Friday, August 08, 2008

Summer Reading Three

With age and experience, one hopes comes wisdom. Well, at least until the senility kicks in. One of the pearls of wisdom that you pick up over the years is that high expectations are often not fulfilled and the greatest joys in life sometimes follow from the lowest expectations. Such was the case when I received 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help by Benjamin Wiker in the mail.

It was a small, rather unimpressive looking volume with a hacky title and a picture of a screw through a book. My first thought was that it was one of these quickly dashed off "list" works that involved little thought or analysis by the author. Therefore, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that--contrary to my expectations--it was actually a well-written, informative, and at times even humorous look at books that did indeed greatly contribute to human misery. The front flap provides a pretty accurate preview:

You've heard of the "Great Books"?

These are their evil opposites. From Machiavelli's The Prince to Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto to Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, these "influential" books have led to war, genocide, totalitarian oppression, family breakdown, and disastrous social experiments. And yet these authors' bad ideas are still popular and pervasive--in fact, they might influence your own thinking without your realizing it. Here with the antidote is Professor Benjamin Wiker. In his scintillating new book, 10 Books That Screwed Up the World (And 5 Others That Didn't Help), he seizes each of these evil books by its malignant heart and exposes it to the light of day. In this witty, learned, and provocative exposé, you'll learn:

* Why Machiavelli's The Prince was the inspiration for a long list of tyrannies (Stalin had it on his nightstand)

* How Descartes' Discourse on Method "proved" God's existence only by making Him a creation of our own ego

* How Hobbes' Leviathan led to the belief that we have a "right" to whatever we want

* Why Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto could win the award for the most malicious book ever written

* How Darwin's The Descent of Man proves he intended "survival of the fittest" to be applied to human society

* How Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil issued the call for a world ruled solely by the "will to power"

* How Hitler's Mein Kampf was a kind of "spiritualized Darwinism" that accounts for his genocidal anti-Semitism

* How the pansexual paradise described in Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa turned out to be a creation of her own sexual confusions and aspirations

* Why Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was simply autobiography masquerading as science

The genius of Wiker's work is not simply describing the books in question and explaining how they screwed up the world. It's the convincing connections he makes between the authors. Not all of them are intertwined, but it's revealing and disturbing to see how many of these authors were building on a foundation provided by other bad books that had come before. Darwin to Sanger to Hitler (and they turn two!) is just one of the many examples.

Wiker also highlights other strands that connect the authors. They were for the most part atheists, which Wiker says was often the root of their rebellion. And they were for most part pretty messed up in their personal lives. It's interesting to see how Mead, Sanger, Kinsey, and Friedan (among others) tried to promote the ideas in their books as a way to validate and justify areas in their lives that were outside of the traditional values system. Wiker unveils hidden psychological factors that were often the author's real motivators. On Kinsey he remarks:

He represents, in sterling coin, the evil that results from attempting to change the world to match one's character, rather than changing oneself to match the deep moral order written into human nature.

As he summarizes in the book's conclusion:

The cracks in the soul become more visible when they are ignored. They become more visible when the twisted soul tries to rid the world of the very idea that each individual has a soul accountable to God. The twisted soul does this in order to deny its own twistedness, and that good and evil are defined by a divine source outside the self. The authors we've examined who have taken a turn at twisting the screws that have screwed up the world all have this in common. They all deny sin.

The fact that "10 Books That Screwed Up The World" is a small book is also one of its blessings. It's a quick, enjoyable read that you'll breeze through, but will likely want to keep in a handy place on the bookshelf for future reference. I liked the free copy I received so much that I ordered one for each of my fellow Fraters.

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