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Freedom

I arrived at the Union Square Barnes & Noble last night in the middle of a tornado watch. Inside, the crowd waiting for the Salman Rushdie reading was equally restive. They would not be allowed to sit in priority seating—silver folding chairs—if they had not bought Rushdie’s 600-page memoir, “Joseph Anton,” in hardcover at a hefty hardcover price, or downloaded the book onto their Nooks. There were complaints from the press, including this writer, about the policy, as many had downloaded the book onto their Kindle or iPad Kindle Apps. But that was the point: we were not Barnes & Noble customers, we were Amazon customers. And so the discussion continued until the NYPD and beefy private security arrived, not because of the complaints, but because of Salman Rushdie who is still somewhat protected. The B&N staff scrambled to seat those without Barnes & Noble purchased copies of the book into the white folding chairs.

The hostess, a poised and articulate Michiko Kakutani, welcomed all of the seated audience, white chaired (300 people) and silver chaired (200 people), and made a point of saying she’d take questions at the end of the reading from both sections alternately.

I was sitting in the silver chair section next to Pradeep, from Bombay, and a friend of his visiting from Singapore. Both are avid readers and Rushdie fans, but they had to buy two books in order to be seated. “I would have preferred to hear Salman Rushdie read before I decided to buy the book. Or, if I had been charged for the event, I would have paid to hear him read. This policy feels a bit desperate to me,” Pradeep said.

Desperate and coercive, I might add.

Of course we don’t know if there will be any Barnes & Noble bookstores left in a few years and this is worrisome. But the policy of setting up a privileged cohort in silver chairs—first-class customers--is not conducive to customer loyalty. Many walked out of the store unwilling to stand in a second-class line to wait for the white chairs. The atmosphere was exploitative and the staff at the store, though polite, were also defensive. They hadn't set the policy and did not seem trained to handle such a large, demanding crowd.

Finally, the confusion and the grumbling were over. Salman Rushdie had arrived, looking a bit tired after what must have already been a very long day, the day his memoir was released and he had to stand still for photo ops and answer questions, not about the literary merits of his books, but about the reaction of the Islamic world to that infamous, despicable video. He had remained patient and good-natured throughout these interviews; I saw two of them when I got home.

At the podium in Barnes & Noble, he seemed completely relaxed, reading and talking, reading and talking. I have heard him speak several times over the years, but never as eloquently. It must have been a great relief to write this book after nearly a decade of living undercover and then the passage of more years enjoying his freedom, mostly in the United States. Hit men had killed his Japanese translator, shot his Italian translator and his Norwegian publisher, both of whom thankfully recovered. We mustn’t forget the horror of this, a writer targeted by assassins in the pay of a government, in this case, Iran. A shooting war, as Rushdie describes it, and one of the early manifestations of the continuing unsettled relationship between the Arab and Western worlds.

“It is strange for a novelist to acquire a life like a novel,” Rushdie said. “Suddenly there are men with guns in your kitchen. All this makes for a good story, but not for a good life.”  Read More 
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