Deep Thoughts: Harmful Books

I’m going to take a little detour from the discussions of money to talk about one of my other passions: books.  Yes, as you might guess from my (ideally) weekly book reviews, I enjoy reading and find it quite beneficial.  I’ve yet to read a book that didn’t provide me with some benefit, from learning something new to providing entertainment.

Thus, I read this list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the past two centuries with great curiousity.  What books could be so bad as to receive marks as the worst in recent history from a panel of conservative leaders and thinkers?  Well, let’s find out.

The List (Summarized)

The first three entries (The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Quotations From General Mao Zedong) are fairly solid entries; being associated with the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and Communist China (back in its prime) are enough to get bad marks from most anyone, regardless of their political leaning.

The Kinsey Report (also known as Sexual Behavior in the Human Male) comes in at number four, with much less justification (the list goes from books that were linked to mass murder and exile to one that ‘gave a scientific gloss to promiscuity and deviancy’.)  The fifth book, Democracy and Education, continues the trend denouncing the book more for the behavior of its author (John Dewey) than the content of the book (which, as Blog Critic notes, is mainly about the advantages of teaching students how to think, rather than strictly focusing on memorizing facts).  Book six gets back to Marx with Das Capital, (which is one of the founding documents of the socialist movement, for all the good and bad that has come from that), while book seven criticizes Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which, to go back to Blog Critic:

“While Betty Friedan was quite militant by today’s standards — as almost all pioneers are — the only way one can say this book was harmful is if one also argues that it was okay to force women into subservient, gender-defined social roles. Friedan, whatever her faults or excesses, laid the groundwork for today’s society, in which women are (horrors!!) allowed to choose their own lives and career paths. How terrible.”

Book eight continues the trend, taking down The Course of Positive Philosophy for its promotion of the idea that man, through observation alone, could determine how things ought to be.  Book nine hits Nietzsche, with his Beyond Good and Evil, which denounces belief in God as a weakness and the ‘Will to Power’, where the strong men would dominate and overpower the weaker people in society (an actual, legitimate example of a book that should be on the list).  The list rounds out with The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money from Keynes, for its arguments about the need for government expansion to counteract a declining job market.

There’s a list of Honorable Mentions that follows the main list, hitting just about every other book that would raise conservative ire, from Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader to Silent Spring by Rachael Carson.  My personal favorite is On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin; it’s hard to argue that a book that provides the theoretical underpinnings of understanding antibiotic resistance and viral activity, among other important biological functions, did more harm than good for the human race.

My Complaints with the List

As you might have guessed by now, I have a few qualms with this list.  First, there’s the huge conservative bias. Yes, yes, I know; a list on a conservative site, generated by conservative experts, written for a conservative audience, happens to include some books that only a conservative could hate…big shocker.  A liberal ‘Most Harmful Book List’ (which I have not located anywhere, but would be curious to read) would likely be just as biased, including books by Ayn Rand and William F. Buckley.  I just wish the list included more books that could be objectively shown as damaging and fewer that simply happened to disagree with conservative orthodoxy.  On the subject of objectively damaging…

My second qualm is that there’s not an objective method to determine the most harmful book.  The list goes from genocide and mass killing inspiring works to human sexuality and feminism without missing a beat.  As with any list based on a survey (particularly one that only surveys a particular segment of the population), it’s full of books that simply raise the dander of the reviewers, rather than actually causing harm.

My third (and by far the biggest) problem with this list, though, is the entire concept of a ‘harmful’ book.  Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s hopefully apparent that people acting on the ideas in books (and frequently, twisting or otherwise MIS-using those ideas to suit their own purposes) that cause real-life damage, not the books themselves.  To paraphrase the NRA, ‘books don’t kill people, people who read books and draw homicidal conclusions kill people.’

The Communist Manifesto didn’t create the Soviet Gulags, The Kinsey Report didn’t force anyone in the decades since to become a deviant, and The Feminine Mystique didn’t destroy family values.  At most, they inspired people to take action on their own (whether that action was good or bad); it was the action-takers who should be held responsible for the negative actions in history, not the books.  Even the Bible could be seen as the ’cause’ of numerous negative events throughout history, from the Inquisition to witch trials to modern day family planning clinic bombings; just as we don’t talk about banning the Bible to avoid future negative influence, we shouldn’t ban any of the books on this list to avoid the ‘harm’ that they could cause in the future.

