My Ignorance and Disrespect of Books Offends

Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1490.

Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1490. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The bookstore I operate currently features a table displaying books about Christianity. We do this every year at this time, because every year at this time, Easter. We’ll do it again in December, because Christmas.

Today I received a complaint via email about a book featured on the table. The gist of the complaint was that Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan was a book whose primary purpose was “to refute the divinity of Christ, the core belief of Christianity.” My customer was offended that the book was featured with other Christian-themed books. He felt we were trying to market and sell it as a Christian book when it “by definition” was not one.

For the most part it was a polite and respectful email by a customer voicing a concern, which every customer has a right to do, and which any business person interested in maintaining a good relationship with a customer ought to consider. Which I did.

I had only one problem with this email. It was with the line where he told me his only problem. That the decision to display this book with other “Christian” books showed “either ignorance or disrespect on our part.”

This was my response:

“Dear Mr. ____.

Thank you for taking the time to offer your feedback. Please know that when we feature a book on any display in our store, it ought not be considered an endorsement of the content. We do this primarily to highlight and make accessible a variety of titles, some established, some new, that might be of interest to our customers.

This title is featured on the table you noticed as well as in the Religion section of our store under the sub-category of Christian History/Theology, where customers will find a broad variety of perspectives on Christianity and Christian interests. Some of these uphold and espouse the faith claims of the tradition, and some of these do not. As I’m sure you are aware, the discussion and debate around the tenets of the faith is as robust today as it has been throughout history, and our mission as booksellers is to make all viewpoints available. For that reason, the category in which this book is displayed contains classic works by theologians such as Saint Augustine as well as histories by contemporary, authoritative scholars such as Alistair McGrath. It also features works by less traditional voices such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. Some of these non-traditional authors self-identify as Christian, and some of their critics would (and have) challenged them on this. Others write from the perspective of outsiders looking in. All of these works do, and should, concern students of the faith, which is why they are displayed in this category.

Thank you again for taking the time to offer your feedback, and please don’t hesitate to contact me if there is anything else I can do for you.”

Customers will complain, and I’m happy to hear them out and resolve complaints to their satisfaction. Especially when they are justified. I want to know, for example, when they receive bad service. I want to fix it. But I’m not too happy to hear that we are ignorant or disrespectful in the way we make books available to people who might want to read them. Most of us booksellers have a somehwat profound respect for what we do every day.

I am, however, pleased that my customer confronted me directly, more or less, instead of removing the books from the table, or covering them with a book more to his liking. This is an unfortunately common behavior from customers invested in their political views. These are the customers who will cover a pro-Obama book with a pro-Trump book, or turn a conservative book backwards on the shelf, as if that might silence those voices. That is the true ignorance, and the real offense.

6 thoughts on “My Ignorance and Disrespect of Books Offends

  1. An excellent response indeed. It’s a frighteningly slippery slope when customers in bookstores start wanting to dictate re book content. But it’s reminding me of a somewhat amusing version of this when I worked in an eminent Scottish university library. Some older members of the theology department could not cope with the Dewey decimal system, and argued that all books – since everything could be said to be related to God’s creation – should be kept in the theology section. Both bonkers and ecumenical.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There’s something eminently logical about that suggestion of the university theologians! I bet they got some pushback from the atheists though. I wonder if librarians get the same treatment from their patrons as to whether they are promoting a particular ideology based on what they archive. They probably do.


  2. Your response reads as very thoughtful and respectful. He was probably expecting a generic apology or nothing at all…good that you took the time to explain and hopefully educate. Turning around or covering up books is a funny visual, like plugging one’s ears.

    Liked by 1 person

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