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?

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