Thursday, August 24, 2006

Imminent danger? The Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th centuries

Ten Most Harmful BooksI've been reflecting a lot lately on the deterioration of public discourse and the suppression of dissent that has become so commonplace here in the U.S. It's hard not to, given how prevalent its symptoms are.

I was therefore intrigued (and amused) to discover via the Law & Society Blog a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries (make sure your pop-up blockers are fully activated unless you want to be inundated with Ann Coulter ads), chosen by a specially selected panel of conservative scholars and public policy leaders at Human Events, a right-wing publication.

In descending order of their degree of harmfulness, these books are:
  1. The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

  2. Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler

  3. Quotations from Chairman Mao, Mao Zedong

  4. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (The Kinsey Report), Alfred Kinsey

  5. Democracy and Education, John Dewey

  6. Das Kapital, Karl Marx

  7. The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan

  8. The Course of Positive Philosophy, Auguste Comte

  9. Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietschze

  10. General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes
Books that didn't make the short list but earned honorable mentions were:

The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich
What Is To Be Done, V.I. Lenin
Authoritarian Personality, Theodor Adorno
On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner
Reflections on Violence, Georges Sorel
The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly
The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault
Soviet Communism: A New Civilization, Sidney and Beatrice Webb
Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead
Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader
Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon
Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud
The Greening of America, Charles Reich
The Limits to Growth, Club of Rome
Descent of Man, Charles Darwin

Apart from the couple of titles authored by homicidal dictators, the selection of these books is baffling (Unsafe at Any Speed? Silent Spring? You're kidding, right?).

What exactly makes these books so harmful? By whose standard? And so now what? Are we now to banish these books from college syllabi? Slap parental advisory stickers on them? Burn them?

(Given the scorn which some conservatives delight to heap upon conflict resolution, it is surprising that Getting to Yes failed to receive even an honorable mention.)

One can only hope that the fact that these books have been labeled as "Most Harmful" will produce a delightfully ironic and unintended effect: make these books an alluring forbidden fruit to entice a whole new generation of young minds to read works like On Liberty, The Origin of Species, and The Feminine Mystique.

And, of course, to weigh for themselves the intrinsic worth of the ideas contained within.

(Book collectors take note. Setting aside the notion of a free marketplace of ideas, these books have worth in a different kind of marketplace: first editions of these works are not only rare but highly valuable.)