Saturday, February 14, 2009

On Giving and Taking Offense

I see from the BBC NEWS Web site that this is the twentieth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Salman Rushdie in response to the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses. I was reminded of the extent to which landmarks in my own life story have been set by literature that gave offense. I was too young to appreciate the absurdity of the decision by the Free Library of Philadelphia to remove all copies of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover from all of their branches (including the Main Library). I later found a paperback copy of Sons and Lovers in my parents' bedroom and managed to make it one of my elective reading assignments in high school. I think my mother bought the book shortly after it have been made into a film. I did not see the film until many years later and found it a vivid demonstration of why some literature should not be subjected to cinematic treatment.

Then there was the Philadelphia ban on Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. By this time I was making trips to New York on my own and relished buying the Grove Press Black Cat Edition there, wondering how much I should worry about concealing it when I got back to Philadelphia. I still have that copy, and I value it as much for the introductory material by Karl Shapiro (which I am still fond of citing) as for Miller's own text. However, as was the case with Lawrence, I valued the controversy for introducing me to the author, rather than the specific book. Once my curiosity about Miller had been whetted, I discovered other books that I found far more satisfying. For example, I now feel that he needed to get certain things out of his system in Tropic of Cancer, after which he was able to write Tropic of Capricorn, in which his fiction really soars. Reading Tropic of Capricorn for a second time was one of the activities that sustained me during my rather frustrating exile of teaching in Israel, as did my second reading of the essays in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (another source I enjoy citing). (The other book whose second reading was so valuable to me in Israel was William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.)

I found myself thinking about my expatriate reading habits when preparing to move to Singapore in 1991. A friend from my Los Angeles days was working at the laboratory at which I had just accepted an offer, and I remember talking to her about banned material. I told her that I owned a copy of The Satanic Verses, and she gave me a look that made it clear how absurd my concerns were. It turned out that the only thing that bothered Singaporean censors was questionable video content. Always interested in experimenting, however, I remember placing a mail order for a copy of the videotape of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The package arrived at my desk with no signs of inspection; and, more importantly, the shrink-wrap was still on the tape itself.

It may be that the Singapore government did not give much thought to books because reading was not particularly popular. There were plenty of bookstores, mostly chain outlets. However, only three sections in any of those shops had a broad selection of material: books for children, travel books, and cooking books. Even at the National University of Singapore, on whose campus my laboratory was located, one seldom heard the word "literature" uttered. Around the time I made the move to Silicon Valley, Tower Records had come to Singapore and became one of the few interesting sources of reading matter in the country.

I discovered just how interesting their collection was when I returned to Singapore several years later on a business trip that included a visit to the "Cyberjaya" project in Malaysia. This was one of those trips on which I finished the reading matter I had packed during my flight over the Pacific. My hotel was a short walk from Tower, so I was curious to see if their book department was still an interesting place. Much to my surprise, I found a copy of Interzone, a collection of the early writings of William S. Burroughs (including draft material for Naked Lunch), which James Grauerholz had compiled and edited for Viking. This turned out to be really heady stuff, the last thing I would have expected to find in Singapore. Indeed, I found much of the text so provocative that I felt it would be wise to keep the book locked in the safe in my hotel room in Kuala Lumpur!

I still have my copies of all of the books I have cited, the only exception being that my wife's copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover now represents Lawrence in our library, as does her copy of Sons and Lovers. So I no longer have photographs of the cast of the film version of that latter book; but, having seen the film, I do not particularly miss those photographs! The other books, however, remind me of how much both buying books and reading them has been an adventure for me. They also remind me that, however unread books there may be on our shelves, some books may deserve a second reading before others get their first. These days when I read all those opinion pieces on whether or not reading will eventually move to the digital domain, I remember the extent to which memories of my adventures in reading are revived every day by physical icons on different shelves around our home. Will reading in the digital domain still be an adventure; and, if we still have adventures, how will our memories of those adventures be maintained?

Meanwhile, in yet another defense of "live performance," I have discovered that I take far more pleasure in Book TV broadcasts of Rushdie talking about his work than I do in reading the work itself!

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