Douglas Koziol, who works for an independent bookstore in the Boston area, is pained that some people come into his bookstore asking for deplorable volumes, like the bestselling Mein Kampf of the Moonshiners, Hillbilly Elegy. What is a Puritan bookseller to do when people come in wanting to buy books that stand to corrupt them? Koziol writes:
I don’t intend to review Elegy here. More capable pieces have already been written about the book’s “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” message, its condemnation of a supposed culture of poverty, its dismissal of the working class’s material reality as a determining factor in their lives, and its callous claim that the welfare state only reinforces a cycle of dependency. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because these are the same rightwing talking points that have been leveled at the working class and poor for decades. As if that weren’t enough, the book also boasts glowing blurbs from the likes of Rod Dreher, whose oeuvre consists of transphobic screeds for The American Conservative; literal tech vampire Peter Thiel; and the National Review, which, under the guidance of William F. Buckley, promoted segregation and derided the Civil Rights Movement, among countless other odious stances, and which now primarily serves as a trust fund for a gaggle of #NeverTrump Republicans who hold the President’s views but gussy them up with a bowtie. And yet the customers where I work—largely liberal, well-educated and well-meaning people—have bought the book in droves.
Imagine that. What’s wrong with liberal Bostonians? Don’t they understand that Hillbilly Elegy is just filled with Wrongthink? Bad people have said it’s good, and still, good liberals think it has something to say to them about the world. For shame!
More from Nanny Koziol:
So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?
Or, as a reader of this blog reframes the question, “How can we ban books without, you know, banning them?”
A lot of people on Twitter are laughing at prim Nanny K. today, and he certainly deserves it. But he does raise an interesting point. No bricks-and-mortar bookstore can stock everything, so decisions have to be made. How do we make them?
LifeWay Books, the Southern Baptist bookstore chain, recently decided to stop selling the books of Eugene Peterson when the well-respected elderly pastor publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage (the chain changed its mind after Peterson recanted). To me, that didn’t make a lot of sense, given that he had not advocated same-sex marriage in his published books. But then, you can’t buy my Christian books at LifeWay either, because I don’t fit their test of Christian orthodoxy. I am not offended by that.
Similarly, I wouldn’t expect to go to Eighth Day Books in Wichita and pick up smut like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” even though it was a megaseller. If we’re going to fault Nanny K. for his censorious ways, we have to avoid hypocrisy. If a bookstore branded itself as a left-wing bookseller, we couldn’t plausibly be offended by their refusal to sell right-wing books, could we?
The problem here, I think, is that Nanny K. doesn’t appear to work for a bookstore that considers itself to be anything other than a general book retailer. Nanny K. is trying to get away with enjoying the reputation as a “full-spectrum” bookstore without actually being one. Reader Annie explains why she’s bothered by this:
For many years I made it a priority to buy books, new, from independent booksellers. They provided a public space and service that should be treasured, I believed. Even though I was an underpaid, uninsured caregiver, it was very important to me to spend my money in an ethical way.
It never escaped me that the philosophy and religion sections were shrinking. Time after time I noticed the only books on theology would be “Why I Am Not A Christian” by Bertrand Russell. I’d notice there would be three shelves on Jewish mysticism, two on Sufis, four shelves on Buddhism, and a scrappy half-shelf on Christianity. Usually that shelf would include Karen Armstrong and other critics; a really good bookstore would have a few by C.S. Lewis. That’s it.
This was more than a hobby to me. I visited bookstores all over the country, tracking them down like a pilgrim seeking holy places. Over the past fifteen years the subtle censorship has accelerated. Even the great, eclectic Powell’s has employees who have quietly spoken up in odd corners of the web about the censorship.
This is stealth indoctrination. Yes, some of these books are dangerous. They might change your life! To see booksellers try to keep the Holy Bible out of people’s hands is terrifying. This is our cultural heritage. Far be it from me to say any bookseller SHOULD stock certain books (though of course it’s deeply ironic that these same booksellers most likely insist upon Baking the Cake), but freethinkers should be aware that, excluding places like Eighth Day Books, most booksellers these days are servants of the progressive, intersectionality religion.
A great service on the parts of BenOp-minded folk would be to start up independent, full spectrum bookstores.
If I were an independent bookstore owner, I would stock a wide range of titles, both left and right, but there are certain kinds of books (e.g., books I considered to be pornographic) that I would not stock. Every reader of this blog, if he or she were an independent bookstore owner, would have to draw the line somewhere too. What principles would you use to decide? I would stock Atlas Shrugged and The Communist Manifesto, not because I agree with them, heaven knows, but because I think they are within the bounds of important and necessary discussion. For that matter, I would stock Muslim books, Jewish books, Hindu books, and so forth. But I would not stock works of the racialist right, or for that matter queer theory, or anything that serves what Annie calls “the progressive, intersectionality religion.”
Which, to me, is an interesting place to draw the line. Why would I stock books from what you might consider the “Old Left,” but not some on the Postmodern Cultural Left? I’m not quite sure. It has to do with drawing boundaries within which the discussion I would like to see can take place (as distinct from saying which books I believe people should or should not read).
What do you think? How would you handle this if you were the bookstore owner?
And by the way, a general interest bookstore that would deliberately not stock my books, or J.D. Vance’s book, is a bookstore that I would not patronize, period. As a customer, I too have boundaries.
UPDATE: St. Louisan writes:
“The question remains…does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp?”
WAIT. Wait just a minute. For years now, Christian small business owners have been in the news for refusing to sell their services for same-sex marriage ceremonies to which they have religious objections. And for just as long the left, in general but overwhelmingly, has found this to be simply incomprehensible. ‘What? By what right does a seller of goods and services presume to limit who and what she’ll sell to? Surely once you enter the marketplace, you must sell to anyone who has money to exchange! If you don’t like it, you can just NOT HAVE A BUSINESS.’
But now that some Bostonians want to buy Hillbilly Elegy (of all places to draw the line), it’s suddenly dawned on our bookseller here that just maybe, the sale of goods and services may have some moral content not reducible to raw economics. He wonders sellers may have some ground for refusing business which would involve them in what they consider immoral. And he wonders this as if it’s a radical new insight which has only just occurred to him.
I’m curious if he himself sees any connection between his disinclination to sell books when he thinks doing so will be participating in something morally dangerous and people like Barronelle Stutzman’s disinclination to sell cakes for the same reason.
Not for nothing, but the other day was the feast of Saints Justa and Rufina in the Roman calendar–they were martyred aftered refusing to sell their pottery for use in a pagan ritual.