Posts Tagged ‘satanic verses’

Rushdie, Charlie Hebdo, and Me

January 9, 2015

je suis deloquix

 

I’ve been reading peoples’ reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Affair in the media and on Facebook. There is a lot of soul searching going on about what is the appropriate response to the horrendous act and what is the proper way for people to express solidarity and outrage. For me, this is of more than a casual interest. As many of you know, my bookstore was bombed in 1989, presumably because  we were carrying Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. As best as I can tell, we were the first victim of Islamic terrorism in the United States. No one was killed, because the pipe bomb that was thrown through the window didn’t go off. But had it not been defective, it would have killed everyone in the store.

 

Much of the public pronouncements that were being made then  are being made again now in the international conversation about Charlie Hebdo. How do we respond to threats against freedom of speech? How can we best express our solidarity? How should government protect the people against terrorists in general and Islamic terrorists and Jihadists, in particular? What is the responsibility of the broader Islamic community and the Islamic religion in permitting these acts to occur? How much, if at all, should we be profiling Moslems as potentially dangerous? What should mainstream Moslem leaders do about  denouncing these acts? Is Islam a uniquely violent religion that is the true source of Jihadism?

 

Of course, the comments of right wingers, conservative politicians, and Fox News pundits are pretty much what we would expect. For them, this is an opportunity to wage a holy war against Islam. It also vindicates their contempt of the cowardly French and allows them to fulminate against liberals, Obama, Al Sharpton, and the United Nations. We need not waste time commenting on this.

 

Alan Dershowitz gave a particularly tasteless interview asserting that France was reaping what it had sown, and went on to view the entire affair from the prism of  what it all means for Israel.

 

A lot of people along the entire political spectrum are arguing that  it’s the responsibility of  all  Islamic people to denounce this act and it is particularly the responsibility of Islamic leaders to denounce it in language sufficiently strong to satisfy…..something and someone.

 

During the Rushdie Affair,  people in the literary world made eloquent pronouncements about how they  would risk their lives for freedom of speech. Most of these people didn’t have much skin in the game and were not likely to have an opportunity to risk much of anything. It was quite different for those of us at Cody’s. After the bomb squad detonated the bomb, we all met in the store and took a vote about whether we should keep carrying the book. The staff voted unanimously to continue selling it.

 

But the media and many public voices wanted more than that.  The media was looking for sound bites. Every newsperson I spoke with challenged me to put the book in the window. (I didn’t, and I didn’t put it on the front table either). Most of them wanted me to make grandiloquent public pronouncements about how we were willing to be martyrs for freedom of speech. (“Ayatollah Khomeini, read…my…lips”). I didn’t do that either. I decided that under the circumstances, discretion was the better part of valor. No interviews to the media, no manifestoes about freedom of speech in the front window. We just quietly kept selling the book.

 

I have no problem telling you today that I had no intention of being a martyr, that I was not willing to die for The First Amendment, and I certainly wasn’t willing to put my employees in harm’s way to make  a public point. People treated us like heroes for selling the book, and they still do. But honestly, if as a result of our selling it, my employees were killed. I would not be proud of our decision  at all. I would have thought it was reckless, not heroic.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Islamic leaders and clerics and what they should be doing.  I think it’s fine if they want to denounce the act, if they want to point out that almost all of the 1.6 billion followers of Islam are not Jihadists. Even if they want to apologize. That’s their choice but not their responsibility. What I would like to see them do is to engage potential future Jihadists in a way that would get them to calm down. But doing so would require considerable discretion.

 

For me then and I imagine for them now, the decisions just aren’t that easy. And we should be respectful of that fact.

 

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On the 25th Anniversary of the Rushdie Affair

January 14, 2014

nerudaFebruary 1 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of  Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the United States.  Two weeks after publication, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling), that declared it permissible for Muslims to assassinate  Rushdie because of the “blasphemous” subject of the book.

Cody’s was bombed on February 28, probably the first incident of Islamic terrorism in the United States.

There was a lot of talk then and I’m sure there will be much written today about the meaning of the Rushdie Affair. Of course, in the narrative of events, the independent bookstores were the heroes. — Well, actually Rushdie deserves some credit as well. — The big chain bookstores pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves after the fatwa. But most independent stores continued selling it. David and Goliath stories are always compelling, and this was no exception.

