Ten books you may not like, but really should read

Well, here's a summer reading list from hell. Human Events, an American national weekly newspaper, just asked 15 conservative scholars to rank the 10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries. Great. Now I have to run out and get the four I haven't read. I'm serious. On the principle of "Know your enemy," I already in this space, on Sept. 6, 2002, recommended reading Mein Kampf, which is 2nd on the Human Events list. Hitler was not merely evil, but very successfully evil, and it behoves us to understand not only what evil looks like, but also how it so often manages to succeed. On that same basis I had also already read their top choice, The Communist Manifesto, their 3rd, Quotations from Chairman Mao, and their 6th, Das Kapital (fair do's: Communists slaughtered far more people even than the Nazis did, over a much longer period, in many more places).

I feel differently about #9 on the list, Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. I don't believe I ever read this particular one, but I've read enough Nietzsche to say I think he gets a slightly bad rap. He saw with unpleasant clarity that we could not cling to traditional Judeo-Christian morality once we discarded its intellectual and theological foundations, and also what sorts of horrors we would gradually but inevitably be driven to embrace as a result. But beneath Nietzsche's thin veneer of juvenile relish, there is, surely, anguish at the prospect, even a veiled cry of "The horror, the horror." The ideas he expresses are without doubt terribly harmful. But I think his writings are as much firebell in the night as torch in the straw. I even suspect the very lucidity of his nihilism that initially attracts the young also ultimately helps them reject it comprehensively.

Harm comes in various forms, of course. And I'm not sure why, whether it's background, temperament or pure coincidence. But it does strike me that, while not one book on the Human Events list was assigned to me as a text during my 22 years at school and at college -- forget what do they teach them at these schools; what did they teach me? -- I had read those five that seek to batter down Western civilization from without, but only one of the other five that tend to hollow it out from within.

The other one I had read (twice, in fact; it's not an easy read) was No. 10: John Maynard Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Its effect was far more subtle than those listed above. Directly, all it did was legitimize deficit spending for a while. But indirectly, by loosening our inhibitions against spending money we didn't have at a crucial point in our history, it allowed the state to move massively into the business of trading social programs for votes. And while we are all budget-balancers now (except George W. Bush), in the process we so entirely lost our disgust at "smash-and-grab" politics that we would now think it odd for anyone not to campaign on giving us other people's money. We might even find it offensive.

The four I haven't read are: No. 4, The Kinsey Report, by Alfred Kinsey; No. 5, Democracy and Education, by John Dewey; No. 7, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan; and No. 8, The Course of Positive Philosophy, by Auguste Comte. All, I would say, are more poison in the well than torch in the straw. But surely that's at least as bad.

Some people may object that this list is slanted toward books conservatives don't like. Well, yes, it was compiled by conservative scholars for a proudly conservative publication. But, crucially, it is not because they are conservative that these 15 scholars dislike such books. Rather, it is because they dislike such books that they are conservative. Liberals are free to put forward their own list of the 10 most harmful books of the past two centuries. Or, to save time, they can get Human Events' 2003 list of the "Ten Books Every Student Should Read in College" or ask for my list of "10 Books Every Conservative Should Read". But I don't think they will.

I don't think most liberals believe their opponents are motivated by ideas or that they even read books. Moreover (j'accuse), I don't think most liberals read conservative books. For most of them, open-minded is just this word. Liberals, like atheists, have to be very careful what they read. And they tend to be; it's one of the things that, long ago, pushed me toward conservatism.

I'd venture to say the average conservative intellectual has a far better idea what his opponents believe than the reverse. Certainly I'm now itching to read the other four books on that list.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson