Violence against writers was the topic I was about to interview the novelist Salman Rushdie about at the Chautauqua Institution on Aug. 12. We were being introduced onstage when out of nowhere, like a scene from Mr. Rushdie’s novel “Shalimar the Clown,” a knife-wielding man rushed onto the stage and began to stab him.
Immediately audience members ran to the stage to defend him.
It was a remarkable response. That rush of people leaping from their seats was the opposite of the so-called “bystander effect,” when individuals do nothing, relying on others to help. I would call it “the reader effect.” Reading creates empathy, and Chautauqua is an intentional community of readers. The intuitive response of an empathetic community is to help.
The “reader effect” was the reason I was onstage with Mr. Rushdie in the first place. He had given a talk in Pittsburgh in April of 1997, during which he said that the true fight “is not just about my right to write. It is also about your right to read.” My wife, Diane Samuels, and I, both avid readers, were in the audience that day, and his words moved us to action.
We were renting out a house in our neighborhood that we had bought and renovated. Mr. Rushdie’s words suggested a better way to use the house — as a temporary home for an exiled writer. When persecuted writers flee their homes, they often do so in a rush and can bring little with them. They need to start from scratch…