Reading about the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, we are reminded of his epic force of will -- despite the threat to life and limb posed by the Soviet police state -- to bear witness, to document, to record everything he could about totalitarianism in the USSR.
Then, reading about Random House Publishing Group, which called off the publication of a romance novel about Muhammad "for fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims," we should be reminded of something else: How apt was Solzhenitsyn's much-maligned critique of the West, which he excoriated for, among other things, a decline in "civil courage" that was "particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elites."
In the week after Solzhenitsyn's death, accounts of his determination and toil filled the news. When he had a typewriter, he typed single-spaced on both sides of a sheet; when he had pen and paper, he wrote in miniscule print. When he had neither -- as at a remote penal colony in Kazahkstan -- he devised a memorization technique involving a rosary made of bread in which each "bead" came to represent a passage of work that he committed to memory. He would later write that he memorized 12,000 lines this way.
By 1973, microfilms of The Gulag Archipelago, the writer's massive history of the Soviet prison camps, had been smuggled out of the USSR to publishers in New York and Paris. Solzhenitsyn asked them to delay publication, however, hoping to see the work come out first in the Soviet Union. But then he changed his mind.
Why? Solzhenitsyn had learned that the KGB, after interrogating his typist Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, had found a buried copy of the book. She hanged herself soon afterward. The author quickly approved the immediate publication of his 300,000-word indictment of the communist system.
This is the most serious stuff of history, epoch-changing events on which the wheel actually turned. What happened with a romance novel at Random House this summer isn't going to change any epochs -- but it may tell us something about how much our times have already changed.
As the Wall Street Journal reported, author Sherry Jones also "toiled," writing weekends since 2002 to tell a "tale of lust, love and intrigue in the prophet's harem" through a fictionalized story of Aisha, Muhammad's 9-year-old bride. All was well enough until Random House sent out galleys of the book to seek endorsements from writers and scholars. Among them was Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas at Austin. According to the Journal, Spellberg read the novel and became "frantic," explaining, "You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography."