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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

The Fatwa Against Books!

Carolyn Honors Dead Nobel Winner and
Shames Those Who Would Commit a Book to Death

This week Time magazine reported that Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz died at 94. They called him a hero. The book Time called "his bravest" was Children of the Alley, a parable of Islam which was banned in most Arab countries. Mahfouz was condemned to death by a fatwa but continued to roam about in his native Cairo. One day he was stabbed.

That did not stop him. He held salons (something I suggest writers do more often -- I even used a salon as a launch for my book of creative nonfiction, Harkening) where he encouraged people to discuss whatever they wanted to and I shouldn't need to remind you that Egypt is a Muslim country. Thus, he won. Those who seek to silence lost. He once told a fellow, Paul Theroux, "I feel no hatred, but it is very bad to try to kill someone for a book you haven't read."

Because I write often about tolerance (This Is the Place, Harkening, Tracings) this, of course, touched me. In fact, I was doubly touched because Mahfouz's story illustrates not only religious and political intolerance but also intolerance against books. Today the publishing industry (that includes all of us -- reviewers, readers, presses, distributors, etc) is committing a fatwa of sorts against books that are not printed on an offset press, the books of authors who choose to publish alternatively not necessarily -- I might add -- because no traditional press will have them. There are dozens of other reasons why authors choose a more independent route.

Isn't this like judging a book by its cover? Doesn't it feel like an effort to silence those who speak with a different voice? You may say I am reaching. Perhaps I am. But I think Mahfouz would likely have agreed that an attempt to kill a book, either directly or coming at it from an angle by denying it without knowing anything about its content, its quality -- is at least distant kin to trying to kill the author who wrote it. To us authors, at least, our books are living, breathing part of us. We don't want to see them die because others are unwilling to judge them on their own merits.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbits: Here's a new book that every writer will want on their desks as a reference but also one they'll find amusing enough to read at night before they go to bed. It is The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by John Gross and published by the Oxford University Press. Not only that but some of the stories may inspire you to write an essay or a story or a novel.

Readers' Tip: I contributed to a new anthology, Secrets, Fact or Fiction? II. Edited by Diane J. Newton, it is a new genre. It is an interactive book. Related to the hypertext of the net, this book includes a contest where readers can go back to having some fun reading BOOKS as a participant -- yep, similarly to what they would do on the Web. If you, too, are interested in the subject of tolerance or intolerance (in any of its ramifications) you will enjoy reading the story I contributed. Find it at Now, all you have to do is figure out if it's fact or fiction.

2006 Past Columns

Carolyn Honors Dead Nobel Winner and
Shames Those Who Would Commit a Book to Death
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