Dangerous Reading

Stefanie at So Many Books posted about Human Events‘ recent listing of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. In case you don’t know (I didn’t) Human Events is an American conservative “news” magazine that proudly proclaims itself to be “free from liberal bias.” Unfortunately, judging by it’s top ten list, and the (dis?)honorable mentions, it is not free from conservative bias. All the usual red-state nemeses made this black list: communism, sexuality, feminism, science (especially evolution), atheism, secular humanism, “big” government, and—most disturbing for me— environmentalism (I love nature even more than books).

The top ten are:

  • The Communist Manifesto
  • Mein Kampf
  • Quotations from Chairman Mao
  • Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (“The Kinsey Report”)
  • Democracy and Education
  • Das Kapital
  • The Feminine Mystique
  • Introduction to Positive Philosophy
  • Beyond Good and Evil
  • The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money

Among the honorable mentions were:

  • The Population Bomb
  • Origin of the Species
  • Silent Spring
  • The Limits to Growth
  • Descent of Man

This list is actually a good reading list for the study of the most important reform movements (both good and bad) in recent history. It’s a bit weak on human (civil) rights movements, but that is easily rectified with a little Gandhi and MLK Jr., and perhaps Harriet Beecher Stowe.

To their credit they actually include links to amazon, should anyone be masochistic enough to read on of these books (which is inevitable whenever books are banned or protested). I do wonder how many of these books the panel actually read—so many of them could land on such a list by reputation alone. I’m ashamed to say I’ve only read one of them (The Feminine Mystique—quite tame by the time I read it) but I would like to rectify that.

Why read a book like Mein Kampf that led to such horrors? Precisely because it led to such horrors. These books, for good or for ill, have had a profound influence on our world (especially from an American and North American viewpoint) and shaped the world we live in today. Whether these books were instigators, or merely popularized the leading edge of social movements, they can teach us about where we came from, and how to (or how not to) get to where we want to go.

What books will shape our future? At a time when literacy is at an all-time high and growing, do books have the influence they once had? The incredible growth of publishing means that any book’s impact is diluted by the million or so other books published that year (not to mention the other mass media). Moreover, is there any major revolution yet to be explored? We’ve at least attempted to rectify sexism, racism, economic injustice, environmental destruction, religious oppression, state oppression, sexual repression, and even psychological trauma. Are there any revolutions yet to happen? Or will we have to recycle the old ones as the reactionary backlash represented by this list gains ascendancy? If so, I hope we won’t make the same mistakes some of our revolutionary forebears did.


UPDATE: I (and the panelists) forgot to mention the animal rights / vegetarian revolution. I would add Animal Liberation and Diet for a Small Planet to the list.

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8 comments on “Dangerous Reading

  1. Susan says:

    Interesting factoid:
    My dad moved into an assisted living center in Georgetown last fall. His neighbor across the hall …. Betty Friedan! At first I was hoping some feminism would rub off on him by osmosis, but if having 3 strong intelligent feminist daughters hadn't done that, he's a lost cause. When I was there I missed her book club discussion – but they weren't reading Feminine Mystique anyway.
    Silent Spring is an amazing book as well.
    Thanks for the post

  2. Sylvia says:

    Wow, that is too cool. Your poor dad just can't get away from uppity women! If you see her, tell her I said “Thanks!” 😉

  3. Susan says:

    Last time I was there (in January) I had lunch with Dad in the dining room. It wasn't until we got up to leave that I realized Betty was sitting at the table behind me looking at my back the whole time!
    That's the closest I've gotten. She seemd somewhat with it and somewhat out of it. Kind of like my dad 🙂

  4. Stefanie says:

    Nicely written post Sylvia. Thanks for mentioning animal rights/vegetarianism (I'm vegan). It sounds a little cliche but I'd say that peace has an opportunity to become a radical revolution. I think all of our other incomplete revolutions have a lot more progress to make yet too (as evidenced by “the list”) but we can keep reading “dangerous books” and making a difference.
    And Susan, that is SO cool that about Betty Friedan.

  5. Dan Trabue says:

    In some of my conversations with more conservative types (people who don't know me but have written me because of some of my essays) always assume I'm a big fan of Marx and other leftist writers and, to some degree, now I am. But I always like to amaze them by telling them that I was a conservative young fella who reached my “leftist” views nearly exclusively because of what I read in the Bible.
    So maybe they need to add the Bible to their dangerous list. They probably would if they'd ever actually read it instead of worshipping it.

  6. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, Stefanie, and you bring up a good point. If we were compiling a list of important movements I might also add the self-help/alternative health/spirituality movement, which we're obviously still in the middle of. Probably something by Deepak Chopra would have to make the list (whether one likes him or not).
    Dan, I've been told that in the past Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible because it can be so easily misinterpreted (at least that was the ostensible reason) and I think “they” had a bit a point. Without proper guidance (and a good translation) I think it might be easy to insert one's own interpretations or just give up and rely on someone else's interpretations. Here's hoping modern independent scholarship can get us out of this mess. Of course we can't even convince some of these people about evolution, so I don't know how we'll do with as slippery a creature as this large and ancient text we call the Bible…

  7. Jodie says:

    As revolutions in the past have been carried out by 'minorities' who were thought to be too weak to do anything of note let alone fight against their oppression I'd like to say there will be a revolution against ageism as well as one against the social stigma associated with mental illness. However I'm not sure if these groups could create strong enough groups to fight their oppression and they might have to rely on a minority of strong spokes people and outsiders. I'm not sure though, I mean fifty years ago it would have been hard to persuade any one that some women would be physically strong enough to lift cars or mentally strong enough to compete in business, maybe these are other cases where forsight or prophecy fails.
    Of course the revolution of those in public sectors is already being begun but I think that's an important step to guarenteeing equal pay and respet for veryone in the world no matter what they do.

  8. Sylvia says:

    A lot of these movements boil down to respect and egalitarianism, regardless of what group (or even species) one falls into. Today I read: “Have the same attitude toward all. Put away ambitious thoughts and associate with those who are lowly.” (Rom 12:16)

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