Booksellers are a lot like actors. It is a cliche that actors will too often assume they are capable of the accomplishments of the characters they portray and come to believe that they know what a character actually felt. Booksellers often see themselves as possessing the wisdom that is in the books they sell, whereas they only possess the books. The playacting of children is in many ways a rehearsal for the actions of adults. The empathy felt by the reader will often extend into everyday life. That is the power of books, just as it is the wonder felt by an audience in suspended disbelief watching a portrayal in a movie or on the stage.
Should an actor hold back then, in their enactment of evil? Will the psychopath they impersonate possibly inspire someone in the audience to act out something similar? Should a bookseller sell a book that they deem to be wrong? There is obviously much nuance here to consider before judgment. Answering the question based on a simplistic presentation of the question, before considering the parts, is as shallow an understanding as the bookseller presuming they own the wisdom that is on their shelves.
Though an actor may delude themselves purposely while portraying a character—I suspect this is the successful ploy of a number of great actors who take on difficult roles—the ruse is ended when the job is done. (I often marvel at the ability of stage actors to repeat performances night after night and then go home.) But then a bookseller cannot ignore the ideas on their shelves, day after day.
In the age of the internet, such a quaint understanding of responsibility is laughable to some. Does Amazon care about what they sell, and to whom, so long as it is profitable? Should they? Should Stephen King stop writing horror novels?
The pretense here is that this matters. An explication of why the question should be asked is worthy, but not the object of this short essay. My purpose is to ask the question with a presumption of innocence, and with an assumption of responsibility. Should the bookseller care about the bad ideas that molder in the leaves? Yes, is my answer, simply given. But that does not say that I will not sell books filled with bad ideas. In fact, I do, and on purpose, and for much the same reason that an actor should perform their best while trying to portray an evil character. The job is not done by holding back. The political realization of socialism killed hundreds of millions of human beings in the Twentieth Century alone, yet I have many books on my shelves extolling that evil. And by contrast I have at least as many others offering alternatives. To ignore socialist authors is to ignore the dark side of human history as if it will go away by whistling past that graveyard of horrors.
I don’t purposely carry poorly written books. That would not be to any point. And in the area of fiction, for instance, I look for authors I do not read myself, knowing already that they appeal to others. Determining taste is not my object either. But I do look for authors I love, even if they don’t sell very well—actually that is not often the case. I have a habit of bragging on an author when I think I have a sympathetic ear and that will often overcome the resistance of a customer to trying the unfamiliar.
It is a fact that I have often seen the bookshop as a play. That is, not only the setting for some of the things I have written myself, but as a staged event, with the customers as the players there to discover some new facet in their lives. When things are good, I have watched the revelation of whole new worlds of wonder. There is no dilemma to that.
And there is no dilemma to understanding the need for argument and dissent. Harvey Mansfield’s recent review of the thesis, Aristotle: Democracy and Political Science, by his wife, Delba Winthrop, concerning Aristotle’s conception of democracy, is a case in point. I very much look forward to reading it, (as soon as I can locate a used copy I can afford), but for now I think I am correct in my understanding that the great philosopher duly appreciated ambiguity and the virtue of argument in an open society. It is only through the assertion of good ideas in contest with the bad that understanding can happen. Reason is the tool of good argument, and without that process, democracy cannot survive.
There is no dilemma in understanding that a good bookshop cannot exist in an authoritarian political culture. For the citizen, it is the choice between knowing and not knowing. Not wanting to know has an end to it.