Saturday, June 18, 2005

Harmful Books and Misguided Lists

I'm late to the party on this topic, but I couldn't let The Ten Most Harmful Books pass without comment. Apparently a group of misguided conservatives at the national conservative weekly Human Events was nostalgic for the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the official list of books banned by the Catholic church, discontinued in 1966 after four centuries) and thought they'd provide their own update. The very concept of such lists ought to raise hackles. Granted, nobody at Human Events is explicitly calling for books to be burned, but what do they suppose most people will do with such a list? Add it to their wish list? No doubt more than one copy of that issue will be waved in the air by some misguided irate parent at a PTA meeting, or used as fodder to berate the local librarian. We'll have to watch the American Library Association's 2005 list of most challenged books to see if Comte, Nietzsche, and Keynes can knock John Steinbeck, Maurice Sendak, and Mark Twain off the list.

The content of the Human Events list was a telling mix. They didn't particularly spell out the criteria for a "harmful" book (other than their time scope of the 19th and 20th century). If a "most harmful book" was one to which significant bad turns in the course of history could trace their influence, then few would argue with the top choices of The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Mao's Red Book. Surprisingly missing were The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (inspired the Russian pogroms and continues to fan the flames of anti-Semitism) and Sayyib Qutb's Milestones (the Islamist militant primer). Arguably, the Quran and the Bible ought to be high on the list, if we're just considering sheer historic influence, regardless of the primary intentions of a book. Obviously, they weren't defining "harmful" as potential to cause actual harm, which would have to include The Anarchist Cookbook (a how-to manual for building bombs) and Final Exit (a how-to manual for suicide). (Per the Dec 2003 FBI directive, one might also include almanacs.) Instead, Human Events rounded out their list with a distinctly conservative view of "harm" that includes sexual liberation (blamed on Kinsey), feminism (blamed on Betty Friedan), modern education (Dewey), and big government economics (Keynes).

It should be obvious to most sensible people that the appropriate response to this is criticism, parody, and making sure to read all of the books on the list. As the great philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in his classic work On Liberty:
"the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is
robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who
dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is
right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if
wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and
livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."
But alas, On Liberty received an honorable mention on the list of harmful books. On the other hand, The Communist Manifesto may be one of the most harmful books in history, but it is less than 200 pages.

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