Our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.
Dear the post calvin,
My community has been too complacent lately, and I want to spice things up. What book should I ban to get some productive dialogue going?
As I’m sure you learned from the saga that gave rise to the “Streisand Effect,” censorship may have the unintended consequence of drawing attention to the very thing it wants to stamp out, just by designating it taboo. This necessitates that the act of censorship is announced publicly, so I want to confess to you that I’ve been engaged in a bit of furtive censorship myself. I would also like to propose an alternative to banning any one book in particular.
For a few months at the end of last year, I had a not very lucrative side hustle of processing donations for a used bookstore. A few hours a week, I’d swipe into a brick warehouse just off the I-290, put on NPR or a donated Linkin Park CD, and try to make a dent in the towers of boxes of donated books.
The criteria for sending a book to the store: Scan the barcode so the software brings up the book’s stats.
If a book has a sales ranking under 2.8 million, it has a good chance of selling. Send it to the store.
If it is also going for at least $5 on Amazon, set it aside to sell online.
If it has a sales ranking higher than 2.8 million, toss it in the recycling pile.
I often salvaged books that just missed the sales rank cut-off or otherwise caught my eye. It is a distressing form of censorship to reduce a book to the capitalistic value associated with its ISBN number, particularly if the book is out of print and you can see the author’s long-lost descendant making a habit of stopping in every used bookstore he passes in the hope of coming across a copy of the very book you hold in your hands.
As my former coworker showed me the ropes on my first day, he came across a copy of The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and promptly pitched it into the recycling pile. I was stunned at the prospect of being able to make such an executive decision.
When people donated by the box, you’d really get a feel for who they were. A subscription set of crumbling Harlequin Classics, a pair of unopened GMAT prep course sets, the nonessential cuts from a retired professor’s collection, the odd note or receipt tucked inside the cover. Every now and then, I’d come across the collection of some male lay leader in a church, including a couple handbooks on why women were not fit for leadership in the church.
These were the books I tossed. But nobody saw me do it, and even though I did not want to perpetuate these thoughts in the world (and expected they would just collect dust at the store anyways), my censorship felt heavier knowing that there wasn’t even a panoptic gaze on me.
Anyways, I am skeptical that banning any one book like The Bell Curve, or even The Bell Jar, would necessarily stir up the “productive dialogue” you seek in your community, of which you’ve provided sparse detail, other than that it is currently too “complacent” for your tastes.
What I find more overwhelming than the moral dilemma of whether or not to recycle a paper copy of someone’s thoughts is the reality of recycled thoughts throughout all of time. The question: how many pristine copies of The Secret by Rhonda Byrne will I find today? Is not so different from: how many different books espousing carpe diem will I hold in my hands today?
I remember my middle school youth group reading aloud, verse by verse, with our ragtag assortment of Bibles (NRSV, ASV, ESV, etc.). The differing page numbers and translations created enough confusion among us but took on a symbolism of their own when we came to Ecclesiastes:
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!
Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless!
What has been is what will be,
And what has been done is what will be done;
What has been will be again,
What has been done will be done again;
There is nothing new under the sun. Censorship too often assumes there is.
I think of these translations often, slip these verses into my conversations. In a world where there are indeed many new and unforeseen developments, it is comforting to note a centuries-old wet blanket opinion that, in the end, nothing is that groundbreaking. You find God and meaning in life not by your own originality but when you look beyond yourself.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
More plainly, Barbra: ban originality. See what happens. Perhaps something truly, truly original that has never before been seen under this sun. At the very least, a more reflective approach to the shelves at a used bookstore.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.