SALMAN RUSHDIE AT THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS – ON CHILDHOOD READING, CINEMA AND TECHNOLOGY

When Salman Rushdie’s name is evoked, it is all too often forgotten that he is not only a polemical figure in the areas of politics and religion, but also – and first and foremost – a practising writer with, by now, a large back catalogue of fiction and non-fiction behind him which extends far beyond ‘The Satanic Verses’ and the oft-repeated controversies around that book.

Two recent texts featuring Rushdie have appeared on the US Library of Congress site, and as they do not appear to be particularly well-known, I now give them an airing on this blog.

1) The Library of Congress Magazine for July/August 2017 features an article, ‘Salman Rushdie tells the story of how he fell in love with reading’ (pp. 26-27) in which the author speaks of his childhood passion for reading and names some of the books and writers he read and enjoyed as a boy:

http://www.loc.gov/lcm/pdf/LCM_2017_0708.pdf.

He tells how when he was growing up in Bombay (today Mumbai), his home was fortunately near both a bookshop (called ‘Reader’s Paradise’) and a lending library, both replete with books in English, and between the two he was able to devour works by Lewis Carroll, Arthur Ransome, and, later, Erle Stanley Gardner (the ‘Perry Mason’ books) and ‘the writers so beloved by Indian readers – P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, and John Masters’ – as well as piles of comic books.

We may note that the adult books mentioned fall under different kinds of genre fiction – detective fiction, thrillers, humour, adventure: Rushdie’s more literary reading came later, but on this point he astutely remarks: ‘I’ve always thought my parents were smart not to force me to read only “good” books. As long as I was reading, they were content, and they were right. The habit of reading, once formed, will last a lifetime, and the good books get their turn in the end. What matters is to be seduced.’ Indeed, Rushdie’s reading is characterised by an eclecticism that has left its mark on his writing: books in all genres can be grist to the writer’s insatiably grinding mill.

2) The Library of Congress website also features a transcript, from the Library of Congress Book Festival held in Washington, D.C., of a dialogue that took place on 24 September 2016 between Rushdie and Bilal Qureshi:

http://stream-media.loc.gov/webcasts/captions/2016nbf/16_main_srushdie.txt

In this dialogue, Rushdie raises a multitude of themes, and among those of particular interest for his activity as a writer we may note the following:

– ‘The Thousand and One Nights’: Rushdie avows the influence on his own writing of the world-famous Arabic story collection (often believed to be of Indian origin), and especially its presence in his most recent novel, “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” (the title is another way of saying ‘1001 Nights’). He also recalls that there are other similar agglomerations of stories in classical Indian literature, such as the “Panchatantra” and the “Ocean of the Streams of Story”. Rushdie thus places his own work within a very ancient Eastern tradition of storytelling.

– cinema: Rushdie also admits the influence of cinema on his work. He recollects how as an undergraduate in the late 60s he frequented the Cambridge Arts Cinema and how that venue introduced him to the work of the art-house directors who were so revered at the time: ‘I think I learnt at least as much in the movie theatres as I did in the library. There was this little theatre in Cambridge called the Arts Cinema, which like everything else no longer exists and now it’s a coffee shop. But I feel I got my education in that little room, … watching, you know, Godard’s “Alphaville” and Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim”, and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” and Luis Buñuel’s “[The] Exterminating Angel”, and so on. And I think (…) this book [his latest novel] is incredibly influenced by those films’.

– social media: Rushdie admits he has given up on Twitter – he has abandoned his onetime Twitter feed habit altogether, though he has felt obliged to keep his account open: ‘I think it’s very well-named, Twitter. It is this kind of twittering noise in your ear. And there was just a moment [when] I thought, I don’t want this noise in my ear any more. And I just stopped. And I haven’t missed it for a second, let’s say. And I mean I’ve had to leave the account alive, because if I delete the account, somebody will cybersquat my name within five seconds and will then be tweeting as if they’re me and I don’t want that.’

– e-books versus printed books: Rushdie also expresses scepticism regarding e-books and the Kindle. He declares: ‘So, they arrived, eBooks, and they went like a rocket (…) And everybody, including everybody in the publishing industry, panicked. And they got to about 17 or 18% of the market and they completely plateaued. And now, they’re actually dropping whereas the sales of this dinosaur of an object, the hardcover novel, sales are going up (…) Our bookstores were getting out of business, now bookstores are beginning to open rather than close.’

‘Sometimes I had to go and give a talk at Google, you know, in Mountain View, California .. [an] audience entirely composed of 21-year-old techies .. And I said to them,  … this is a very remarkable piece of sophisticated hardware.  (…) What happens if you drop your laptop in the bath?   (…) So, if you drop that [a printed book] in the bath, it does not lose its data, you know?  You just have to dry it out.’

‘20 years ago, you could have a book, and now it’s 20 years old and you’ve still got it and you can still read it perfectly easily. It doesn’t need to be translated into some other technology that will be obsolete in five years’ time (…) So, you see, this, the book, this is most sophisticated. And that’s why it survives.’

Rushdie, then, returns to the tried and tested print medium – to reading books and, of course, writing them:

– ‘I’m just going to do this old-fashioned thing’

– ‘Write novels?’

– ‘Writing books. Yeah’.

 

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