10 Books That Screwed Up the World (Or One Screwed Up Way to Read Books)

A new book from Regnery: 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help by Benjamin Wiker, PhD.

Link via Glenn Reynolds who, unlike me, got a free copy in the mail but, like me doesn’t “agree with all the choices here.” From the Amazon description:

* Why Machiavelli’s The Prince was the inspiration for a long list of tyrannies (Stalin had it on his nightstand)
* How Descartes’ Discourse on Method “proved” God’s existence only by making Him a creation of our own ego
* How Hobbes’ Leviathan led to the belief that we have a “right” to whatever we want
* Why Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto could win the award for the most malicious book ever written
* How Darwin’s The Descent of Man proves he intended “survival of the fittest” to be applied to human society
* How Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil issued the call for a world ruled solely by the “will to power”
* How Hitler’s Mein Kampf was a kind of “spiritualized Darwinism” that accounts for his genocidal anti-Semitism
* How the pansexual paradise described in Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa turned out to be a creation of her own sexual confusions and aspirations
* Why Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was simply autobiography masquerading as science

I’m always dubious when someone notes that they have a PhD on their book jacket. Usually, it means that the person either has a fake doctorate (like John Gray, PhD, of Mars/Venus fame) or has a doctorate totally unrelated to what they’re claiming expertise in (like non-psychologist Dr. Laura Schlesinger). In this case, it’s a solid degree — Wiker’s Ph.D. is in “Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University” — but I’m not really sure what it has to do with literary criticism or historical causation.

I haven’t read all the books in question, although I’m at least familiar with them. But I might go further than Glenn and say that I don’t think I agree with any of the choices here.

Machiavelli’s The Prince was a satirical attack on tyranny. Hobbes’ Leviathan helped establish the basis for the idea that individual humans had any rights at all. That others used them maliciously or took their arguments too far speaks to their characters, not the books themselves.

The Communist Manifesto made some interesting extrapolations from history about how political economy would evolve. The rise of labor unions and social democratic parties, however, obviated much of the book’s logic within a few decades and an older Karl Marx acknowledges as much. What Lenin, Stalin, and others did using the language of the book, certainly, was horrible. But that can hardly be blamed on the book.

Mein Kampf was, I suppose, pretty evil. But it was basically campaign literature for Adolf Hitler, the author. I’ll blame the evils that followed, then, on Hitler rather than his book.

Otherwise, using Wiker’s logic, it’s difficult to conceive of a book more horrific than the Old Testament shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The amount of sheer evil that has been justified using that text dwarfs all other books put together.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    What Lenin, Stalin, and others did using the language of the book, certainly, was horrible. But that can hardly be blamed on the book.

    Of course, nothing can be blamed on ANY of these books. The whole premise that books can “screw up the world” is idiotic.

    You fail to mention the amusing fact that the book is published by Regenry–which is neither an academic nor a mainstream press.

    Rather, it is a dubious right-wing propaganda mill, making an explanation of why someone would publish something with such weak premise a bit more understandable.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    The absense of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on the list is evidence of the list’s provocative, non-serious nature. But to be truly provocative, the Bible certainly should have been included. Yawn.

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    It should be the most “misused” books. Like Triumph said books don’t screw up the world, people do. That said these books all have had some seriously adverse effects when misused by men.

  4. Anthony says:

    “I’m always dubious when someone notes that they have a PhD on their book jacket.”

    Heh. This was my initial thought too.

    As someone else has noted, Regnery’s credentials on this sort of thing are fairly well established. This looks like just yet another list book of things/people that “conservatives” are apparently supposed to get pissed off at (Coming of Age in Samoa! Aieeee!!!).

    At least “On Liberty” isn’t on the list – it came quite high up on a magazine poll (can’t remember where – Human Events?) poll of Most Dangerous Books a couple of years back.

    Incidentally, I notice the author is senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, which I think speaks volumes.

  5. capital L says:

    I agree with your thoughts, and further object to the author’s one sentence summation (and condemnation) of “Beyond Good and Evil” and “Discourse on Method.”

  6. It seems unfair to throw the Bible in unless you want to balance the ledger with the good that was also done, or take into account how long it has been around compared to, say, The Communist Manifesto. It might also merit discussion as to whether someone was actually following the ideas presented or using them as a cover to accomplish other nefarious goals.

    Nonetheless, it isn’t books that kill people any more than it is guns that kill people. I certainly don’t want to outlaw or eliminate any books based on my, or anybody else’s, belief that they are bad. Making any such claim is far too hubristic for me.

    A thought experiment… imagine for a moment that there was an authority that could legitimately remove bad books from circulation. After a few generations that had never known or studied these bad books, no one would remember why they were bad to begin with. George Santayana had a pithy aphorism that seems applicable here. Another way to say it might be, “Never again? Please.”

  7. SeniorD says:

    So the ‘Books don’t kill people, People kill people’ argument holds.

    Fascinating. Let’s start a campaign to register all books and require Government Approval to carry a book.

