Books don't harm people! Readers harm people!
"So this is the little lady who started this big war."

-- Abraham Lincoln, on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In similar vein, Human Events has listed what it considers the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries."

1. The Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels)

2. Mein Kampf (Hitler)

3. Quotations from Chairman Mao (Mao)

4. The Kinsey Report (Kinsey)

5. Democracy and Education (Dewey)

6. Das Kapital (Marx)

7. The Feminine Mystique (Friedan)

8. The Course of Positive Philosophy (Comte)

9. Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche)

10. General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (Keynes)

This link comes via Gays for Life, which complains that Mein Kampf doesn't deserve such a high ranking. (I agree.)

Right away, I'm failing to see how any of these texts have harmed me. Hell I even have some of 'em -- staring at me from the shelves.

I'm sure many people of an anti-religious bent would immediately complain that the Koran and the Bible are conspicuously missing, of course. (I own both of those, and they've never done a damned thing to me either.)

But the anti-religious folks would also be missing the point.

Which is that books don't harm people, any more than guns harm people. A book is simply a collection of written assertions, which may be true or false, helpful or not helpful, to this person or that person.

How many people were killed by the Koran? Or the Communist Manifesto? How many red-blooded Americans were transformed into limp-wristed homosexuals by the Kinsey Report? According to the logic of some people, these books are more alive than guns, fostering bad ideas in the heads of impressionable people who shouldn't be reading them. Well, maybe some people shouldn't read the Communist Manifesto (or Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring) because they're not smart enough to understand them. But is it for me to decide who?

No; apparently that's the job of Human Events!

While they haven't issued a call for censorship (and I doubt they will), it's the logic with which I have a problem. The old saying, "no woman was ever ruined by a book," I think applies here.

Protecting the stupid from stupid ideas is a stupid idea.

What makes Human Events think the stupid will listen?

The problem isn't the books; the problem is the people who read them, for there will always be bad ideas finding their way into print. We're stick with the First Amendment, but show me where it says people have any right to know how to read!

Obviously, the solution lies in a crackdown on reading!

MORE: Why didn't Freud and Darwin make the top ten, anyway? (They're only runners up.) Think of the incalculable harm they've done!

MORE: This discussion also raises the issue of reading critically, as opposed to uncritically being led -- or for that matter, reading at all. When I attended a lecture by Charles Murray (author of The Bell Curve), it became readily apparent that the people who showed up to demonstrate against him had not read the book. Yet there they were, battling it in the most fanatic manner imaginable.

How many Nazis had read what they were burning?

This works both ways; I've known numerous "Marxists" who never read Das Kapital, and I suspect that not all Nazis have read (or could read) Mein Kampf. If people are "misled" by ideas they have not read, isn't it a stretch to maintain that the books did the harm?

posted by Eric on 06.09.05 at 12:47 AM


I have to disagree with you here. Books are dangerous. That's why I read them.

"Every idea is an incitement."
-Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a bad argument for something I'm for (e.g., homosexual marriage) or against something I'm against (e.g., censorship). And the argument that books should not be censored because books are ineffective, impotent, and trivial is one such argument.

Same with the argument against gun control. "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" is true as far as it goes, but that's not why James Madison wrote the Second Amendment, and that's why it's the Second Amendment and not further down. A gun is a deadly weapon. That's why people own guns. That's why we don't want any government to have a monopoly on such weapons. We've seen what governments have done when they have such a monopoly (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.). "....the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed...." Not "....the right of the people to keep and bear toothbrushes [or what have you] shall not be infringed...."

Similarly, books, and the ideas contained therein, are equally deadly weapons. Granted that Hitler came to power more through his oratory and mass rallies than through Mein Kampf ("Mein Krapp"). Would you then ban freedom of speech and assembly but leave printing free? Nonsense!

Religion, too. Religion, one's view of man's origin, meaning, and destiny, of ultimate values, is the most powerful type of idea, the most powerful force in history, both for good and for evil.

I get tired of people saying "it's only a symbol", "only words", "only ink on paper [or pixels on a screen]". Man (I include woman) can never be a "mere animal", we either rise above or sink below the rest of creation. We humans live by symbols, words, numbers, images. We swim in them as a fish does in water. Try living for a day, for an hour, for a minute, without thinking in some sort of words or images. Even when asleep, we dream, and dreams, it has been long noted, have profound symbolic meanings. That is what distinguishes us from other creatures, for better or for worse. "In the beginning was the Word...."

Therefore, as with guns, our Founding Fathers did not want any government to have a monopoly on control and dissemination of such powerful weapons. Again, we've seen what governments have done with such a monopoly (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.) That's why Madison wrote the First Amendment, and that's why it's the First Amendment.

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."
-John Milton, Aeropagitica [emphasis mine]

I see your point, but it's still a metaphorical argument, because a book is as inanimate as a gun. Some (by no means all) books contain ideas which can be considered dangerous, but only when they are put into practice. Communism and Nazism would never have hurt anyone if people hadn't agreed with the ideas.

(Also, if books are adjudged dangerous, that invites these collective judgments as to which.)

Eric Scheie   ·  June 9, 2005 11:03 AM

Of course, there's always that expression, "THROW THE BOOK AT HIM!"

Maybe you're right after all, Steven!


BTW, my father thought comic books were dangerous, and my teachers thought Cliff Notes were dangerous for similar reasons. (They were believed to "cause" intellectual laziness.)

Eric Scheie   ·  June 9, 2005 11:04 AM

Assuming they meant "books that inspired the most harmful acts", I think Human Events themselves forgot the title of their list when making their list.

However much carnage Chairman Mao may have inspired, however much his 'Sayings...' may have encapulated the things in his head when he committed that carnage (I don't know, I own it, but haven't read it yet), I don't think the book itself inspired much of anything--who read it and went on a killing spree?

