Kearneysville, WV. Question: what do these two books have in common? A Garfield the Cat book and My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands. Or what about these: A book on Mother Teresa’s spirituality and Holy S**T: The World’s Weirdest Comics featuring, on the cover, “Tales from the Leather Nun,” complete with a bare-breasted woman. Answer: these books are paired alongside each other at my local Borders. Presumably, the Garfield was intended to attract the kids whose parents, perhaps, could then browse the confessions of a randy woman while they waited on their tots. I’m less sure about the intention behind the second pair. Part of me hopes that these incongruities are the work of an employee who is silently, but symbolically, rebelling against perceived social norms. Unfortunately, in all likelihood, no such person is at work, and these juxtapositions are completely random acts of carelessness. I find this second possibility to be far more disturbing.

If this act was intentional, that would indicate a sense, or at least an awareness, of propriety and a desire to offend. Rebellion requires a set of norms that are pushed against. Or to put matters in religious terms, heresy requires orthodoxy. And if there is an orthodoxy, there is hope, for there is a stable set of beliefs and commitments by which a community lives, and against which some rebel. An orthodoxy can change, but even in the change, there is continuity, and that continuity provides structure, stability, and a communal sense of propriety.

On the other hand, if, as I suspect, those books were placed together on the displays for no reason other than chance, we have good reason for concern. In such a case, the sense of propriety (against which one might rebel) has been replaced by apathy. Or perhaps not apathy so much as a lost ability to make distinctions. When we lose the ability to distinguish between the silly and the serious, between the public and the private, between the sacred and the profane, we have lost the ability to live as civilized human beings.

These books at Borders can, I think, stand as a symbol of our cultural astigmatism. And as odd as it may seem, I think we can learn something about our current economic troubles, for at root our problems are not economic at all. Instead, they are complex issues tied invariably to a culture that does not recognize the impropriety of placing a book on Mother Teresa’s spirituality beside one depicting the bare breasts of a cartoon vixen.

Such a world is one where limits have collapsed. In our headlong rush to embrace the fruits of our individual freedom, we have forgotten that freedom without propriety leads to irreverence, irresponsibility, and ultimately, disintegration. The economic turmoil our leaders are laboring so mightily to stave off is the product, not of anonymous market forces, but of our failure to respect limits.

A sense of propriety provides limits for individual and corporate action. Limits create stability; they give form and meaning to society, like a skeleton gives form to the body. When a broad consensus on what constitutes propriety is lost, the sense of limits collapses. Form is reduced merely to a massive lump where distinctions are lost; where sacred means nothing and therefore nothing is profane; where all things are made public and privacy loses its meaning; where the silly and the serious mingle and no one knows whether to laugh or to mourn.

We have been told that we can be rescued from our financial woes by a massive infusion of money. We have been told that all means must be employed to protect our way of life. But why are we not being asked to take a hard look at our way of life? Perhaps it is precisely this way of life that has brought us to such dire straits. When Americans fail to see the impropriety of running up record levels of consumer debt, we should not be shocked that our public officials do not hesitate to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to shore up our way of life even at the expense of our children and grandchildren. Surely we have lost a sense of propriety when we are willing to secure our comfort at the expense of future generations. The solution to our troubled times is not, primarily, a government-sponsored bailout. That is the easy way that asks nothing of us save the tacit permission to write more checks against the wealth of future generations. The real solution is a restoration of a sense of limits—of responsibility born of propriety. If we choose this harder but better way, our grandchildren will thank us for it. If we don’t, they will, as they should, rue our lack of restraint as they chafe under the burden of our irresponsibility.

This essay was orignially published in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity (April 2009).

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  1. Complaints to the manager would not, I suspect, accomplish anything, since the manager doesn’t manage. Rather, I suspect that the placement is dictated by a marketing genius somewhere at Border’s headquarters. Books are no longer sold by people who love the printed word, and the manager no more than a functionary, a mere cipher in a grand corporate scheme.

  2. Borders and B & N are both pretty disgusting, though I confess I still find myself patronizing them from time to time myself.

    Surveying the rubbish typically offered therein, I inevitably wind up questioning whether widespread literacy is such a great educational achievement after all. I figure a healthy oral tradition would be vastly preferable to the brain-candy most gobble up.

  3. “Question: what do these two books have in common? A Garfield the Cat book and My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands. Or what about these: A book on Mother Teresa’s spirituality and Holy S**T: The World’s Weirdest Comics featuring, on the cover, “Tales from the Leather Nun,” complete with a bare-breasted woman. Answer: these books are paired alongside each other at my local Borders.”