There was a lot of histrionics in the literary community about how people were willing to take a bullet to defend the First Amendment. But the bookstores were on the street and were particularly vulnerable.

Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I never put the book in the window. Actually, before the bombing, I learned while I was out of town that someone had made a window of the book at Cody’s. I told them to take it down immediately. I had no intention of having a Cody’s employee taking a bullet for the First Amendment or for any other reason.

Still we continued selling the book. The staff at Cody’s voted unanimously to keep carrying it  even after we were bombed.

The only artifact I have of the Rushdie Affair is a copy of The Sea and the Bells, a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda. We discovered an undetonated pipe bomb rolling around the poetry section the morning after a fire bomb had been thrown threw the window. It was too dangerous to remove the bomb, so it was detonated in the store.  As you can clearly see. the shrapnel did some damage to the book, but it didn’t destroy it, not even a single poem.

I can’t think of a better symbol of what the Rushdie Affair was about, of it’s true historical meaning, than the image of this book.

Below are my recollections:

Remembering the Rushdie Affair

On February 28, 1989 Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store  to put out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM and  waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We  assumed then the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although we  never learned exactly who was responsible.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Muslim history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Muslim world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!.” Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!.”

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains; B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble; pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating  by writers and  public intellectuals  pronouncing their  willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From  my vantage point, this was not such an easy decision.

Then Cody’s got bombed.  I spoke of the firebombing that occurred at 2 AM.  What came later was more alarming. The next morning, as we were cleaning up, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. But there and then, I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to remove. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

When the staff had assembled, I told them 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 alternatively,  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 also the moment when I realized bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation; because, after all,  ideas are powerful weapons. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But with the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians, and movie stars. Of course, the booksellers were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole.” Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “Well, you know some people get statues, —- and others get holes.”

 ***

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso  painting from his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against union organizers, but  I doubt he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice my family left home and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although the Ayatollah had issued a fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The  New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a janitor from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time.”That’s what they told  Dan Rather. That’s what they told The  New York Times. That’s what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that’s what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, managing the media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with the metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes.  It turns out there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during this encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window, as if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..My….Lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly and in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think it was more an act of solidarity than a desire to read the book. Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at their convention to talk about my experiences. I told them I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got on the podium  and saw the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping at last she would acknowledge Cody’s did something special. In the course of her talk, she was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The  New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California:….. Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

Rushdie and Me: After the Bombing

November 23, 2009

Last week I wrote about my experience at Cody’s during the Rushdie Affair in 1989.  It didn’t really end the day the bomb went off. The melodrama continued for months, both in my life and in the  book world.

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them that my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso in his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said that because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

 The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against labor unrest, but  I doubt that he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice, my family left our house and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although I wasn’t aware that the Ayatollah had issued a Fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

 The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a guy from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

But I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time”. That is what they told  Dan Rather. That is what they told The New York Times. That is what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that is what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, that it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, dealing with media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with a metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out that it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes. I would usually get a warning call from the information desk saying  that they saw “a sort of sinister, middle eastern looking guy with shifty eyes”. It turns out that there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact that they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know. They also warned me about another suspicious person. It turns out that he was from New Delhi, a Hindu, and a friend from the book business.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me that they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a very raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them that I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during that encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window. As if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..my….lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think that it was more an act of solidarity than an interest in the book. A lot of people told me later that they never read the damn thing.  Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at the convention to talk about my experiences. I told them that I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed that  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. So I went there. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known that there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got there and saw that the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping that at last she would acknowledge that Cody’s did something special. She was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California: Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

Remembering the Rushdie Affair

November 18, 2009

On February 28, 1989, Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me that a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store putting out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM. I waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We assumed that the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although it was never learned exactly who was responsible for the incident. But I assumed that it probably wasn’t a disgruntled ex-girlfriend of mine.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Moslem history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a Fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Moslem world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!”. Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!”.

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains: B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating about people’s willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From the vantage point of street level, this was not such an easy decision.

