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Embiggen Books Bookshop

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

June 29, 2010

Warren Bonett is the proprietor of the Embiggen Books Bookshop in Noosaville, Queensland, in northeast Australia. The bookshop, devoted to promoting rationalism and science, features videoed lectures by the likes of Andrew Doherty (The Quantum Frontier), Martin Bridgstock (Beyond Belief), Russell Blackford and Robyn Williams (ABC Radio National). Embiggen Books was the official bookseller for the Australian Skeptics Convention in 2009. Bonett is featured monthly on the Token Skeptic podcast, and the store not only delivers to customers but features an interactive review section for feedback.

Firstly, what did you do before you started a bookshop?

An immense variety of stuff! I’m a graphic designer; that’s something I’ve been doing for quite a long time. But over the years since leaving university, I’ve been a salesman of a variety of things, book designer, cook, waiter, barman, teacher, legal clerk, veterinary assistant, and I even spent a year and a half riding my pushbike around Australia!

Wonderful! So what led to the creation of the Embiggen Bookshop, which is a reference to the TV show The Simpsons, isn’t it?

It is indeed! The joke being that “the noble spirit embiggens even the smallest man!” Which was a show which explored the nature of language and how urban myths develop, and [it] featured Lisa Simpson wanting to get to the truth. That episode wasn’t really what made the word come to mind for us though; the term “embiggen” [was] also featured in a string theory paper. The author wrote “the D-brain embiggens into an E-brain…” and the peer-reviewer wrote in response that he thought “it was a perfectly cromulent idea,” which is, of course, another Simpsons reference!

The thing that led to the creation of the bookshop? It’s really been a very long, long time in coming. At university I studied a variety of different philosophers and ethicists, and it started to dawn on me that I would like to do something that was positive, in contribution to a variety of problems that the world seems to have (or at least, that humanity seems to engage with).

I wasn’t really sure how to go about doing that, and it actually led me to having such a large variety of jobs, believe it or not. I was quite interested in not just being an academic, in wanting to go out there and seeing what people thought and how they felt about things. After leaving my Environmental Ethics course, I found people in my first job (which was working in a Victorian Government department on corporate affairs in Victoria), [for someone] who had never heard of the ozone layer! This was just around the time that the hole in the ozone layer had just been announced, and it was all over the news. And yet, I was meeting people who knew nothing of it. About then I realized that the problem was going to be a lot bigger than I thought.

So, I realized that it wasn’t as simple as just dealing with specific problems. It clearly involved dealing with what I wouldn’t call ignorance, but [was] more of a lack of engagement in things to do with democracy, for interest. People are voting on issues on which they are ill-educated, which to me, undermines democracy. In my opinion, you need an educated populace, and if you don’t have it, then the votes are somewhat compromised. So, we’re having people who have the right to vote, who are voting on things like the ozone layer and yet not knowing what it even was.

So, many, many years later, after lots of different ways of trying to look at the problem, I thought that a bookshop—which didn’t require people to join an organization or be forced into an “ism” or an “ist” or anything like that—if a store stopped offering irrational material and instead only featured pro-rational material, then anyone could engage with the material and learn. They’d simply walk into a bookshop and they’d find three thousand science books as soon as they [came] through the door.

That’s really been the goal—to make something that hopefully will work as a business model, and it’s slowly getting there. And if it does work, we can set up these little bastions around the cities of bookshops—where we’d conduct science talks and philosophy talks as a matter of course, which is what we do.

What’s it like in the town where the bookshop is?

It’s a bit of a mixture; there’s a small community of people who are very actively engaged in intellectual life, and there’s a cross-over between them and the more spiritual/New Age kind, who meet up on occasion with the Environmentalists. I would classify myself as an environmentalist; I was trained in Environmental Ethics and Outdoor Education initially. A lot of that area is caught up in a lot of misinformation about the world and how “nature is good, nature is wonderful, nature will provide and is the best,” which apparently leads to “natural products are good.” So, you get some anti-science people among the Environmentalists, sometimes.

