When celebrated author Sir Salman Rushdie spoke in Sun Valley as part of the Sun Valley Center For the Arts' lecture series, he took on some of the most vexing subjects of our time, like Paris Hilton.
"When did a second-rate hotel become a third rate human being?" asked the serious man of literature and letters.
At the anticipated Sept. 10 event, Rushdie held forth on all points of culture, from the very high to the oh-so-low. And through it all, he cracked up at his own jokes.
"Have you noticed how strange things are lately," Rushdie asked, in Seinfeldian set-up to some serious subjects.
On the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan, Rushdie made light of points that cable news has largely ignored.
"There already is a mosque four blocks away from Ground Zero," he said. "How far away should it move? Where does its desecration stop?"
Rushdie succinctly summed up the overblown issues of a slow news month: "This stuff is stupid," he said. "Though not as stupid as what is happening in Florida--as is so often the case," he said, referencing the Rev. Terry Jones' plans to hold a Koran-burning in Gainesville, Fla., on Sept. 11.
"I am not a fan of burning books, and I have some experience in this," he said, recalling demonstrations during which copies of his Satanic Versus were burned. "We cannot burn books, no matter how much you dislike the book. I would not, for instance, burn the books of Dan Brown.
"None of us can claim ignorance on what book-burning means. The burning of books is unmistakable code for tyranny, bigotry, hatred and fascism," he said to hearty applause.
The novelist then spoke of the pivotal events of our time with the grand sweeps and clarity of vision of the best historical literature. In that instant when the planes hit the buildings, he said, "the history of the Arab world became intertwined with the history of New York. You could no longer understand the one without the other."
Rushdie offered a reading list of recent books that he thinks have done well to illuminate important experiences from Iran to New Orleans, from Sudan to Kabul: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and by Dave Eggers, What is the What and Zeitoun.
Such books, Rushdie suggested, offer literature's greatest gift: "It can give you worlds that are not your world and make you feel like it is yours."
And what about that fatwa in 1989--when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for Rushdie's execution?
"As for Khomeini and me," Rushdie said, "one of us is dead."