I spent the weekend with my partner’s parents at the Jersey Shore, and rather than jam ourselves into a shopping mall on Black Friday, we drove down to Cape May, known as the nation’s oldest seaside resort. Although the weather was numbingly cold, we braved the city’s historic outdoor pedestrian mall to poke around in the small shops.
While Shawn and his mom browsed through several galleries, looking at art for her recently renovated kitchen, I went to the Atlantic Book Shop, a small, two-level bookstore. Holiday shoppers packed the downstairs, so I went up the steps, predictably in search of the religion section. As I’ve written before, the religion shelves in a local bookstore can provide an interesting perspective on a place.
Upstairs, two of the tall shelves were labeled “RELIGION,” and a variety of Bibles entirely filled one of the cases. In the center of the other case, with its cover facing visitors rather than its spine, sat journalist Christopher Hitchens’ controversial book, god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As I walked up, a woman was calling for a manager in a loud voice, apparently appalled that this book would be so prominently displayed, right in the middle of the bookcase containing the religion section.
Nothing much came of her protest, but while she waited, I browsed through the rest of the books. It was only after a few minutes that I realized the store’s five books on Buddhism, including an attractively bound 50-page abbreviated version of the Dhammapada, were on the other side of the second floor under the mythology section.
So what does all of this mean? Well, to begin with, I can’t and won’t fault the store manager for his or her placement of various titles, except to say that I wonder what amount of thought went into placing the Hitchens’ book smack-dab in the middle of the religion shelf. Given that Cape May’s off-season population hovers somewhere near 4,000, are the year-rounders actually reading the so-called New Atheists like Hitchens, Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion)? Or was the bookseller simply using the shelves to somehow drive small-town public debate?
I’m not sure what to make of it, though I am just wrapping up the Shambhala Sun’s cover story, Mind, Matter, or God? which tries to find where Buddhists and other spiritually contemplatives fit in to the argument between fundamentalists and the neo-atheists.