When The Satanic Verses came out in 1989 I appeared on KSFO with host Noah Griffin, along with Bruce Brugmann and Ishmael Reed to discuss the fatwa the book had provoked. During a commercial break, Noah informally polled the panel, asking if any of us had actually read the book. All of us shrugged, laughed uncomfortably, and said some version of “Um…no.” Not having read the book did not in any way, as far as any of us were concerned, disqualify us from defending the author’s right to write it, the publisher’s right to print it, the bookseller’s right to distribute it, or the public’s right to read it. After all, we were on the radio and the people out there listening weren’t. In the end I guess it did make me feel a little uncomfortable—once I’d gotten off the radio, of course—as if we’d committed some kind of literary fraud on an unsuspecting listening public or something. Ever since then I’d had Verses on my list of books to read at some point in the future, as if I could undo the semi-fraud retroactively by reading the book twenty years after the fact. Now, that hope has been dashed as well. Now only guilt remains with no redress at hand. And, admittedly, a certain measure of relief.
Not having read the book, does however, disqualify me from participating in my book group in any meaningful way. The biggest problem with not being able get through this damned thing was that snotty email I had written. Humiliation in the form of the book group was peeking over the horizon, its eyes focused directly on me.
Eventually the problem solved itself, as problems oftentimes do. I’d managed to screw around for so long, watching stupid stuff on TV, reading Fitzgerald stories (or, actually, the introduction to them) and trying to tape bricks to my head, etc., that I finally ran completely out of time. When I got around to recalculating the rate at which I would have to read to make the deadline, three days hence, it totaled up to something like 150 pages a day. I hadn’t even been making the five-pages-a-day goal I had set out for myself. More like two. Well…one.
No, The Satanic Verses defeated me. My failure was complete. I just had to admit it. I’m a moron. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read another page, another paragraph, another word. I had to just add it to the list of books I will never, in my lifetime, ever read. Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow (loved V. though), JR, The Magic Mountain, Dune, anything in The Borrowers series.
So, with two days to go, I started another book. A book from the 33 1/3 series, Continuum’s continuing issuance of little books, each discussing a favorite record album, this one on the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls. Much more my speed. It took me back to New York City and it was 1977. I’m on the sidewalk outside of CBGB, standing around in the cold, my hands stuffed in the pockets of my jeans, like the other guys, ‘cause we’re all way too cool to wear winter coats. I’m taking girls to discos and dancing all night, fueled by cocaine and cognac. I’m seeing ancient and bent jazzmen in seedy bars on Third Avenue for the price of a couple of drinks I’d’ve bought anyway. I’m always broke.
Most of all, I’m reading about music I love. It’ll take about four hours to read the thing from cover-to-cover, if that, and by then it’ll way too late for Verses. I’ll just have to suffer the humiliation, the scorn. But at least the late nights and early mornings are mine again. I feel my keel cutting keenly through the water and steadying my course, even if I do still feel like a moron.