Rushdie @ Google

Last week I was in New York for just a few hours, accompanying some family members who had a chore at the Canadian Consulate. My three hour visit to the city happened to coincide with Salman Rushdie’s reading at the New York corporate office of Google, on 8th Ave, so I left my family members to fend for themselves for an hour, and hopped on the A/C/E. Since I’m close to someone who works in the office, I was able to enter the Googleplex for lunch (at their legendary cafeteria), and see the reading at this unusual venue.

First of all, the turnout was striking, considering that this is an office comprised mainly of software engineers and sales/marketing people working for an internet search/advertising giant. The auditorium within the office was full, with about 200 people — about what you might expect to see at a college or university with an English department. Quite a number of people had copies of Rushdie’s new novel with them. In short, Googlers read.

Second, the reading was being teleconferenced live with three other Google offices, which you could see on a screen projected behind Rushdie’s head. (By contrast, when we have readings where I teach, we have enough trouble just getting the microphones to work without brutal feedback…)

Third, in keeping with Google’s “do your thing” office environment, there was a bright red exercise ball just hanging out on the floor of the auditorium, about 10 feet from the podium. It was unclear to me whether it was there as a seating option, or simply as decoration (the bright red goes well with the Google office’s bright, “primary colors” palette).

Rushdie himself tailored his comments to his environment quite nicely, reinforcing my impression of Rushdie as a demi-God of public speaking engagements. First and foremost, Rushdie acknowledged the role that search engines and the internet in general have come to play for him as he researches and writes his books. The new book, The Enchantress of Florence, is a historical novel set in the Early Modern period (the time of Akbar the Great in India). The idea of the book is to link the cultural and historical milieu of Akbar’s India to Europe in the Renaissance, using an abducted Indian princess who ends up in Florence.

While earlier, the internet “had a lot of breadth, but not a lot of depth,” Rushdie said, now there are major resources available for serious scholars, who earlier might have had to travel to several research libraries to gain access to rare historical documents.

Rushdie did a fair amount of research online for the project, and for the first time, he decided he needed to include a bibliography of web sites along with the extensive bibliography of books he consulted while writing the new novel.

Some of the websites he mentioned are: Persian Literature in Translation (where you can find the Akbar-Nama, Akbar’s Regulations, and Muntakhab ut-tawarikh), Gardens of the Mughal Empire, and Richard Von Garbe’s Akbar, Emperor of India.

Rushdie also talked a bit about the way in which the growing availability of information about world history in the internet might transform how we think about history. Again he was in some sense talking to the employees at Google: “though you are all people interested in the future,” the kind of work being done by companies like Google has a significant potential to transform contemporary understandings of the past.

An audience member asked the question, along the lines of, “what could we at Google do to make your job easier?” and in response Rushdie mentioned his reservations about the digitization of in-copyright literary works that has been part of the Books.Google.com project. He wasn’t opposed to digitizing current books in principle, but argued that it has to be done in a way so as to make sure that authors are fairly compensated for their works. (Otherwise, he stated, rather direly, “it could destroy the publishing industry.”) In my experience using Books.Google.com, the “snippets” view seems to work quite well to limit access to in-copyright texts, so perhaps Rushdie was being overly alarmist here.

As for the novel itself, Rushdie managed to convey a lot about what he’s up to in The Enchantress of Florence without actually reading an excerpt. The anecdotes about “Angelica” in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Akbar’s sacrificed sister, and the gay culture of Renaissance Florence, all piqued my curiosity, anyway.

At the end of the reading, I dutifully took my copy of The Enchantress of Florence up to the author for signing, and was pleased that, for once, I wouldn’t have to spell out my name.

(As for my thoughts about the new book — wait just a bit. I’m about 60 pages into the novel, and enjoying what I’m reading thus far. The story he published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, The Shelter of the World, is part of the new book, so if you liked that you might enjoy the new novel as a whole.)

20 thoughts on “Rushdie @ Google

  1. (Otherwise, he stated, rather direly, “it could destroy the publishing industry.”) In my experience using Books.Google.com, the “snippets” view seems to work quite well to limit access to in-copyright texts, so perhaps Rushdie was being overly alarmist here.

    I agree. Destroy the publishing industry? Truely doubtful, even if more books were online. I don’t know one person who could tolerate reading a book online. I suppose it could be argued that more people will be able to get a taste of what the book is about, and decide not to buy it. But then wouldn’t the vice versa also be true. And doesn’t this come into play when we skim that book for 15 minutes in the bookstore. Anyway. Interesting post.

  2. did you read david gates’ merciless review in the nyt sunday review?

  3. At the end of the reading, I dutifully took my copy of The Enchantress of Florence up to the author for signing, and was pleased that, for once, I wouldn’t have to spell out my name.

    But did he recognize/acknowledge you as the Amardeep?

  4. But did he recognize/acknowledge you as the Amardeep?

    ??? Who is “the” Amardeep? I am just Amardeep, an ordinary bloke and essentially non-memorable person. When I said I didn’t have to spell out my name, I meant: because he’s a desi writer, who could figure it out on his own…

  5. It was just a statement of curiosity. Nothing more. From where I stand it seemed a likely possibility. You are an academic with an online presence. He appears to use the internet a lot (Didn’t he actually leave a comment on Amitava Kumar’s blog?). So I just wondered…

  6. Amardeep, I was struck by the raves this novel got in the UK and the pans from the NY Times etc. What gives? Normally i thought these folks in the elite press seem to be uniformly in either one direction or the other. I suppose having this diversity of opinion is nice. Look forward to reading your take on it.

