The Most Evil Man in the World?

by Craig Stark

#35, 17 January 2005

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

Printer Friendly Article

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.

>>>>> Article continues on next page >>>>>

Enter Book Title or ISBN

Powered by FetchBook.Info
New & Used Books