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Irshad Manji (Jimmy Jeong)
Irshad Manji (Jimmy Jeong)

Irshad Manji

Books can't make history without people Add to ...

A few days ago, Amazon.com announced that for the first time ever, it's selling more e-books than paper ones. Although the company wouldn't cite hard sales figures, it did suggest that since April, Amazon's customers have bought 5 per cent more digital than traditional books.

"Sad," a colleague of mine grumbled at hearing the news. "Welcome to the suicide of a literate society." Wrong. It's the reverse.

Brilliant (and brilliantly bad) movies didn't disappear with the arrival of the videotape. Or the DVD. Or online streaming. In fact, I can't keep up with the explosion in documentary films, so I turn to my students to teach me what's stimulating their hearts and minds on this score - and why.

Likewise, to fear that rising digital downloads will spell the death of ideas is to imply that books with a physical spine have a power that's independent of the humans who read them. The reality is, humans also need a spine to make anything valuable out of books.

It's not literature, but what people choose to do with it, that threatens totalitarianism - a fact so insistent that it's made bestsellers out of books about books. Reading Lolita in Tehransprings to mind. So does The Bookseller of Kabul.

At the same time, words on a page can become weapons of mass destruction. In identifying the most influential books of the 20th century, the New York Public Library wrote:

"Mao's Little Red Book was the fetish object of China's Cultural Revolution. Millions of copies were distributed in the late 1960s, first to soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, then to rampaging teenagers who formed the Red Guard, and finally to ardent would-be Maoists around the world."

We know how the rest turned out. Not because of the Little Red Book but because no ideology, however stirring in writing, has a hope without human judgment. It's humans who interpret books, and it's humans who act on those interpretations. Without people, books can't make history.

Another - marvellous - example comes from a story about Nicholas Copernicus. He's the 16th-century astronomer who first floated the notion that the universe revolves around the sun, not around the Earth. Back then, the church taught the opposite. Heretics invited severe punishment.

A conservative cleric himself, Copernicus took forever to release his major book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. Late in life, as the scientist lay dying, his publisher showed him the finished book.

What the publisher didn't say is that he'd slipped in a preface - "essentially a disclaimer," notes the science writer Dan Falk. That disclaimer allowed Copernican principles to be presented as theory rather than absolute truth.

The publisher's gambit gave Christians throughout Europe time to adapt. Future scientists, including Sir Isaac Newton, could promote the Copernican revolution without having to renounce their faith. A discreet editorial decision by a relatively unknown man infused the book with groundbreaking gravitas.

It's because of stories like this that I embrace the ascendancy of e-books. People are still reading, for God's sake! And writing. And editing. Books will change their shells, but the human dramas behind getting them done and distributed - then interpreted and applied, and misapplied then reinterpreted - is what gives the book its life.

The bursting bookcases in my apartment remind me that while God possesses the full and final truth, individuals must create opportunities to pursue it. As a Muslim, I orient my prayer rug to the Mecca of the mind: my bookshelves. I also take Allah's inaugural command to the Prophet Mohammed - "Read!" - as a command to all believers, as well as a command to read all beliefs.

Yes, fewer bookcases will be lining our sanctuaries if we abandon the conventional book. But the more important thing is that there will always be a market for the human creativity that births literature and essays. Even, or especially, when that creativity gets harnessed to corrupt us. Hence the need for more books.

Irshad Manji's new book is Allah, Liberty & Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom.

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