Burning books, and The Satanic Verses.

No sight sinks the heart deeper than the sight of a book being burned, and no symbol is as representative of the oppressive, stultifying humourlessness of the intolerant mind. I doubt anyone reading this (anyone?) is unaware of the grim publicity stunt threatened by a religious maniac from a tiny evangelical church in Florida, designed solely to provoke other religious maniacs in the radical parts of the Muslim world to acts of violence and murder. Here’s a link to the story anyway. Note: people have already been killed over this, and the Koran hasn’t even been burned yet.

Make no mistake, if anyone thinks that the appropriate response to this contemptible stunt is rioting and violence, then they should take responsibility for their actions. Pastor Terry Jones (cruel irony that he shares a name with one of the Monty Python team, who know a thing or two about provoking the supposedly religious) does not have “blood on his hands”, as such. However, he will have been quite aware that in some parts of the Islamic world, this would have been the response, which means he either takes pleasure in the knowledge that people will die, or he is wholly indifferent to it. Either way, it’s disgusting, and it’s disgusting to see any book burned. Jon Henley wrote an excellent article in today’s Guardian about the history and symbolism of book burning, and is far more eloquent and insightful than I could be on the subject.

As this story has morphed and metastasized over the last few days, and as I’ve become more and more interested in it, it has become conflated in my mind with my rediscovery of Salman Rushdie’s work, a writer who I slighted in an earlier blog post. I’ve been re-reading “Midnight’s Children”, and realising again quite how glorious a novel it is. The vast influence this book has had glows from every page, and when I’ve finished it I think I’ll go back to some of the other novels by him that I’ve read and peremptorily dismissed – including “The Satanic Verses”.

Rushdie of course knows what it is like to provoke violent discord in the radical Muslim world, and he knows what it is like to live under the threat of assassination from the self-appointed arbiters of a brutal theocracy. After the publication of his fourth novel, he was condemned to death, and spent the next decade in hiding. (Here’s a good overview of the fatwa from Wikipedia.) The two stories though – the Koran-burning pastor and the work of an exuberant, ironic novelist – are qualitatively different in every way it’s possible to be. One man is being destructive, the other was being creative. One is a matter of deliberate offence, the other a matter of wilful misinterpretation. Both demonstrate the continued power and significance of printed matter, and the importance the book as an artefact and repository of knowledge has across almost all cultures. Henley’s article points out how many groups and sects and political factions have felt it right to burn books at one point or another in human history. What they all have in common is that you’d cross the road if you saw them coming.


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