I had made a second career out of attacking the chain stores in any manner I could find. But when they became the underdog in this melodrama, for the first and last time in my career I took their side. It was a very contrarian position that won me few friends. I’m sure that had Cody’s not been bombed the following week, and had I not become the martyr de jour, I would have taken some heat for this.

I articulated the reasons for this and the reasons that my own feelings had become quite conflicted in a letter I wrote to Susan Sontag on February 19, 10 days before the Cody’s bombing. I’ll quote the letter at some length here.

“I was distressed to read a quote by you in the media… in which you seemed to draw an analogy between the behavior of members of the literary community to the silence of Germans during the 30’s….

“The events of the past week have forced me to make difficult decisions; decisions in which I have had to choose between my most valued ideals of freedom of expression and the need to protect the lives and safety of my employees. Both of these values are absolute and yet, in this case, inconsistent. We are on the horns of a dilemma. To aggressively affirm our commitment to freedom of speech, we risk inflaming further the anger of fanatics. At best we compromise and find a middle ground. We agonize endlessly over whether we should carry the book at all; if so, do we sell it under the counter or display it; if we display it, do we feature it prominently or discretely.…..

“And so we make our decisions without any assurance of their wisdom. Our actions will be judged either cowardly or prudent only in hindsight and only as a result of consequences which are out of our control….

“… Although I personally disagree with the chains’ actions, I find it difficult to pass judgment on them in this instance. Booksellers are the front line shock troops in this struggle as in most censorship issues….We can’t go into hiding, and so we are uniquely vulnerable….It may be that in some situations, caution is required. If, as a result of such caution, lives are saved; then a store’s actions could be deemed not cowardly but prudent. If, as a result of another store’s decision to carry the book, people are harmed; then such actions could be deemed not courageous but foolhardy….”

Susan Sontag never responded to this letter.

The following week,  Cody’s was bombed. I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to move. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking that this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

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 was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But from the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians and movie stars. We were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told that we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole”. Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “well, you know some people get statues, —-and others get holes.”

Wikipedia and Me

July 19, 2009

 Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

 -T.S. Eliot-

Did you ever get the  feeling  that Wikipedia was  a metaphor about everything that is wrong with the world? Or maybe just the virtual world?  You have to admit, at least, that there is something disturbing about a source of information, (one dare not call it knowledge)  that is based on the principle that everyone is an expert.

I started thinking about this again when the  controversy over Chris Anderson’s book, Free, became a topic of discussion. We have written about it before in “Ask the Agent”. It was one of those little tempests that occasionally engender contempt and derision in the literary world  and that is of little consequence to anyone else. Literary politics, like academic politics, is so vicious because the stakes are so low.

One of the  things that came out of this  shabby affair was that it was discovered that Chris Anderson lifted numerous texts  verbatim from Wikipedia  without attribution. He got caught with his pants down by the Virginia Quarterly Review, and made a number of mea culpa’s to Publishers Weekly and the New York Times. When he was interviewed on Fresh Air,   Terry Gross asked him to comment on his plagiarism. He very artfully sidestepped the issue and argued about how Wikipedia should be treated as a legitimate authoritative source. As I’m sure most of you know, any freshman in college who uses Wikipedia in his footnotes will get a failing  grade.

I decided to do my own research, anecdotal though it may be. Obviously I needed to analyze a subject of which I was an expert. So I looked at the topic on Wikipedia of which I was probably the world’s greatest authority. That would be Cody’s Books. After all, I owned it for 30 years.

So here is what I found. (BTW, some of the text  was so annoying that I changed it last week-end with the help of my tech savvy son, Robert. The article still isn’t very good, but it is much improved.)

Let’s start at the beginning. The first picture you see on the  Wiki Cody’s page is an image that is not exactly illustrative of the history of Cody’s. It is a photograph of the graffiti board of the men’s bathroom of the Telegraph store. See picture below.

Cody's public restroom grafitti board

Cody's public restroom grafitti board

Actually, it would be a good image for a story  about my 35 years as a bookseller. I  spent a considerable amount of time dealing with problems associated with plumbing, in general and  this restroom, in particular.  Information is unreliable  unless knowledgeable people filter out the bad information. Filtering is always a matter of judgment. And people with authoritative knowledge of a subject  are best at making those judgments. On Wikipedia, everybody is an expert.  And the reliability of the information will always be uncertain. Somebody should have pointed out that the picture of the lavatory graffiti was not authoritative information. It was, well, a picture of lavatory graffiti. Nothing more.  