On the “woo” side, there are practitioners of Gerson Therapy, which is a spectacularly debunked range of therapies for cancers; there are coffee enemas; courses being advertised in quantum consciousness. There’s even psychic hairdressers! I don’t know what they do… at one point during the economic crisis they did have a sign in their window either saying “free psychic reading with every haircut” or vice-versa. Quite amusing!

There are “aura-combers” and Reiki-masters—we occasionally have them coming into the bookshop from time to time. There are also people who say that they are led to my shop by their “intuitive spirit guides,” which makes me wonder just how good their intuitive guides are if they want to go to a science bookshop so much…. Now and then we get people who are into Feng Shui and they say “Love the space! It’s just got such great energy in here! Did you work out all the alignments?” to which I say “No… I’m just a designer; I designed it—that’s it.” It’s a difficult line to tread, because I don’t want to just send them packing; I want to try to engage with material that they might not otherwise engage with. There’s not a lot of material that can engage people who are hostile with thought.

I’ve recently read on Facebook how an uncle was criticized for giving Daniel Loxton’s evolution book to his nieces. Do you have any advice on how to handle situations like that, when people know that there’s going to be opposition when promoting a book, or discover[ing] it inadvertently?

This is something I have come across from time to time, and there’s no one simple book or guide to give to people that will handle all the situations. Everyone has their own kind of tentativeness about it. I’d suggest starting with things that are more “off-topic”—stay general. Stay with things that are to do with critical thinking, start with the basics. Don’t just start with subjects such as evolution, as that can open up a lot of other things at the same time, and that will prevent any critical engagement with the subject at all. I would tend to start with just thought, just thinking—Phillip Cam’s books, for example, or Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki’s. And those at the skeptics conference would also remember Peter Macinnis, who has written some great books for piquing people’s interest in the world around us.

If for adults, perhaps things like Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders by Jamie Whyte, or Demon-Haunted World by [Carl] Sagan, which is of course a classic. Or perhaps something like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which merely celebrates the amazing history of science and learning about everything.

Avoid books that might be misinterpreted as “attacking” any particular issue, other than the way people think about things. I think that’s the best place to start on any of those sorts of things. If the adult … [is coming] into the store themselves and they are indicating that perhaps they are open to something a little bit more, then you could perhaps be more direct.

For example, we were holding a Charles Darwin Day, and some women came into my shop. One of them said “Oh, what are you doing that for, wasn’t he one of the most evil men in history?” These were university-educated, forty-something women, who weren’t particularly religious. They simply had this misconception. So, I handed them both a biography of Charles Darwin, which they devoured in twenty-four hours and now they run the local non-fiction book-club meet up for women and have recently bought Hitchens’s God Is Not Great and a variety of others! They’re amazing—they just devour all the books!

What are some of the best books for skepticism you recommend?

There are so many! My number one, of course, is Demon-Haunted World, as I mentioned. Dr Martin Bridgstock’s Beyond Belief would have to be up there too; it really engages with the material in a different way [than] Sagan’s book, and it’s also a nice companion piece. I think the two work together quite well. Julian Baggini’s work—he’s terrific. I really like him and he has a great voice, very contained, and it’s not given to hyperbole. He really tries to keep things mellow and engages with some quite tricky material—such as [in] Do You Think What You Think You Think and The Philosopher’s Toolkit, and they’re great for anyone who wants to find out more about skepticism.

There’s a variety of others, but a lot of the philosophers like A.C. Grayling I would also recommend; although his work isn’t directly related to skepticism, he tends to deal with things like secular humanism and ethics, problems of ethical considerations and moral considerations. He also engages in really modern material, so he’s done work on collateral damage during the war. Some of these things, like truth claims, aren’t often dealt with by skeptics, primarily I think because they’re really messy! Using A.C. Grayling’s works when starting to think deeply about ethical issues is my personal recommendation.

Embiggen Bookshop can be found at www.embiggenbooks.com

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.