Tuesday, October 28, 2008

where the books are

I was thinking about Willie Sutton and his famous response to the question of why he robbed banks, "because that's where the money is" as I have been reading the extremely well researched and incredibly well written (albeit terribly depressing) A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq. The cautionary tale of a 27 year old Jordanian poet facing prison for something he wrote is important to work around in your head as you consider how many generations have, in fact, done a whole lot worse things than imprison authors and purge their books. In addition to book burnings, people themselves were put to the flame. It's one thing to want to kill an idea - it's quite another to rub out a people. An identity. A history.

There are no books that have survived the destruction of Carthage, nor Troy. The winners routinely destroy the written documents of the losers. The Nazis attempted to do it while in the midst of a war as did the Serbs, as did the Vandals.....the history of our human race is one of periodic self inflicted darkness as we snuff out the light of knowledge for the comfort of ignorance. But, really, is ignorance really comfortable? No, yet we humans have done it all the same. There are in this great country of ours, the United States of America, people who fervently believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth as recently as 4,000 years ago. How is that possible? Self-blinding to avoid self-doubt. And that is the great fear of a person like myself, that ignorant people will attempt to thrust us into a new dark age for their own delusional reasons. The followers of bin Laden and the followers of Sarah Palin. Extremism in the defense of one's fantasy is still WRONG.

It doesn't surprise me that there are occasion book burnings in the United States. How many books are challenged each year by citizens who want to control what others read in local libraries or at local schools? In a country that publishes thousands of books every year, how can we delude ourselves that we can - or even should control what our neighbor reads? If one wants to control what THEY read, that's find. There are ostriches among us, and that's fine. But when these ostriches try to prevent ME from reading something, they have crossed a line....and I will push back.

There are certain world-views that are unacceptable to me. One is being flaunted right now by the Vice Presidential candidate from the state of Alaska; a rather simplistic view. A wrongheaded view. A dangerously wrongheaded view in many respects since she could be an elbow away from nuclear codes and doomsday scenarios. Thinking people need to speak out against this simple minded 'black-and-white' view for the love of our country and for the well-being of our planet.

Books often contain something called "concepts" and concepts matter. Thought matters. That's how we became the race we have become. There are jihadists in this country as well, people determined to "fulfill God's plan" even if that means destroying the entire planet by their own hand to achieve this 'cause'. And time and again humans have shown themselves to be of weak minds often enough to burn down vast stores of books and knowledge. It needs to be remembered that Christians killed Hypatia, the last librarian of the priceless Alexandria library, and it was Christians who torched the library itself. Within a hundred years of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, it was Christians who burned other Christians at the stake in Europe as well as copies of offensive books. It wasn't THAT long ago, despite how "enlightened" we imagine ourselves today.

Which meanders back to the the whole "where the books are" statement at the beginning of the this posting......libraries are targeted by combatants during wartime. Bookstores are also targets of violence. Booksellers are killed for what appears in their shops. In these curious times, we need to protect the right to read everything. To light one's mind against the forces of darkness and repression.

Friday, October 24, 2008

updates on the case of Islam Samhan

I have been informed that he has been released - until his trial next Thursday in Amman. If convicted, he could spend two years in prison..... for writing verses "against the Koran". I am hoping to get a copy of this collection of poems myself and will let you know what I learn of his "offense".

This is not to say that America has a clean record when it comes to censorship and the press, because we suffer ourselves from swings to the extreme right and left. The extreme right most offended by comments like those of William Burroughs when he wrote that "everything is permitted". The extreme right does not believe that, nor do they want to allow others to practice that. Censorship is as old as the first told tales and is unfortunately still very much with us. In the West and in the "developing world."

The Press is never free. It is never without obstacles or roadblocks. Death threats and government suppression. This has been part of what authors and printers, and publishers have dealt with since Gutenberg's first press. It is necessary, therefore, that publishers rally around the cause of others and that authors likewise speak up for those targeted for violence and confinement. Or death. It is not unheard of - in ANY country - that writers are marked for death. Salmon Rushdie is not even the most recent case of this. Fortunately, he lives. But others have not fared as well. Men are killed for what comes off their pens. Men kill to cease the words from flowing. Fear drives this, and fear prevails far too often to count.

We must continue to speak and continue to allow thoughts to be revealed, if we agree with the speaker or not. In fact, moreso if we disagree. As a race we will not move forward toward an enlightened state as long as we destroy men and books we oppose. The freedom of expression needs to be dear to all of us. Everywhere. All the time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

more on the arrest of a Jordanian poet

Activists protest indictment of poet

By Mohammad Ghazal

AMMAN - The Jordanian Writers Association (JWA) strongly criticised on Tuesday the indictment of poet Islam Samhan for allegedly insulting Islam after incorporating verses from the Holy Koran into his love poetry.

The writer was referred to the court by the Press and Publications Department (PPD) early this week for violating articles in the Press and Publications Law after he published his first poem collection “Grace Like a Shadow”.

“The prosecutor general of a magistrate’s court in Amman charged Islam Samhan with insulting Islam and the Koran as well as violating the Press and Publications Law,” Zeina Karadsheh, his lawyer, told Agence France- Presse.

But 27-year-old Samhan, who was arrested and detained on Sunday, denied the charges, saying that he did not mean to insult Islam or the holy book, according to the lawyer.

If convicted, Samhan faces up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of JD20,000, according to the news agency.

JWA President Soud Qbeilat voiced disappointment over the indictment of the young poet, who also works as a journalist at Al Arab Al Yawm newspaper.

“This is a strange decision and is a serious development. Such a measure is likely to suppress freedom and creativity,” the head of the some 650-member association told The Jordan Times in a telephone interview yesterday.

He noted that the language poets use is “metaphoric and has its unique characteristics. It is not like the ordinary Arabic that is used by ordinary people”.

“When there is no freedom, there is no creativity,” he said.

Qbeilat also protested a fatwa issued by the Kingdom’s mufti, the top religious authority, labelling Samhan as an infidel and describing the incorporation of Koranic verses in his poem collection as an act of blasphemy.

“They cannot charge Samhan on the basis on an opinion of a religious authority that is not specialised in poetry and literature. They should have consulted experts from the same domain. It is the first time that a religious authority interferes in interpreting the meanings of poetry. This will tarnish the image of Jordan,” Qbeilat added.

The JWA president said: “Our solidarity with Samhan is not that we agree or disagree with him. It is all about the freedom of expression.”

The Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists also issued a statement Tuesday calling for the immediate release of Samhan.

Nabil Momani, director general of the PPD, said there was more than one reason behind the referral of Samhan to the prosecutor’s office.

The book was printed by an unlicensed press and thus the writer violated Article 35 of the Press and Publications Law, which stipulates that the writer or publisher of any book that is printed or published in the Kingdom should submit an advanced copy to the PPD, Momani said.

He added the case was referred to the legal authorities following a thorough examination by experts and specialists, who agreed there was a violation to Article 38 of the said law.

Article 38 stipulates that it is prohibited to publish any material that entails libel, slander or insult to any religion, in line with the Constitution.

The PPD chief said that the judiciary has the exclusive authority of imposing a ban or confiscating books under the 2006 Press and Publications Law, adding: “Our job is not to suppress freedoms, but when there is an infringement to the law, it is our duty to refer the case to the judiciary. We support Jordanian writers.”

“The issue is in the hands of the judiciary and we accept whatever ruling the court issues,” said Momani.

from the Jordan Times
Oct. 22, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

censorship rears its head

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) - The Jordanian prosecution says police
have arrested a local writer for incorporating verses from
the Quran, the Muslim holy book, into his love poetry.

