Remembering When Satanic Verses Hit the Shelves December 11, 2009

Remembering When Satanic Verses Hit the Shelves

Andy Ross used to run a place called Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley, California. About twenty years ago, the store was firebombed after it carried and displayed copies of Salman Rushdie‘s Satanic Verses — a book that was deemed so offensive to Muslims that the Ayatollah issued a fatwa on Rushdie, calling for his death.

Ross tells the story of what it was like to own the store around the time of the bombing, including the decision of whether or not to stock the book.

I stood and told the staff that we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or to take a more cautious approach and compromise our values. So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this. It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons.

It’s a very powerful piece that discusses how it’s not so easy to be an advocate of free speech when your life and the lives of your employees could be on the line.

(via Bookslut)

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  • dglas

    When the Satanic Verses was released I was a clerk in a university bookstore. I remember opening the box from Penguin Books Canada and seeing a little note of advice about the book.

    It informed us to not display the book in any front display units, but to keep the book in an area not openly visible. IT told us not to display the from cover, but the spine only. It told us there had been reports of violence.

  • JulietEcho

    Those are some brave, principled book store employees. I’m not usually the sentimental type, but that quote really touched me. Maybe it’s the holiday spirit. Free speech for all, and to all, a good night!

  • Trace

    “well, you know some people get statues, —-and others get holes.”

    Ain’t it the truth.

  • Raven

    It continues to amaze me how cowardly some religious zealots can be. There are people who have no fear of death, yet are mortally terrified of ideas that disagree with their own. Mr. Ross and his employees showed true courage in standing up for freedom of expression, something truly worthwhile.

  • Oddly, they dramatically increased the book’s sales, thereby spreading the ideas they wanted to suppress. Before the incident I hadn’t heard of Rushdie.

  • These are some very brave people indeed, and some who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they think. I would completely commend them for taking a stance against such a pathetic attempt to silence the thoughts and opinions of those they do not like.

  • Tony

    I had a very frightening conversation with a muslim girl about this book where she explained that she would “kill Salman Rushdie with [her] own hands” if he was in the room because he “insulted the prophet”. I asked her in what way he had insulted the prophet and she replied that she didn’t know as she hadn’t read the book.

    The irony is that my place of work at the time was one of those dodgy tarot card phone lines, her job was engaging in witchcraft in exchange for money!

  • muggle

    What courage! The pen is truly mightier than the sword.

    I haven’t read this one but there are many books I have I’m certain people out there would not like to see in print. I’m grateful to people who have the courage to publish and distribute what others would like to keep out of my eager little hands and my curious mind.

  • Alex

    I was working in a department store stocking shelves at night. Two copies of The Satanic Verses came in with a regular shipment of books but both were whisked up to the office and not shelved for fear or who knows what. I bought one of the copies after closing just to find out what all the commotion was about. I remember it as kind of underwhelming actually. I sure could not see what was getting Muslims into a murderous frenzy. Hmmm, oddly, I still don’t really understand that.

  • Eric Mattingly

    We always complain about how books and literature don’t mean anything. It’s amazing to be reminded that they do. And sobering to be confronted with the fact that “meaning” implies real risk. Honesty and integrity are hard things to confront in reality. I’ve always admired Rushdie for his willingness to to take that risk, and wondered if I could shoulder it myself.

  • what a commendable act. i regret that i probably would have responded as a coward, and voted against stocking the book. more acts of this sort of bravery are all we’ve got to keep from being silenced.