The Feminine Mystique and a few others here may be offensive and boring (or not), but what harm have they really inspired? (Giving trite phrases to screeching co-eds doesn't count--we're talking the most harmful books in a 200 year history here--which explains why the Koran and Bible aren't included.)

This should have been called "A List of Books Human Events Doesn't Like."

byrd   ·  June 9, 2005 11:44 AM

The one book (its ideas, the wide dissemination of those ideas in the form of a book, the influence of those ideas on the minds of millions of people) that is most responsible for the Holocaust, far more than Mein Kampf, was The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion. I'm surprised that the editors of Human Events didn't put that on their list. Norman Cohn called it the Warrant for Genocide. It was. It still is. It is being disseminated and read widely throughout the Middle East, right where our soldiers are fighting.

I'll stick with my position that books (ideas, the dissemination of ideas) can be as deadly as bullets. I'll stick to my guns. I'm against the argument that books (or music or other art) should be legalized merely because they're supposedly harmless and of no effect. I can assure you that a steady diet of de Sade can have a profound effect on the soul, as, in another direction, can the works of Shakespeare. (I must confess that I myself have read too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter.)

The editors of Human Events weren't calling for censorship. They were expressing their own ideas in an effort to counteract the ideas they thought pernicious. That's the whole point of freedom of speech and of the press. That's why there's a blogosphere in the first place. That's why Chesterton and Rand fisked their opponents. Fisking is good. We need more of it.

This ties in with my Gnostic argument against the Naturalist argument against the Jehovanist argument for "sodomy" laws. The Naturalist argues that sex should be legalized because it's merely a harmless joke. The Jehovanist argues that sex should be banned or controlled by the state because it is a powerful force, a menace to society and even to God or His church. I agree with the Jehovanist that sex is a most powerful force -- which is precisely why it should not be banned or controlled by the state. Sex is a holy sacrament, the deepest and potentially highest expression of the self, of the Godlike within the self. "Sodomy" laws are therefore a sacrilege. That is where I stand.

This ties in with the spectrum I'm using more and more these days. Ayn Rand once observed that "liberals" (Naturalists) today want to leave ideas free because they are inconsequential ("nobody was ever harmed by a book") but they want the state to control economics because they believe that who controls the means of production and distribution controls everything (the Marxist premise). Conversely, today's "conservatives" (Jehovanists) want to leave economics free because "you can't take it with you" but want the state to censor and control ideas because ideas and ideals are the driving force in history. Ayn Rand opposed both, of course, opposed government control either of ideas or of economics -- because both were important.

Therefore, my spectrum has 2 dimensions. The first dimension is that of which is most important: economics or non-economic (e.g., religious) ideas and ideals? In other words, the materialists vs. the spiritualists. The other dimension is that of who should control what is most important: the state (or "society") or the individual man or woman? In other words, the collectivists vs. the individualists.

I place the materialists on the left of my spectrum. I place the spiritualists on the right of my spectrum. I place the collectivists at the bottom of my spectrum. I place the individualists at the top of my spectrum.

Therefore, classic Marxists would be in the bottom left corner, libertarians who emphasize economic freedom (capitalism) would be in the top left corner, and mixed-economy pragmatists (which is usually what is meant by "moderates") on the left between these two. In the bottom right corner I would place Santorum and Scalia and other collectivists in the realm of morals. I would place individualists like myself, Camille Paglia, or Friedrich Nietzsche who value the freedom of the soul above all else in the top right corner. Between the two on the right I would place conflicted religious conservatives such as Justice Thomas. On the bottom are consistent totalitarians who want to control everything, e.g., Hitler, Mao, today's Politically Correct. On the top I would place Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff, who defend the freedom of the production of wealth as the highest expression of man's free mind.

That's how I see it. Spectrums, spectrums, spectrums, spectrums....

I wrote:
"I can assure you that a steady diet of de Sade can have a profound effect on the soul, as, in another direction, can the works of Shakespeare."

I should also have mentioned von Sacher-Masoch as an influence in an opposite direction from de Sade, though many combine both. Dawn admires von Sacher-Masoch but opposes de Sade because of his blasphemies. Wanda admires de Sade.

I think that Great Expectations by Dickens should qualify. What other book has inflicted so much trauma on so many high school students?

John   ·  June 9, 2005 2:40 PM

Good point, although I found "School for Scandal" much more trying.

(They told me it was funny, but it didn't make me laugh all that hard.)

Eric Scheie   ·  June 9, 2005 5:24 PM

You wrote:
"This works both ways; I've known numerous "Marxists" who never read Das Kapital, and I suspect that not all Nazis have read (or could read) Mein Kampf. If people are "misled" by ideas they have not read, isn't it a stretch to maintain that the books did the harm?"

Somebody read Das Kapital, Main Kampf, The Protocols, etc., and then preached the ideas contained therein to their followers, who then carried out those ideas. As Richard Weaver wrote, Ideas Have Consequences.

If there's no such thing as a bad book, then there's no such thing as a good book. And if there's no such thing as a good book, then there's no such thing as a good blog, so why bother reading anything at all? The very fact that I'm reading you, and reading G. K. C., etc., proves to me that there is such thing as a good blog, and a good book, and, therefore, logically, there are bad books and blogs as well.

Sooner or later, someone will have to compile a list of the "ten most harmful blogs."

Eric Scheie   ·  June 10, 2005 9:48 AM

If you work hard at it, Eric, I'm sure that Classical Values could make the cut.

John   ·  June 11, 2005 9:50 AM

This blog is extremely harmful to Political Correctness, extremely Politically Incorrect. That's why I'm reading you.

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