Banned Books Have Now Jumped the Shark

Get those strongly worded emails and letters at the ready, fellow intellectual freedom warriors. It’s time once again to clamor into the pulp trenches and do battle with the forces of “this book makes me uncomfortable so no one should read it” evil. Why is this book being banned by these booksellers? Well, it’s not because it has gay penguins, naughty words, bashes Christianity, or is (my favorite descriptor) “pervasively vulgar”. I’ll let the BitTorrent blog brief us as to this new and urgent freedom of expression crisis. 

On November 20th, Tim will release The 4-Hour Chef. It’s choose-your-own-adventure guide to rapid learning. It’s a cookbook for people who don’t read cookbooks (which means: we’d read it). And, it’s poised to be the most banned book in US history. The 4-Hour Chef is one of the first titles underneath Amazon’s new publishing imprint; boycotted by U.S. booksellers, including Barnes & Noble.

[Bold emphasis mine.]

That’s right. Our new Earth Overlord Amazon is the publisher, so bookstores (including the last of the mighty bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble) aren’t going to carry it in their real life stores. It’s not that you can’t still buy it through these retailers. You can still order the book through the Barnes & Noble store and website as well as possibly through other booksellers, according to Laura Owen. But because it’s not on the physical shelf, that’s what makes this a ‘book banning’.

In one broad stroke, the concept of ‘banned books’ is now applied to any situation where a bookseller won’t carry a title not because it is rude, crude, and/or socially unacceptable in the eyes of some (otherwise considered a matter of content), but because it is made by a competitor. It’s under this kind of topsy-turvy logic that would also conclude that Burger King’s Whopper is banned from McDonald’s even though both businesses make hamburgers. In turn, one could make the argument that a library is ‘banning’ a book because it declines to purchase it or weeds it from the collection. So, anytime a book could be available but it’s not, that’s a book banning.

When called out on it in Laura Owen’s PaidContent article “Hey Tim Ferriss: Book Banning isn’t a Marketing Gimmick”, Ferriss wrote an email response: 

I view things through a different lens. I think the implications of this boycott or ban — choose the word you prefer — are larger then people realize. If this book fails due to a retail stonewall, I can tell you for a fact that more than a dozen A-list authors I know will hit pause on plans for publishing innovation for the next few years. Is The 4-Hour Chef the same as Huckleberry Finn?  Of course not, and I never implied that it was. But do I view stifling innovation and free speech (through distribution of otherwise) as a malevolent thing? Yes. Regardless of the motive (moral, economic, etc.), the outcome is the same: regress instead of progress. And regress snowballs quickly. At the end of the day, I want people to think about boycotting and banning, both historically and moving forward. The fact that you wrote a piece about precisely that — raising awareness and stimulating conversation — is a great thing. That public discourse is one of my goals. Last, I’d be remiss not to point out: booksellers use banned books as a marketing gimmick every year as a matter of course. Yes, I’m using the media to highlight what I view as a serious fork in the road for content creators. But if anyone is guilty of using “banned books” as a gimmick, it’s booksellers themselves.

I can’t imagine how innovative or disruptive this book claims to be if it can be brought down simply by not stocking it on a physical shelf. If these other A-list authors are going to “hit pause” on publishing innovation because they can’t get into brick-and-mortar stores, I’m guessing their innovation isn’t that great after all. If it was anything groundbreaking these days, it shouldn’t be brought down by one of the oldest fundamentals of the book market: shelf space.

Sure, the whole ‘banned ‘books’ angle may be used as a marketing gimmick for bookstores and libraries. But within this usage is a kernel of truth; the books being displayed have been challenged, banned, and in some cases, outlawed. This doesn’t apply here. It’s simply insulting to the memory and legacy of authors and writers in the past who faced persecution and ostracism for their work, the people who are currently sitting in prisons and detention centers around the world for their writing, and those struggling to have their voices heard in their oppressive native country, culture, or society. If a company doesn’t want to sell your book, then cry me a river. The sympathy train doesn’t stop at this station when there are other more pressing intellectual freedom matters in the world.

“Well,” you might think, “don’t librarians do the same thing when it comes to book bans at libraries? Don’t they discount the counterargument that the book is available through other means? How is this different than if An Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is removed from school shelves but still available in local stores?” To that point, I draw this distinction. The Huckleberry Finns, the Harry Potters, and To Kill a Mockingbirds of the world are being challenged on their content. They have words, themes, and ideas that make people uncomfortable to the point that they want to take action and prevent other people from reading the book.

That is a far cry from the situation with The 4-Hour Chef. No one is raising this book at a press conference or school board meeting and declaring it as smut, obscenity, or pornography. There is no one challenging the content of this book. The refusal to carry the book is a business decision based on the book’s publisher. These two concepts are not interchangeable.

This is where the term ‘banned books’ jumps the shark. When an author feels like he has been victimized by industry forces and proclaims that his book has been ‘banned’, then that makes it just a tiny bit harder for people fighting real intellectual freedom battles to bring light and attention to this important issue. We all become book banners and content no longer matters. When the definition expands to every situation, then no circumstance is stands out from the other.

(h/t: LISNews)

4 thoughts on “Banned Books Have Now Jumped the Shark

  1. “Sure, the whole ‘banned ‘books’ angle may be used as a marketing gimmick for bookstores and libraries. But within this usage is a kernel of truth; the books being displayed have been challenged, banned, and in some cases, outlawed.”
    – but this requires a kernel of critical thought, and marketing is not usually so inclined (not their job?). To steal a line from Francisco D’Anconia (q.v.) they see “no difference between the power of the dollar and the power of the whip…” or gun, as the case may be.
    Bad times all round.

  2. I’ve been mulling this and think, rather, that people like Ferriss (aggressive self promoters within a narrow type of sphere) have jumped the shark it what they will do to say “listen to me, buy my book, have me at your organization for a speech, follow all my wisdom.”

    • I can see your point and might find myself drifting towards your way of thinking on this one. The email he sent to the article felt rather superficial; “well, if bookstores are doing it, then I can do it as a marketing gimmick”. It doesn’t seem like there was much more thought to it and the depth and history of banned and challenged books.

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