The article  goes on to state  that Cody’s moved to Telegraph Avenue in 1967. This isn’t  true. Pat and Fred Cody moved the store in 1960 to a  Telegraph location now occupied by Moe’s Books. They moved again to the larger corner location in 1965. Several people interviewed me recently in blogs and noted  the 1967 date, which they had clearly picked up from Wikipedia. There is also a link to another Wikipedia article on independent bookstores that cites the 1967 figure. Internet gurus are always singing the praises of “viral information”. But bad information is just as viral as good information. Witness the  viral spread of articles on all things UFO and  the  vast conspiracy theories associated with Michael Jackson.

In the original Wikipedia article, there was very little  of substance about the history of Cody’s except for a sentence or 2 about the Rushdie Affair and how Cody’s was bombed as a result of our   selling the book. There was also passing mention of the anti-war protests on Telegraph and Cody’s involvement in this. Then there were some vital statistics (many incorrect or partially correct) about various openings and closings.  Here are some important facts about Cody’s that didn’t appear in the article:

1) Andy Ross bought the store in 1977. 2) Cody’s was primarily remembered as a store devoted to literary and scholarly titles. 3) There was no mention of opening the Fourth Street Store, only its closing. 3) No mention of the extraordinary author reading series that lasted for 30 years. The photographs of these authors have been posted in a number of places, most recently on this site. But, the authors of the Wiki article felt that the photograph of the lavatory was  a more significant image.

There are a lot of mistakes that are problems of detail. There are some vital statistics in a box at the top of the article. It refers to Fred Cody as the “founder”. Pat Cody as the “CEO” (She was actually the co-founder  and at the time of her work at the store, the concept of CEO was not in use even in corporate America.) Andy Ross was characterized as the “former president” which is correct. Hiroshi Kagawa was characterized as the “president”. (Actually, Hiroshi  was  CEO. And since Cody’s is closed, he would best be called “former CEO”) Ok, enough beating that dead horse.  But in aggregate, all these errors and omissions add up to sloppy research. And to dignify this Wiki article as authoritative is folly. In some cases, it would be a stretch to say they are providing “information”. Perhaps it would be most accurate to describe them as providing information-like material”.

One of the good things about Wikipedia is a kind of transparency. One can readily see  who made entries to an article and who changed them (although there seems to be no record of the changes that I made in the Cody’s article.) But here again, the transparency simply casts light on the fact that the authors of the article lack bone fides. Wiki posted a discussion that includes  a dispute about whether anyone  really knew that the bomb set off in 1989 was the result of terrorism or in any way associated with The Satanic Verses. This is a  valid point. In fact, we never learned who set off the bomb and what motivated the act.  On the Wiki discussion page, there was a heated discussion about whether this was an opinion or a fact. But the skeptic went on to say that the bomb (which was extremely sophisticated and destructive) might have been  the work of “opportunistic  juvenile vandalism”.   I don’t think so.

The discussion tab also shows who exactly are the authors of this entry. It indicates that the article is part of the “Wikiproject San Francisco Bay Area” (whatever that is) and with considerable work by “CKatz” (whoever he is). There is no obvious way to trace the identity or qualifications of these (I hesitate to say, people) entities.

The heart of the matter is the way that the article equates facts and judgments with citations and references without actually evaluating the authoritative nature of those references. Any story in a newspaper, blog or opinion piece  seems to have equal weight as an authoritative source. In Wikipedia a throwaway weekly has the same dignity as an authority as the news room of The New York Times.  Let’s look at some examples of the cited footnotes in the Cody’s article.

 Berkeley Celebrates a 40 Year Love Affair With Cody’s Books. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996. Although I love the sentiment here, the article consisted mostly of information and quotes by me and a few by Pat Cody. Certainly both Pat and I are authorities. But when I have been  interviewed by the press, particularly for puff pieces, (which this article clearly was), I tended to go warm and fuzzy and play to the house. A good scholar would have recognized this, and evaluated my comments accordingly.

