Close this window to return to BookThink

The Most Evil Man in the World?

by Craig Stark

#35, 17 January 2005

Part II: Drawing Lines in the Bookselling Sand - or Not

First, I'd like to express my appreciation for both the quality and sincerity of the contributions many of you made to the forum discussion on this topic, also for several eloquent emails. For those of you who haven't read through the notes, here's the link.

Second, I'll start this article by discussing some key points in this discussion.

If there's any consensus on the issue of selling abominable books, it's that every bookseller who expressed an opinion feels that it's a personal choice that naturally extends to others - that is, what we sell should be a choice we make for ourselves, not for other booksellers, and if somebody else wants to sell a book we wouldn't touch, fine. Conversely, nobody should tell us what to sell either. We might not like the idea of a how-to book on suicide getting into the hands of a distraught teenager, but we like the idea of suppressing it even less.

As for what those personal choices are, this is where differences arise. Some sellers came down firmly on the side of free expression, drew no line at all. Here is how one bookseller expressed it:

I am a strong believer in the Constitution of the United States and feel that all the amendments are equally important. Therefore I will sell any genre to any person (I would LIKE To know they are of legal age, but don't know how that is possible). Otherwise I feel that I am acting as a censor, and if there is one thing I hate, [it] is censorship. I believe it is up to my Buyer to make the moral judgment, not me.

I don't sell porn, but I would. I just have never found much of a market for it.

The only books I have sold that I feel odd about are: How To guides for Suicide ... just plain gives me the creeps, thinking this guy might use this book this weekend. But then again, if you're gonna do IT, you might as well do it properly. They sell quite rapidly by the way, and at decent prices.

Others did draw lines, but understandably they were in different places. Some topics offend some, some others, and here are a few that were cited: pornography (especially child pornography); Nazi; NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association); and how-to's on bomb making. Interestingly, one seller who might otherwise have drawn a line came up with an innovative solution for not drawing it at all:

I don't think the books should be destroyed, but placed in the hands of someone who can do something constructive with them. For instance, some years ago I acquired some really offensive and downright creepy WWII Nazi books. The kind of stuff that fringe groups would love to get their hands on. I contacted a Jewish organization and they made arrangements to acquire them for a museum. The information was not lost to history, but was put to an educational use, not into the hands of someone to do harm with.

But lines drawn in the sand are, after all, still lines drawn in the sand, and sand has a tendency to shift. It's one thing to refuse to sell a book of pornography written by a nameless hack five or ten years ago; it's another matter entirely if the book (or manuscript) is thousands of years old and therefore possesses enormous historical and monetary value. I suggested the following, more specific, scenario in the discussion:

Suppose, for a moment, that you were participating in an expedition to scale Mt. Ararat in search of Noah's Ark. About 13,000 feet up, you happen upon a buried cave. You excavate the opening, enter, and find the well-preserved hull of none other than the Ark. Upon further examination, you discover a manuscript. Since you've done your homework (and can translate it), you begin reading and discover, to your horror, that it's shamelessly pornographic. Anyway, notwithstanding its content, the manuscript is probably worth millions and doubtless has huge historical significance. You know that you'll be rewarded handsomely by the Turkish government for handing it over, but you have this once-in-a-lifetime chance to destroy it before you head out of the cave. What do you do?

Given this situation, not a single bookseller in our discussion would not sell this manuscript. Even when I suggested another wrinkle - that Noah himself had written the manuscript - nobody felt that this would make a difference, though this sort of discovery would doubtless re-write biblical history in a less favorable light.

Only once was I able to elicit a vote for suppression of any kind, and this was by way of suggesting another, more contemporary (though classic) scenario:

A classic scenario with a minor change: it's WWII Berlin, Jews are being hunted down, and a notebook of names and addresses of those hiding from the Nazis falls into your hands. Do you destroy it?