    Krishnan

  7. 3 · sonia said

    (Otherwise, he stated, rather direly, “it could destroy the publishing industry.”) In my experience using Books.Google.com, the “snippets” view seems to work quite well to limit access to in-copyright texts, so perhaps Rushdie was being overly alarmist here.
    I agree. Destroy the publishing industry? Truely doubtful, even if more books were online. I don’t know one person who could tolerate reading a book online. I suppose it could be argued that more people will be able to get a taste of what the book is about, and decide not to buy it. But then wouldn’t the vice versa also be true. And doesn’t this come into play when we skim that book for 15 minutes in the bookstore. Anyway. Interesting post.

    I wouldn’t say his fear is completely baseless. Many times during writing papers, I have searched for specific texts which google showed in the book snippets. I of course gleefully used the information; but it made me wonder if the library would care to buy the actual book in its reserve if people like me (who sometimes care about specific info and not the whole book) continue to get their info from google books.

  8. Wow, maybe if Rushdie came and read where I teach, we could get the podiums working AND the room temp at a liveable level. Amerdeep, you and I need to get out of the classroom and get writing.

  9. Rushdie mentioned his reservations about the digitization of in-copyright literary works that has been part of the Books.Google.com project. He wasn’t opposed to digitizing current books in principle, but argued that it has to be done in a way so as to make sure that authors are fairly compensated for their works…so perhaps Rushdie was being overly alarmist here.

    Google got off to a bad start with the publishing industry when in began digitizing entire works without asking. The publishing industry is, in turn, totally technophobic, so the “snippets” thing is hard for most to understand. Even as they use it, they fear marauding Mongol armies of hackers, stealing and downloading away. Another fear about digitizing it that it makes piracy cheaper and easier. None of this is really valid or even makes sense, but most authors seem to have that alarmist attitude.

    Have to say that digitizing is wrecking reference publishing. Most companies are scrambling to get online and cutting on print publications, but it’s a slow process and the info is already available for free in most cases. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, specialized reference of all kinds…and of course, newspapers and magazines.

    the reading was being teleconferenced live with three other Google offices, which you could see on a screen projected behind Rushdie’s head. (By contrast, when we have readings where I teach, we have enough trouble just getting the microphones to work without brutal feedback…)

    Was at a book conference and attended a seminar to see Google pitch the books project…nothing worked. Trouble with the slideshow, the video presentation wouldn’t even start. Speakers had relied on the electronic material so scrambled to speak extemporaneously and when the laptop finally projected onto the plain white dropcloth, went to websites to get the info they needed. Google has its awkward days too :)

  10. I heard him speak at the Barnes and Nobles in Union Square last week, and overall, he was remarkably amusing, and also a little bawdy. Who knew?

  11. I , for one, would pay to watch the Salman in conversation. Not so for his books , any longer, sadly. During the fatwa, i remember watching him on NPR, seated in front of a drab canvas screen. He looked pre occupied and made a ton of sense – a master of spoken English.

    On Sunday, he had a snippet of an iv with FAreed Z. Again he was eloquently emphatic about his hatred of fundamentalism. I couldn’t help but think – these 2 Bombay boys (are they from the same religious background?), i wish the other one had a talk show.

  12. I couldn’t help but think – these 2 Bombay boys (are they from the same religious background?)

    Yes. More similarities: Both Zakaria Sr. and Rushdie Sr. studied in England and practiced law.

  13. the pans from the NY Times etc. What gives?

    Kakutani must have been in a hurry when reading Rushdie’s latest. Only an impatient, boring reader could call it confusing – as she has done.

    And as Ben Yagoda stated in Slate about NYT’s Kakutani: One has the sense of her deciding roughly at Page 2 whether or not a book is worthy; reading the rest of it to gather evidence for her case; spending some quality time with the Thesaurus; and then taking a large blunt hammer and pounding the message home.

  14. I heard him speak at the Barnes and Nobles in Union Square last week, and overall, he was remarkably amusing, and also a little bawdy. Who knew?

    Anokha, he’s always been just a s bawdy as the bard of Avon. Sign of greatness.

    Amardeep, he’s gotta know who you are.

  15. Kakutani must have been in a hurry when reading Rushdie’s latest. Only an impatient, boring reader could call it confusing – as she has done.

    I’m sure Michiko Kakutani doesn’t know enough to gauge it or appreciate it. Red sandstone looking like red smoke at dawn and all– how woudld anyone know what Rushdie has done if they haven’t seen it for themselves and don’t know from Jodha Bai? I was so relieved to see a British review of The Darjeeling Limited that remarked on how they seemed to be passing through Rajasthan that the difference in Rushdie reviews here and in Blighty makes me quite nostalgic for the familiarity of over the pond. But that will come — here, I mean.

    Sorry, I meant as bawdy as the Bard of Avon.

  16. I saw Rushdie read from “Enchantress” at the 92nd Street Y in New York some weeks ago, and can confirm that he is indeed “a demi-God of public speaking engagements” as well as a “master of spoken English.” He held the audience captive.

    If you need further proof, seek out the Joseph Campbell PBS interview from last year. When Campbell asks him what he made of the controversial Danish cartoons satirizing Mohammed, Rushdie replies, without losing a beat, “Do you think God cares about a cartoon in a Danish newspaper?” Indeed.

    We desis are very, very lucky to have such a brilliant, funny, deeply human writer to speak for us. My only wish is that his writing turns to India once again, because his knowledge and love for the country are so deep.