Saturday, June 04, 2005

D+ - Must Try Harder

Via Cliopatra, I find this rather depressing list of the "10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries" by a panel of "conservative scholars and public policy leaders".

Let's see what makes the list shall we:

1) The Communist Manifesto
2) Mein Kampf
3) Quotations from Chairman Mao
4) The Kinsey Report
5) John Dewey - Democracy and Education
6) Das Kapital
7) Betty Friedan - The Feminine Mystique
8) Auguste Comte - The course of Positive Philosophy
9) Nietzsche - Beyond Good and Evil
10) Keynes - General Theory of Employment etc

Oh dear. Judging by this list I can only conclude that the slow agonising death of the public intellectual is not a phenomenon restricted to the political left. It seems to me that many of the choices on the list are not merely petty but distressingly tone-deaf from an historical perspective. And that's before we even get started on the "Honourable Mentions" list (Darwin, depressing but predictable. Ralph Nader??? John Stuart Mill????!!!!!!??).

Ralph Luker notes the absence of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a glaring omission. Additionally noteworthy is the absence of any radical Islamic text.

I would also argue, perhaps controversially, that Mein Kampf is rated too highly at 2. Although a disgusting book and widely printed, the ideas and the movement contained within largely predated the book itself and I am sceptical as to quite how much impact the text itself had on the course of history. It perhaps had more impact outside of Germany than within, where I suspect it was destined, like A Brief History of Time or the Encyclopaedia Britannica, to sit unopened on many shelves for the sake of show (it is, among other things, a relentlessly boring book).

Of course, the truly intellectually curious, especially if also a commited bibliophile, would spend the time poring over great historical events in search of obscure texts that have proved the spark for cataclysmic slaughter. I don't have time for that - the spirit is moderately interested but the flesh and bladder are weak - but pretty much off the top of my head, here is my alternative top 10, in order.

1) The Communist Manifesto
2) The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
3) Sayyid Qutb - Milestones
4) Quotations from Chairman Mao
5) Colmar von der Goltz - The Nation in Arms
6) Das Kapital
7) Mein Kampf
8) Erich Maria Remarque - All Quiet on the Western Front
9) Johann Most - The Science of Revolutionary Warfare
10) Che Guevara - Motorcycle Diaries

Honourable mention - Carl von Clausewitz - On War

OK, it's a pretty crappy list and focuses too much on texts that shaped the inter-war period. Still think it's better than what the people who are paid to come up with this stuff came up with. Feel free to make your own suggestions.


Anonymous Mark said...

So this is what I don't get: if "guns don't kill people, people kill people" then how can books be harmful?

7:17 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

I suppose because books disseminate ideas upon which people may act, whereas guns don't.

It's an interesting question though. I set upon All Quiet because of its impact on inter-war thinking and knock-on effect into WW2 but it is not in and of itself wicked (though it is, incidentally, dishonest) nor was it written with evil intent. I suppose given that it turned my stomach to see Kinsey (who was, admittedly, a crank) and Keynes etc listed alongside Hitler and Mao I shouldn't have listed it, I dunno. Equally, noting Clausewitz or BLH (for similar reasons to Remarque), it all comes down to how people interpreted their work, not to the authors' original intent.

9:39 PM  
Blogger J. said...

I've seen quite a few blogs talking about this list, and since enough's been said about it, don't intend on blogging about it. But I strongly feel that, in general, there are no "harmful" books and it's a shame that some feel driven to create lists of books - like they're some kind of viral diseases that would destroy society. Even Mein Kampf has some redeeming factors, in that if one is interested in studing about the causes of World War II, why not look at the book that Hitler expressed his grand strategy?

Some books may be poor reading or abhorrent to certain readers, but you know what? don't read them. I'm surprised the Anarchist's Cookbook isn't on anyone's lists, but even that book has a purpose - to weed out the stupid and hateful people that are dumb enough to follow those recipes without adequate experience or equipment (call it Darwinian socialogy). So enough about lists - just slap the dumb bastards that were arrogant enough to make a list of books that they'd rather not see in libraries.

4:58 PM  
Blogger john b said...

Not sure Das Kapital deserves to be there - it was a vital text in shaping economics as a science, and has only very tangential relevance to the genocides perpetrated by nominally communist regimes.

What kind of gibbering, frothing mentalist would even suggest JS Mill's life and work was a Bad Thing? I'm not sure I want to live on the same planet as these people...

6:28 AM  
Blogger Anthony said...

John B. - probably a rather highly paid gibbering, frothing mentalist.

Happily, I provide gibbering, frothing mentalism free of charge.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Daniel Nexon said...

You're definitely going to have to do a lot of work to prove that AQOWF had any significant causal impact on the inter-war period.

Another good WTF? response can be found here.

11:56 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

I don't think it had a particularly earthshattering causal effect (and in fact it's pretty tough to find books that did). I picked it as a leftfield choice illustrative of the broad canon of work that stimulated (though was also a product of) the general malaise in the democracies in the inter-war period. It - and the film spawned by it - became a major icon for the disarmament movement.

To be honest I was trying to think outside the box a bit more than the original list. Which even now is so bad it makes blood spurt from my ears just looking at.

4:49 AM  
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