Sunday evening I did a bookstore event for When God Is Gone at the Hingham Public Library, sponsored by Buttonwood Books of Cohasset, Massachusetts, one of those wonderful independent bookstores holding out by the skin of their teeth against mass marketers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. The folks at Buttonwood and Hingham Library have been faithful supporters of my work in the past, and the auditorium was full of familiar faces, people who have been to my talks/readings before, mostly folks of a certain age who grew up with books and still appreciate the feel of real paper in their hands.
It was -- for me at least -- a warm and fuzzy occasion. I was sharing a book that challenged deeply held beliefs of some in the audience, but the spirit of the occasion was amiable and gracious, much like the tenor of discussions in Comments here. Christians, Jews, UUs, atheists, agnostics -- wanderers and pilgrims all -- we shared a sincere search for truth and respect for differences. This against a background of horrific news from India and Nigeria of sectarian slaughter.
What makes a civilization gracious and tolerant? Well, lots of things certainly, but independent neighborhood bookshops are certainly near the top of the list, places where books are honored as something other than commodities or propaganda. When I was last home in Chattanooga for my mother's funeral, I was struck by the number of "Christian bookstores." I would no more want to visit a "Christian bookstore" than an "agnostic bookstore" or an "atheist bookstore" or a "religious naturalist bookstore." Give me a place like Buttonwood where a diversity of ideas jostle on the shelves for our attention.
If you have read When God Is Gone, you will know the extent to which books played a role in my own intellectual formation, especially books that challenged me to press beyond whatever place I currently found myself. When I was a student at the University of Notre Dame in the 1950s, library circulation was restricted by the Index of Prohibited Books, which included many of the great writers of Western literature, including Rousseau, Voltaire, Zola, Flaubert, Hugo, Sterne, Gibbon, Goldsmith, Mill, Montesquieu, Bacon, Comte, Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, Stendhal, Balzac, and Dumas. Those days are long gone, gratefully, and students at Catholic universities and colleges today have free access to all books of merit. It is no small thing that Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame published When God Is Gone.
A blessing on books, all books -- and a blessing on adventuresome publishers and independent bookstores! Thank you, Ave Maria. Thank you, Buttonwood.
(Thursday evening I will be at another independent bookstore event in Wellesley, MA. Details at their website.)