Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Booksmith and September 11

This is Guana State Park, St. Augustine, Florida, on September 11, 2010, forming the blue-washed backdrop of my reflections.

One fine morning many years ago, I was scheduled to open The Booksmith, the small independent bookstore of beloved memory in St. Augustine. Though more than 20 years have passed I remember it quite clearly. It was the day we were scheduled to place Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses on the shelves for sale. Shop owner and dear friend Diana was out of town, but I remember a serious, thoughtful phone conversation in which we worried together about the possibilities. Threats had been made on Rushdie's life and on the lives of those who dared to sell the book. I was surprised to find that I was actually afraid, a little, though St. Augustine's Muslim population at that time was certainly very small, and no less peaceful than anyone else. Diana left the decision to me: if I didn't feel secure enough, I should just go home and not open that day. She'd call me later to check in.

As I hung the sign out, the very same sign I'd been hanging up the day Peter Bogdanovich shouted at me to get off the street, I looked around at the quiet Plaza and down the street toward the Bridge of Lions and the outline of Anastasia Island, then up the street toward St. George Street and Flagler College. I remember the feeling, if not the actual physical gesture, of shrugging my shoulders. How could I not open the store? How could allow I myself to be scared enough to even consider not selling books? Why had I been foolish enough to allow the threats of bullies to make me hesitate?

None of this, of course, was viewed through the lens of the events of September 11, 2001. And certainly none of us had yet considered the position of a lunatic who would, 9 years after that, threaten to burn a sacred book in order to make some sort of deranged statement. But how much distance can there be between a Muslim religious leader declaring Rushdie's book forbidden and invoking the threat of violence against its author and those who might put the book into the hands of prospective readers, and a Christian religious leader threatening to burn copies the Qur'an?

Before the book burning was called off late this week, I heard several callers to a discussion on public radio suggest the idea of purchasing copies of the Qur'an in protest. I stand with these people. While I have no more genuine interest in curling up with the Qur'an than I do with the Bible as relaxing reading in the next few months, it's high time for me to read The Satanic Verses. I'm no religious scholar, but no one knows better than I do that reading lies at the heart of education, and I believe education lies at the heart of tolerance and compassion. Christian or Muslim, Jew, pagan, atheist: surely tolerance and compassion are the real lessons in which we should be schooling ourselves in the wake that dreadful day in 2001. Read the Qur'an, read the Bible, read War and Peace, read anything you like But read on, everybody.

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