14 January 2006

Should I read?

During a conversation, yesterday, I asked in passing how many of those present had read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (TSV).

One had read and enjoyed it. One had read it, but not found it a memorable experience. One expressed an intent to read it one day, but not with any sense of urgency. And one said “I've begun reading it several times, and could not seem to maintain an interest. … Is it that important a book that I should work harder at reading it?”

I don't, personally, believe in "should" in the context of fiction reading. We "should" read that which compels us. If I try to start a book and can’t seem to maintain an interest, that sounds to me like the best reason in the world for not reading it. If a book doesn't hold me as a read, it gets short shrift. I was compelled by TSV, but not as much as by others of Rushdie's books. Shipwrecked on a desert island, I would not be upset at discovering myself with TSV; but if given the chance to grab one of Rushdie's works before abandoning ship I would probably choose Midnight's Children or Haroun.

The importance of TSV is, in my personal opinion, sociopolitical, not literary. When the Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death, with all the brouhaha which followed, he secured for it a status and level of sales which it would not otherwise have enjoyed.

The only people who should read it, in my opinion, are those who vociferously express views on it. There are many who tell me that it is a blasphemy to be burned, or a beacon of something or other to be preserved at any price, yet have not read it - and those are the ones who definitely should, so that they can judge for themselves what they are burning or preserving. For everyone else - life is too short to make even a small dent in the pile of books out there, and we should not waste any of it on books which we have to force ourselves through.

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