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Salman Rushdie in L.A. for some book love

September 24, 2012|By Patt Morrison
  • Author Salman Rushdie, whose new memoir is "Joseph Anton." It's the pseudonym he lived under after his 1988 book "The Satanic Verses" put him under death sentences from Muslim clerics for more than a decade.
Author Salman Rushdie, whose new memoir is "Joseph Anton."… (Associated Press / Canadian…)

Yes, it was Emmy night, but the most gorgeous thing in town on Sunday was in downtown, not in Hollywood: the Los Angeles Central Library, a national historic landmark and, on Sunday, the site of the "concrete carpet."

Along the Maguire Garden reflecting pool below the library facade, Library Foundation supporters -- wearing, admittedly, far fewer spangles than the star crowd sweating on the red carpet in Hollywood --  gathered to celebrate the foundation’s 20th anniversary.

They’d also come to hear author Salman Rushdie, the latest literary honoree of the foundation, which has raised about $80 million in its 20 years to pay for the library system’s student homework help, literacy programs and reading technology. It raised another million on Sunday from people eager to hear from  Rushdie, author of the new third-person memoir "Joseph Anton." Rushdie joins the likes of Harper Lee, Carlos Fuentes, Norman Mailer and John Updike (most of whom I’ve been there to hear) as foundation literary honorees.

But I don't remember at any of those events that the guests were given colored wristbands of the kind they hand out at clubs and concerts; this time, we all got a purple strip on our wrists. I was told it was because the Rushdie event was sold out, not surprisingly, and they needed to make sure no unauthorized guests in cocktail dresses or coats and neckties tried to sneak in. But I rather suspect it was a security measure because this was, after all, Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie extolled books as an "intimate exchange between strangers -- the writer and the reader," but he did not speak about free-speech matters or lame YouTube videos that have offended Muslims; I interviewed him about that, and you can read that in my "Patt Morrison Asks" column next week.

Instead, he talked about libraries and his love of libraries as a child, not only the institutional library at his school but the lending library in his town, where he learned about the American justice system from Perry Mason mysteries and read so many Superman comics that, to this day, he said, he can describe the difference between red and green kryptonite: "I know more about that than I should."

He is a native of what he still calls Bombay, not its post-colonial name Mumbai, "a city I don't call Mumbai for the same reason people don't call Saigon Ho Chi Minh City."

At Rushdie’s English school, Rugby, the town prostitute parked herself outside the town library, and as a young Rushdie hurried past her into the world of books, she’d call out, "Have you got the time, darling?" to which he, all pre-hormonal ignorance, would answer, "3:35."

Rushdie famously lived under Muslim clerics’ fatwa death threat for more than a decade, for elements in his novel "The Satanic Verses." And (alas, using a lowbrow and just plain ugly conjugation of the verb "to sneak" that automatically lowered the grade of my writing students who used it) Rushdie said he had now and then "snuck" out in L.A., "hoping not to be recognized, then disappointed when I wasn’t."

He was introduced at the event by actor Bill Pullman, who read aloud passages from "Joseph Anton." Pullman played the fighter pilot-president in the sci-fi action film "Independence Day," and Rushdie deadpanned that he was disappointed that Pullman had not read from "the bit where I flew up … to attack the alien mothership."

The event also honored the memory of my lovely friend Veronique Peck, who died last month. She and her husband, Gregory Peck, founded the library’s Gregory Peck Reading Series that’s brought luminaries to the library and fans to literature for years.

It’s on that last point -- bringing people to the library, as well as taking the library to people -- that Nelson Rising spoke. He is the developer who devoted his energy to the revival of the Central Library and downtown itself after the 1986 library arson fire. He and his wife, Sharon, who’s been a stalwart library fan and fundraiser, were honored by the dinner event, and they were introduced by former California Sen. John Tunney, whose 1970 Senate campaign was headed by Rising.

Tunney, a Democrat, beat Republican actor and Sen. George Murphy, but lost six years later to flamboyant linguist and semanticist S. I. Hayakawa, who later founded the U.S. English movement.

When Rising took the podium after Tunney, he addressed a point that irks the heck out of me: how rarely many Westsiders come downtown, and how little they often know about it.  In the dining room of the venerable -- and yes, admittedly private -- California Club, cheek by jowl with the exquisite and very public Central Library, encircled by the sparkling night-lit walls of downtown skyscrapers, Rising declared, "If you didn’t know there was any place east of La Cienega, welcome to downtown."

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