A judicial official says that poet Islam Samhan published
his collection of poems, "Grace like a Shadow," which
allegedly insults the holy book, without the approval of
the Jordanian government.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he
was not authorized to speak to the media.

Samhan was charged Tuesday with harming the Islamic faith
and violating the press and publication law for combining
the sacred words of the Quran with sexual themes.

If convicted the poet could face up to three years in

so, where can I get a copy of this book? I more than a little curious to know how a poet can go to jail for writing something about Islam. Islam does not seem to be open to interpretation or alternative views, or criticism. Death to anyone who questions Allah? Um, okay that's very 11th century. But we are living in the 21st century now. If this religion is 'the true one' can it not be examined or explored? If not, why not?

and how can I get a copy of this book? Who published it? Have any copies made it out of Jordan? I am more than a little curious to know.

Friday, October 17, 2008

every cover tells a story

I have never seen this cover for Burroughs' Junky before. It is from a copy that was available in Japan. It's the best cover for this book that I have ever seen. So, why are some cover images acceptable in the Far East (for example) but not in the good old US of A? Self-censorship, of course. Our old Puritan background averting our eyes and shuttering the thought. But does it, really? Does self-censorship work? Has the burning of the library in Alexandria by Christians retarded our evolutionary development? (It has, actually done that) But it hasn't ended our native curiosity.

Nor will it. Our race was thrown out of Eden for being curious. For questioning authority. For thinking for ourselves.

Every cover tells a story. Of course some publishers abuse the privilege of putting tits and ass on covers that have little to nothing to do with the content inside. That's a given, regrettably. Still, I would prefer to have this copy of Junky than the candy-ass safe covers that sold in the US and Britain. Unless maybe this is the British version.

Such prudes we are, sheesh.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

reviving Dawn Powell

Sometime back I was reading one of Michael Dirda's wonderful books on books and reading and found a passage about a neglected "genius" (his words, not mine) named Dawn Powell. Never heard of her work. But as it happened, I read about her a few years after the publishing company, Steerforth Press, released many of her novels. I got a number of her books through Amazon and ebay. I also found a wikipedia entry on her.

Time past, I went to a second-hand store I frequent in Alexandria, VA where I found some forgotten on the top of a tall bookcase. One was Dawn Powell's Turn, Magic Wheel published in 1936. It had a bookstore label inside from a bookstore in Paris, France. I wondered if that store withstood WWII. I wondered about things, grand or small often. My wife calls them "pot thoughts".

Anyway, her work is today considered to be as witty as Dorothy Parker's. It might interest you to track down some of her books and read them for yourself.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Over the weekend I was out "booking" for a few hours without my little "helpers" (Julia & William) and I went into a used bookstore that I frequent and there on an end-cap were a number of books in this particular 'genre'. The genre is relatively recently named : bibiliomystery.

I was waiting for this, actually. I was waiting for someone to come up with this named genre. Whether it sticks or not is something else, of course.

As I reflect upon the origins of this "genre", It seems to my non-scientific mind that it started with The Name of the Rose. Certainly that book boosted the genre as shortly thereafter came The Club Dumas, The Dante Club, The Shadow of the Wind, People of the Book and the entire Cliff Janeway series by John Dunning.

Unfortunately, as with any other genre, there are the occasional charlatans, Larry Beinhart's The Librarian for example. The book misuses the title to suggest that there would be something in it about being an actual librarian....perhaps supposing actual research methods and discovery. Instead, it's a Clark Kent becoming Superman within a political thriller set-up novel. It's terrible. Misnamed garbage. Ugh.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Francis Cugat

do you know the name Francis Cugat? Probably not, yet you know at least one piece of art that he created. The same way you know the Nike swoosh - but not the graphic art student who came up with the symbol for a grand total of $25.00!

Cugart's name could be a Trivial Pursuit question. His name is known to illustrators and people who do covers for books, but not the general public and quite likely not anyone who has read The Great Gatsby.