 An Historical Berkeley Landmark and Independent Bookstore Begins Archive at the Bancroft Library. This footnote was to document that Cody’s was a vocal opponent of the growing dominance of chain bookstores. This is a rather odd source of authority on the matter. It was from a press release by the Bancroft Library at UC announcing that we had turned over all of our recordings of author events to the Bancroft for an archive.

Cody’s Books to leave S.F. — ‘It just didn’t work’. This was another article in the Chronicle. It was written by the reporter who covered the retail beat. They built the story around a quote by me.  This was  a reference for the “fact” about the closing of Cody’s SF. When asked why we closed, I said “it just didn’t work”.   Well, of course. But  this is  a tautology.  It reads well and is poignant, but explains nothing. There were a lot of reasons why it didn’t work. Most of them are speculative. At the time of my interview, I was broken hearted  about the whole thing. I didn’t want to get into the details of Cody’s failures and read about it next day in the Chronicle. So I just dismissed the question with: “it didn’t work”.

SFist: Cody’s Books on Union Square. Well, this one is particularly rich. Who is Sfist? I have no idea. It appears that they are a blog that writes puff pieces about San Francisco retailers to draw advertising.  Are they an authority on anything? I don’t think so.

 Cody’s Books Closes Permanently.  This was by the East Bay Express. Not a bad giveaway paper. It was  a short,  emotional announcement.  An authoritative source? No.  But, listen, this is great. On the Internet blog version of this  story, the readers can make their own comments. Listen to this reader who had  his own way of understanding what killed Cody’s:

 ” Cody’s was killed by that neurotic pseudo-liberal yuppie and his hollow expansionist vision of turning Cody’s into a Whole Foods inspired chain. 4th street Berkeley was one thing but to open at 2nd/Stockton in San Francisco while closing the flagship store? Hmph! And why did he close the flagship store? Because he saw that as an opportunity to sell the business office space he owned next door to the rented space where the Cody’s books store was on Telegraph right before the property market tanked based on his inside information. …”

 Unless I am mistaken, I believe the above  quote was about me. (For the record, there are a number of inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the above.).

 I click on Wikipedia as much as the rest of you. How can you do otherwise? Any time you look something up, Wikipedia comes up first. It does a medium job on spelling and grammar. I learn some pretty good things about Hollywood celebrities.. It is an easy way of getting directed to other Internet venues. Some of which are good. Some bad.   I use it for dates and places, but I probably shouldn’t. It’s free. But I guess you get what you pay for.

 Let me tell you an inspiring story, a cautionary tale, really. One night 2 years ago, a number of students in the dorm at Tufts University decided to pull an inspired caper. They probably had drunk a little too much  cheap beer and were  bored and disappointed that they didn’t have anything better to do on Friday night. One of the students was my son, Robert Cole. Another was a foreign student from Bosnia, whom we shall call, “Hamid”.

 The guys decided to test Wikipedia by posting a story that was patently untrue. They created an entry about Hamid which stated that he was heir to the royal crown of Bosnia. They had a problem with the sources. Wikipedia will usually bounce a story that isn’t backed up with footnotes. Since Hamid was not, in fact,  heir to the royal crown of Bosnia, and since there was never even such a royal crown, the guys decided to put in spurious authoritative footnotes. Well, actually, they were real footnotes that were from real websites. All of them, though, were written in Serbo-Croation. What were the sites? Who knows? Maybe Bosnian dating sites, maybe UFO speculation in the Balkans, maybe movie reviews from the latest Sarajevo flicks. The guys figured out that likely  none of the Wiki “fact checkers”  would be able to read the citations. Clever thinking.

 Well, their item got bounced pretty fast. But I wonder how many other   items have been put up as college pranks? I will bet there are quite a few.  I don’t know whether the boys intended this or not, but they really attacked bombast and pretension with the most powerful weapon: ridicule.   Hamid, wherever you are, you will always be a  crown prince in my book.

 Somebody once said that you can get information that is either good, fast, or cheap. But you can only get 2 out of 3. You can get it good and fast by subscribing to the New York Times, but it’s  not cheap. You can get it good and cheap by going to a library. But it’s  not fast. Or you can get it fast and cheap by going to Wikipedia. – But it’s not good.