There are no guardrails in good bookstores, no trigger warnings.
Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Jamie Kalven is founder of the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism organization on the South Side. He received the 2022 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence from Harvard University.

Freedom of speech is forever embattled. That is its nature. Easy to assent to in the abstract, the principle becomes more challenging when the speech at issue assails one’s most cherished values. Polls over the years have consistently reflected this dynamic. “Of course I support freedom of speech,” respondents say, “but not for that sort of speech.”

The current state of turmoil over this freedom, however, feels different. I know of no other period, certainly not in my lifetime, when public discourse about freedom of speech has been so contentious and confounding.

The impulse to censor is resurgent across the political spectrum. On the right, anxieties about what others are reading are fueling campaigns to purge books from library shelves and from school curricula. On the left, the practice has taken hold of policing the words of others in search of evidence that the speaker is irredeemably racist, sexist or homophobic.

For the plutocrats who own most of the internet’s real estate, free speech is a business model that favors extreme language without regard to consequence. And the major contributions of the current U.S. Supreme Court to free speech jurisprudence are its rulings that corporations are individual speakers and that money is speech.

The upshot of these tendencies is a topsy-turvy world in which hate groups march under the banner of freedom of speech, while traditional supporters of free speech values, especially the progressive young, are at best agnostic and, in some instances, dismiss the First Amendment as a tool of the powerful. Most concerning, pervasive self-censorship has taken hold: Many choose not to speak their minds for fear of saying the wrong thing.

Caught in these cultural crosscurrents, a wide range of institutions — among them, journalism outlets, publishing houses and citadels of higher education — have proved unreliable stewards of free speech values. When challenged, they have in a number of instances made questionable concessions to censorship.

One familiar institution, easily taken for granted, stands out as a singular site of intellectual and artistic freedom: a well-stocked independent bookstore.

In our age of digital distractions — a hall of mirrors composed of screens — bookstores can seem like a vestige, inspiring nostalgia perhaps but not the conviction that they are essential to our future well-being. After all, in the age of Amazon, there are more efficient ways to get a particular book than going to a bookstore.

What then is a bookstore beyond being a place to get books? If you make yourself available to the experience, it is a magical space, deeply restorative and grounding, a site of resistance against what has been called the attention economy.

Browsing in a well-curated bookstore is a qualitatively different experience from being drawn down rabbit holes on the internet. You wander amid boundless possibilities. The shelves contain books written just for you, books that are portals to take you deeper into the world, books with the power to change your life. The knowledge that they are there deepens the quality of your attention.

There are no guardrails in a good bookstore, no trigger warnings. Just as there are titles within reach that would enrich your life, there are others that would appall you. A bookstore is, in that sense, a violent place. To conceive of the books on its shelves as engaged in civilized conversation with one another is half truth, half delusion. War, not conversation, is the mode of interaction between many books. Yet the place that houses these contending visions and impassioned quarrels represents the possibilities of understanding and conciliation. It encompasses our divisions and holds the promise that we may yet recover the democratic knack for arguing constructively with one another.

It is telling in this holiday season that a well-chosen book — the physical object, not the electronic version — remains for many a favored form of gift giving, a way of expressing something about yourself as well as the recipient.

Yet the reality is that bookstores, even the best of them, survive at the edge of extinction. If they are to flourish, we must find ways to value and support them not only as retail establishments but as refuges where it is possible in a censorious time to breathe the air of freedom.