This was the reply:

Yes, saving lives from the Nazis would make a very clear case for destruction. If the document still existed after the war, when lives were no longer in danger, it would be a valuable historic record. If there's anything clear from the abominable book discussion, it's that perfect clarity of principle doesn't seem to exist either among booksellers or, it seems, even within ourselves - and not always situational clarity either (though in this case there was). Many of us have a price, whether it's historical or monetary in nature, and some of us would probably sell a book in certain circumstances, not in others, and sometimes only to certain buyers. No hard and fast rules.

The same bookseller who voted to suppress the list of secreted Jews in Berlin also said this:

I strive for a "first, do no harm" bookselling business. It's one of the big plusses for me in being self-employed--being able to choose what I sell and don't sell. I have no problem with everyone else making different decisions than me on what to sell. There are lots of things I don't sell, but the lines I draw are personal and pretty eccentric.

For many of us, I think this is what it comes down to. We enter each bookselling moment with perceptions specific to it and act accordingly with what we judge to be the right thing for us to do in that moment - in other words, we apply what we are at that point in time to what is. If we have a prevailing "do no harm" view, this is valid and good and will affect what we do; if it's a "support my family" view, valid and good again, but this will probably (at least sometimes) deliver a different outcome. Enter the next bookselling moment, and we might behave somewhat differently, depending on how our perceptions and the given situation has changed. It stands to reason that the more clarity we have within ourselves, the more consistently we'll behave, but I've yet to meet anyone who has perfect clarity and can't imagine ever doing so. Thus it seems fatuous to expect ever-present consistency from anybody.

Even if we believe in suppression based on principle, history shows us, time and time again, that it doesn't work. One bookseller expressed it especially well:

As an addendum to my post earlier, when all is said and done, censorship is impossible. Look at Ovid. In his lifetime one of his poems offended Caesar, and he was thrown out of the Roman Empire and all his BOOKS [were] burned. In the 1400's in Florence, his works were burned again, along with the works of Dante. In the early years of the last century, the city of San Francisco banned the [sale] of the Poet, and the USPS confiscated copies of his work. Now it is 2005. Caesar is dust. Ovid lives on. Think about it. The 2 most powerful nations in the history of the world could not shut this poet up. My library here in this uncultured mid-south city has over 40 copies of his work. You can download it for free over the internet. Why?

THE BOOKSELLER. A bookseller somewhere made the decision to sell Ovid, despite the way the tide was turning. Ticknor and Fields decided to publish and sell the Hawthorne translation of Dante's Inferno, despite threats of losing the Harvard University Press business (which, by the way, they did). Someone printed and sold Luther's 95 theses, thus prompting the Reformation.

This brings me to a final point, one which pertains to the subject of my last article - Aleister Crowley. Only one seller (BookThink's own Timothy Doyle) suggested a reason other than freedom of expression for allowing abominable books to circulate in the market place:

I think that there is tremendous value in writing that pushes the edge, or even that blows right past the edge and flips you the finger while doing so. My feeling is that there is a greater danger in pasteurized and homogenized culture, in being too complacent about the supreme "rightness" of any particular worldview. The current air of hysteria about public decency on the airwaves, sparked by the Janet Jackson Nipple-gate affair, is a chilling taste of how easily the right of free speech can be infringed.

I agree with this implicitly. As much as some of us may be repulsed by what Crowley wrote, if not by everything he stood for, there's good reason he survives and continues to intrigue readers. In my opinion, it has only so much to do with so-called pornographic or satanically inspired content - titillating stuff - a lot to do with what he promises on a different plane: salvation. Contact with the divine. As long as there is a writer who believes that salvation can be had by traveling a road of wanton hedonism, there will be readers looking long and hard for reasons to believe him.

More to Tim's point - if something as edgy as Crowley's vision is examined and discussed in plain view and not fearfully suppressed, the more likely it is that some good can come of it. Another writer of significant note, William Blake, also wrote something once that has a hauntingly familiar ring:

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."

The funny thing is that this could've been written by Crowley himself. Readers familiar with both authors, of course, know that each had something radically different in mind here, but the point is that clarity comes as often through the back door, by way of seeing what something isn't, as it does the front - by seeing what is.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC