The tyrant and his chains


“How fragile civilization is. How easily, how merrily a book burns,” wrote Salman Rushdie when a group of English Muslims publicly burned copies of his novel, “The Satanic Verses,” in West Yorkshire.

The powers of reason and imagination are indeed the underpinnings of our civilization. To suppress a book or punish an idea is to express contempt for the people who read the book or consider the idea. In preferring the logic of the executioner to the logic of debate, the book-burners and the Ayatollah Khomeini display their distrust for the principle on which self-government rests, the wisdom and virtue of ordinary people.

Americans are fighting back in the most appropriate way possible, by reading and talking about Mr. Rushdie’s book. But the cowardly connivance of the big book chains with the Ayatollah is placing obstacles in the way of this counter-attack.

Waldenbooks, the nation’s largest chain, began the retreat when it removed the book from the shelves of its 1,200 stores. B. Dalton and Barnes & Noble dropped the book the next day, adding another 1,250 stores that won’t carry it.

In Riverdale, we’re fortunate to have an independent bookseller. Readers, not fearful executives, had stripped Paperbacks Plus of “The Satanic Verses” by this weekend. The store has reordered the book, and will continue to sell it.

In much of the country however, the big chains are the only game in town. They account for an estimated 20 to 30 percent of all book sales, and their power can make or break a title. Will Viking continue to order reprintings of “The Satanic Verses”? If so, will many stores refuse to sell it? If not, the chains will have helped win a victory for terrorism.

The chain store executives excuse their surrender to the Ayatollah by expressing concern for the well-being of their employees — but by knuckling under, they’ve put others at risk. If a threat can knock the books from the shelves of the “Big Three,” terrorists may reason, think what a bomb in an uncompliant bookstore could do.

Moreover, terrorism feeds on its successes. What will Waldenbooks do when a homegrown would-be tyrant demands the removal of a politically controversial book from its shelves? And how will it handle the next step, a demand that stores stock a particular book?

The bookstore chains have enormous power. Their decisions can determine what thoughts are disseminated in what form.

With that power should go responsibility. Selling books is not the same as selling socks or sundries. Bookstores sell ideas and visions. They feed the mind and spirit. They have an obligation to safeguard the freedom of expression.

Independent book stores can’t match the buying power of the chains, and therefore can’t match their discounted prices. Their proprietors like to say that what they offer to readers who pay full price for their books is service.

To that, they can now add something more important: The small additional cost is the price of freedom.

— Originally published Feb. 23, 1989

Satanic Verses, Buddy Stein, The Riverdale Press, Salman Rushdie, Paperbacks Plus, Walden Bookstores, B. Dalton, Barnes & Noble