    Books, pamphlets, monographs, tracts, essays, etc. all have one common theme – they promote the ideas and concepts of the author. How an individual reads the book, absorbs and processes the ideas into his/her own worldview is the the action of the mind. Obviously, some people’s worldviews are at odds with others.

    I could come up with a list of 10 Worst Books Ever Guaranteed to cause a Student Nightmares starting with Faust (in the original German) and ending with Streetcar Named Desire, but what would that prove?

  8. James Joyner says:

    It seems unfair to throw the Bible in unless you want to balance the ledger with the good that was also done

    Sure. But Wiker doesn’t do that with any of the other books. The Prince and Leviathan almost surely did more good than harm.

  9. Michael says:

    Machiavelli’s The Prince was a satirical attack on tyranny

    In what possible way?

  10. Michael says:

    I’m dubious of any list of screwed up books that doesn’t contain at least 3 Dan Brown novels.

  11. Michael says:

    So the ‘Books don’t kill people, People kill people’ argument holds.

    I’m pretty sure War and Peace could kill someone, depending on velocity.

  12. Anderson says:

    How Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil issued the call for a world ruled solely by the “will to power”

    OMG, the stupid, it burns.

    Now, I don’t know if I agree w/ JJ that the satirical nature of The Prince is really an agreed-upon fact. It’s a theory about the book, but I for one have never thought that it’s really all that different from the Discourses — different audiences seem to matter.

    I also wonder how The Golden Bough failed to make the cut, unless teaching that Christianity is one superstition among many is less pernicious than the alleged misdeeds of the listed books.

    –Btw, the Amazon reviews are a hoot, not to be missed — click JJ’s link in the post.

  13. Anderson says:

    Fearing that Wiker had passed through St. John’s College (apparently not, whew!), I found his CV, which suggests the title of his next book: 10 Garments That Screwed Up the World (or Set the World to Screwing):

    “Don’t Wear That Mini to Mass” Crisis (April 2001)

    “Drawing a Hemline: Sexual Modesty and the Pursuit of Wisdom” Crisis (July/August 2000)

  14. Cernig says:

    Minis don’t kill people, people driving fast cars while staring at minis kill people. (Unless the car is a mini, of course).

    Regards, C

  15. Rick DeMent says:

    and how did Atlas Shrugged not make the list? God that book did more to spawn pseudo-economic claptrap then any other tome on the planet. It the bible to a entire generation of socially inept high school boys.

  16. Well, since I, uh, I mean they were socially inept, it limited the damage it could do to the world.

  17. floyd says:

    Good one Michael! What would they put on the victim’s TOME STONE??

  18. mannning says:

    Ulysees get a vote here for sheer —–.

  19. DL says:

    Great posting! Let’s see more of this. How about the same list from the liberal point of view? I’m sure they would start with the Bible.

  20. brainy435 says:

    So did “Catcher in the Rye” at least get an honorable mention?

  21. Barry says:

    brainy, that book only attempts to screw up the minds of adolescent males, which is like p*ssing in a swamp – there’s not much difference in the end state.

  22. Pharyngula says:

    Two book lists…

    I’ve been sent two lists of “10 Books That Screwed Up the World”, and I’m not very impressed with either of them. The first is from a new book by Benjamin Wanker Wiker of the same title, published by……

  23. bullet says:

    What about the Koran and the Bible?

    Those two have royally screwed up the world.

  24. Brian Macker says:

    If you can’t blame the book then you can’t blame the author of the book as that breaks the causual chain. If the book didn’t contribute to some problem then certainly the author can’t be for it either.

    If you go that route I don’t see why you wouldn’t make the same claims about speeches and the like. In which case you’ve completely thrown out the legal concepts of incitement to violence, defamation, libel and the like.

    So I think this goes too far. Books themselves are vehicles of communication and if the lead to behaviorial changes that a resonable person would predict then I don’t see why the book (or newspaper) couldn’t be found responsible and therefore the author of the book. I can think of many examples where this is a reasonable thing to do. Defame someone in a newspaper and if that gets them unjustly convicted of a crime by tainting the jury pool then I don’t see how causally you could ONLY blame the author of the article. After all if the newspaper didn’t exist then the information would not have been communicated as effectively.

    In the case of Marxism the philosophy itself is responsible for much harm without the extraneous evils perpetrated by some of the most powerful leaders. Strictly following Marxian economic doctrine naturally leads to starvation, poverty an the like. It also shares with Nazism and other vile ideologies the kind of scapegoating that naturally leads humans to do other harm.

    Of course no book or philosophy can be morally responsible in and of itself. We certainly aren’t going to go around punishing books. Nor does the fact that I have a Quran mean that it is responsible for any evil sitting on my bookshelf. It isn’t responsible for any specific act of evil till someone picks it up, reads it, believes it, then acts on the evil perscriptions therein.

    Marxs books have in many cases been responsible for evil in just this way causally.

  25. Brian Macker says:

    “It should be the most “misused” books. Like Triumph said books don’t screw up the world, people do. That said these books all have had some seriously adverse effects when misused by men.”

    Really? What is the proper use of Mein Kampf?