retail ventures. For us readers, however, it is worth our time to heed every nudge to count the ways in which a good bookstore makes our own world of words more complete.

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