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for serious scholars, who earlier might have had to travel to several research libraries to gain access to rare historical documents.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.)