That’s the whole reason I decided to write this article, to point out that no books should be banned due to ‘harmful’ ideas.  Instead, reading, understanding, and learning as much as possible about other views, including those we don’t believe in, should be our goal.  (It’s apparently a goal for Human Events, as well; they include links to Amazon for all the Most Harmful books on their list.)  How else can we refute those ideas that we don’t accept, or defend our own ideas, if we don’t learn as much as we can about every idea?

7 Responses to Deep Thoughts: Harmful Books

  1. I am glad that I read to the end of this post, because the bias became more and more apparent as you listed the books one by one. Thank you for making the point “that no books should be banned due to ‘harmful’ ideas.” No ban is one of the many benefits of living in a free society. Totalitarian regimes like communist China, communist Russia, and Nazi Germany banned books due to ‘harmful’ ideas. Why would a (supposedly?) freedom-loving movement suggest doing the same?
    .-= Money Obedience´s last blog ..Festivals and Carnivals =-.

  2. Why does it have to be a conservative bias? Do you know any liberals that would vouch for “The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kamp”, etc…?

    I think we need to move beyond simple left-right dichotomies when they are so narrowly defined. For example, I am neither a conservative nor a liberal, and I could not be placed on such a one-dimensional ruler 🙂

    My personal take on it is that yes, no book should ever be banned, but ideas are important. Many of the ideas of these books, for better or worse, have led people to believe that they were justified in controlling other people, or that they, and only they, knew the absolute correct objective morality by which all others should be judged by.

    It can be shown that such ends lead to less human welfare (welfare here meaning well-being, not something you get from the government), prosperity, and freedom. If anything, we should keep such books around so that we can learn from our mistakes, and know that we are not the infallible creatures we sometimes think we are.

    Nice post!
    .-= Invest It Wisely´s last blog ..Meet Andrew Hallam- The Millionaire Teacher =-.

  3. “It would be nice to move beyond the fairly simple (and over-simplified) classifications of left and right, to get a holistic and useful view of people’s actual beliefs. But, with the American political system as it currently stands, it’s more advantageous to politicians to keep up the ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality, pitting us against each other over issues where we could likely come up with some common ground.”

    This is a very good point. It polarizes people into opposing camps and turns issues into “hot buttons”. For example, if I support lower taxes and lower government spending, then I must support neo-con policies. If I support deregulation of, say, marijuana, then I must be a pot-smoking hippie. 🙂

    I also like that you mentioned that people on both extremes have their own subtle ways of controlling people and judging them from their objective moral standpoints. “Conservatives” and “liberals” are both equally guilty in this regard.

    I am not familiar with Kinsey so I cannot comment on that. No book should ever be banned, though, because it’s important to know why someone thinks the way they do, even if the idea is bad. The best way to do that is by encouraging a diverse set of reading and self-thought; something not all that encouraged today.

    Keep up the good posting!
    .-= Invest It Wisely´s last blog ..Meet Andrew Hallam- The Millionaire Teacher =-.

  4. Hi Roger, I stopped by to thank you for the book I won!!!! YEA!! And to let you know that it arrived the day before my birthday. What a pleasant surprise.
    I got drawn in by the well written and thought provoking article. Wow, you are doing some deep reading and I totally admire you for it! There is something magical about books that cannot be replaced by the internet!
    Thanks again, Barb
    .-= Barb Friedberg´s last blog ..REDUCE STRESS Get Rid of Dysfunctional Money Behaviors – Part 2 =-.

  5. @Invest It Wisely: It would be wonderful for society to get past the divisions in which we seem to be stuck. It’d be nicer to have more a la carte style voting, so we can express our true feeling about the important issues of the day rather than choosing the lesser of two (and almost always only two) evils in the form of a politician who may or may not actually vote the way we expect. Of course, places that try to do that have their own problems. (Amazingly, few people are willing to vote for tax increases on themselves, or to vote against government services that they want; taken together, it’s a recipe for large and increasing deficits). Hopefully, we can find some way to get beyond politics as usual.

    @Barb: Glad that you got the book; I always worry that things I mail won’t reach their destination. I’m also glad that my writing drew you in; perhaps I’ll have to write a book, to try to capture some of the magic. First, though, more blogging.

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