    Were they all new releases? Were they all on the discount rack?

    As I glance at my bookshelf I see, right beside the Gospels, Freud’s “Totem and Taboo.” A shameless act of impropriety? The cause of our financial crisis?

  4. Dan,

    If for no other reason, Fraud — er, I mean Freud — does at least have relevance to intellectual history.

    If the book you had next to the Gospels were an anthology containing “Tales From the Leather Nun”, or a confessional entitled “My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands” then — why, yes, I think it *would* signify something about you.

  5. There is a term of art for it and it is best rendered in that sing-songy way of the valley girl:


    Anyone attempting to draw comparisons between things these days should come to their senses and embrace the new age wherein anything goes and the more in-flagrante it is, the better because everything is now just a data point, here today, gone tomorrow and if we think about something too much, we’ll miss the rest of the cascade tumbling by in the ongoing flood of gran mal idiocy. Twitter suits this mindset to a tee. It is not so much what is said as it is just good enough to be said.

    It can and will always get worse. The eldest progeny is over in Japan on the latest documentary and it seems they’ve stumbled upon one of the current big mass cultural phenoms of that highly ritualized society. Knowing my flammability, they sent me a new book entitled “”Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno” for my birthday. Seems the Japanese youth and their adult followers have a manic fixation on costumes and make-up where the young girls adopt the seductive fashions of the Lolita and add to that, a kind of Minstrel Show make-up of light brown face paint, whitened eyes and graphic decals. My own particularly favorite is the Gothlolita. Apparently, they are pondering whether this might not be a fine cultural export. An awful lot of water has flown under the bridge when raked sand and rigid rules of rock placement have been subsumed by face decals and pubescent eros in minstrel face.

  6. Mark,

    I know most have commented on the book placement but it seems that you are really talking about a society that does not have a basis in anything. Your statement that there must be an orthodoxy for there to be rebellion seemed to imply to me that we have are a society adrift. If this is your point and that without the orthodoxy we have nothing to be responsible for (nothing to be accountable to) it seems that move in that direction would have to happen in more than this generation.

    As one takes a step of a steep slope the first step is easy but when you are at the bottom the climb back up is not. When generations have been moving in the direction of personal freedom and not of society well being how do you stop it? A man standing on a train track may stop the train but who is going to be the first to do that? The climb back to a responsible society based on societial wellbeing is similar to the climb up the slope. easy to get rid of but very very difficult to go back to.

  7. I once worked at an independent bookstore that was put out of business by major chains getting TIF subsidies. I spent many hours properly putting books back into order on our shelves. I cannot speak about this particular Borders store, but it was quite common for our patrons to reshelve books wherever they might find themselves. I pulled a number of books originally from out erotic section out of the shelves of our childrens section. My manager, who was an agnostic, kept trying to convince the owner to put the “Left Behind” series in the occult section of the store. That did not happen, but we got a good laugh out of it.

  8. When I was a young man, I most certainly would have juxtaposed those books as an act of rebellion. Rebellion mostly against having to stack books on shelves at the behest of someone who would manage at Borders. I love the childish impulse to undermine authority and passive-aggressively challenge social norms. I think it keeps us sane and can help preserve our humanity in a dehumanizing time. I’ve moved on to the various ruts of middle-age, but I smile inside when I see some kid subverting the dominant paradigm (or whatever they call it these days).

    But yeah, society unraveling, dogs and cats sleeping together, blah, blah…

  9. As the geniuses at the magazine “The Baffler” so brilliantly put it, we have no social orthodoxies (of the traditional, conservative Christian variety, in any case) left and therefore, Grand Inquisitor style, corporations now have to produce them. Since, that is, there are no old foagies on the porch complaining about young whipper snappers, Mountain Dew produces them in the commercial so that the cliff-diving consumers of extreme beverages will have someone, or at least the simulacra of someone, against which to rebel.

    It is refreshing to encounter the empty “counter-cultural” blather of Brint, for it reminds us that there are still people in existence who do not realize their “dissent” was comodified by market researchers long before they had achieved sentience.

    School Psychologists and other disreputable persons speak of small children being “narcissists,” that is, they think they are everything and everything else is nothing. That seems unlikely. Small children, following the intuitions of the order of perception, simply see the everything around themselves and assume they are a seamless part of it. Their tantrums are not symptoms of self-possession but the slow awakening to their condition of being less than fully possessed by, and harmoniously one with, the world.

    It is not childish, therefore, to establish that rigid, persistently modern liberal, dicotomy between the self and the world, the “collective,” the “state,” etc. It is, however, the psychosis of a malformed imagination.

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