Monday, August 27, 2007
Ethicist to Bookseller
I work for a large bookstore and often process mail orders from prison inmates. Most are in for assault or burglary — I sometimes research them online — and reading might in some way better them.
But I fight the feeling that sex offenders, particularly those who harm children, should rot in a cell with nothing but the walls to occupy them. May I decline to handle their orders, or must I treat all my prisoners the same? — L.T., Ohio
Your let-’em-rot theory of penology notwithstanding, these people are not your prisoners; they are your customers. And yes, you should treat all your customers the same — that is, fill their orders.
Every merchant — pharmacist, greengrocer or milliner — should do likewise, but a bookstore clerk, dealing in the exchange of ideas, has an even greater obligation. You are not a librarian, bound by a librarian’s code of ethics, but you should be guided by it. Your duty is to provide books to anyone who walks (or writes) in to the store, not to determine a person’s worthiness to read (or have a prescription filled or buy lettuce or wear a fetching hat).
What’s more, if buying a book required people to “better” themselves, hardly anybody would read anything. Were your criterion universally adopted, the real losers would be John Grisham, Stephen King, Danielle Steel — bettering to no one, beloved by millions, bewildering to me.
Your sympathy for the incarcerated does you credit, even if it is strained by those who’ve committed particularly heinous acts. There is small virtue in giving people only what they deserve. As Hamlet has it: “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.”
Send your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a daytime phone number.