Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote and Other Catastrophies of Literacy by Daniel Kalder



One of my favorite pieces is the Earl of Oxford.  I hope you enjoy this performance by the Eastman Wind Ensemble.

I traveled to the Florida Gulf Coast to bring in the new year with my parents.  I may have told you that my mother has stage four lung cancer.  It didn't stop us.  Every evening we watched the sun set and took her on walks (in her wheel chair) or just drove as close as we could to the beach and enjoyed the scenery.

One day we visited Destin.  My mom took a nap in the car, so my friend Felicia and I walked up and down the beach while my mother slept.

Felicia is a friend of mine here in Texas.  She lives alone and cannot drive so I asked if she'd like to take a road trip and she did.  It was nice to have a companion for a change.  Since my son has moved to China, I go it alone, because my husband can't get the time off.



Destin, Florida



Felicia getting as close as she dares to the water.






The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of LiteracyThe Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy by Daniel Kalder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Infernal Library by Daniel Kalder is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in recent memory. He took a tedious subject and turned it into a rip roaring good history about the reading and writing habits of twentieth century tyrants.

Not only do we get to understand the historical background of the likes of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao Zedong and others, he intertwines it with a fairly full biography. This provides the reader with the political and cultural context which inspired these bully boys to write and allowed them to rise to power.

It is impressive that he can write so colorfully and at times hilariously about plowing through the most tedious literature ever to blight the earth and brainwash millions. His use of hyperbolic adjectives, similes and metaphors perfectly drive home to the reader just how mind-numbing these works are. I applaud him that he survived. I never could wade through such evil tripe.

And there was plenty of it to be had. These guys apparently found writing reams of gibberish, turning reality on its head, and creating a Utopian fantasy centered around their own godhead, a type of narcotic. They got high on their ideas and the best part is they got to spray entire populations with their works like napalm.

Really, wouldn’t that be every writer’s fantasy? To force everyone in your country to buy and read your books? Think of the money to be had. No more begging an agent to read the first chapter or negotiating with a publishing company to print and distribute it. All the publishing companies would be arm wrestling each other to print it, since they knew that every single citizen was going to have to purchase it.

What fascinates me, and what Kalder gives less attention to (because it’s not the main thrust of his book) is how such bores got into power in the first place. Lenin wrote most of his theories in Switzerland and mostly against other Bolsheviks. Stalin wrote while exiled in Siberia, Hitler was in prison. In case anyone see a discrepancy with the previous paragraph, I should point out that most people were not reading their literature before these men came into power and were forced to.

Sources of inspiration for many of these despots were Nietsche, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Their literature in turn became inspirations for future megalomaniacs. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were plenty of power mongers in the freshly autonomous satellite countries willing to take over and create their own utopias where everyone worshiped them. In Turkmanistan Turkmenbashi made his book required reading to pass a driver’s license test. His book lay alongside the Bible and Koran in churches and temples. In the bookstores, his book was all you could buy.

This book increases my fascinations with the personality cult. The rabid ecstasy that an entire population responds to their leader’s writings. Mao Zedong’s Red Scarf Revolution among the Chinese youth in the sixties is one example, but it was so in every country under a totalitarian regime. Young people are especially vulnerable to pie in the sky political and economic ideologies.

Speaking of Mao, I thought his writing particularly worthy of note, because he had to twist Marxism around to an unrecognizable shape in order to prove that it would work in a country that never had a proletarian generation. Amazing what a person can do with an army behind them to muscle in their own unique fantastical slant on another work of fantasy. But when the imagination is involved the possibilities are limitless.

I cannot comprehend how one person can wield that kind of power over so many. Not only physically, that comes later, but mentally, which is how they get into power in the first place. How can people allow themselves to become so brainwashed? They have to be getting something out of it.

Kalder deftly proves how literacy and education is not the magic wand to bippity boppity boo wham! produce an enlightened society. It depends on what you read and how you interpret what you read. It’s fine to read bunk, as long as you recognize it as bunk. What concerns me is that in today’s American Universities, students are not taught how to think but what to think when reading the great literature of the ages. Or they are not being taught to read it at all. Dead white males are to be avoided and female literature may only be read terough a feminist lens. Inferior literature is made required reading because the criteria has become the author’s race, gender and sexual orientation, rather than whether they can actually write well. This has had the undesirable effect of making young people, not only crippled with unrealistic expectations of the real world, but also makes them unbearably arrogant.

The only objection I have to Kalder's marvelous book is his comparison of these writings to the U.S. Constitution. Why he added this is a mystery, because the constitution was not written by tyrants who then brainwashed the population into bloodthirsty revolutionaries.

He seems to think it’s the same kind of personality cult that compels Americans to preserve the constitution in its original state (France and Italy change their constitution all the time!), as though to believe something is true is to be brainwashed. He should re-read some of his own points, namely, that as soon as a tyrant fell from power, his literature rapidly fell into oblivion. Lies can only persevere with an army behind them. True ideas, like, say, all men are created equal, endure.

I find it interesting to note that Kalder moved from his native Scotland to live in the Austin, Texas area. Hmmm….could it be that he prefers the opportunities and safe guards our “antiquated document” provides him? Perhaps he should not bite the hand that feeds him.

But lets not end on a negative note. This book is brilliant, the writer a genius at wit, a veritable D’Artagnon with the pen and I can not recommend this book too strongly.


View all my reviews




27 comments:

mudpuddle said...

simply a great post, Sharon... this sounds like a fascinating book! and i've spent a lot of time over the last sixty+ years wondering the same thing: how relatively normal persons end up voting for or following someone who is patently bonkers... it's makes me credit "mass hypnosis" a bit... the main difference between ants and humans seems to be ants will just eat the annoying one... too bad we can't... haha

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi mudpuddle. Psychology and cognitive bias, not to mention group think has always fascinated me. I think that people need a spirit de corp...feel like they belong and it's very hard to go upstream. That's why I try not to point fingers at these other countries that have historically had despots get into power. How would I fare. Would I decide to join the crowd or commit to being very, very lonely.

Brian Joseph said...

Super post Sharon. These dictators brought horror to the world. But I can see how an account of their writings can be entertaining while being factual. If totalitarian movements were not so harmful their absurdities would be amusing.

Whether the American Constitution should be more open to amendment might be a worthy topic to discuss, but it does not seem congruent with the topic.

Silvia said...

Wonderful post. I agree. It sounds fascinating. Add me to the club who has mused about how, why, what makes normal persons end up placing these other mad men in power.

RT said...

Of course, we also change our constitution rather often through amendments; founding fathers would be stunned by some of the changes. And now I’m searching for the book you so nicely reviewed. Best wishes from a Tim ...
https://miscellaneousmusingsrevisited.blogspot.com/

Ruth said...

Brava! Thank you!!! I am a little disappointed about the last part, but here's the thing...when man is well grounded in truth - like the Bible - he can make the distinction between what is right and what is incorrect. So when you read a book like this, you can point out where the author is wrong.

The signers of the Constitution, even if some of them were not personally following Christ, were well grounded in the Scriptures. Like our current president who may not be a redeemed believer, KNOWS there is a Creator God and that all rights and truth are from Him alone, not man. I gather the author of this book did not differentiate between man-made idolatry and Truth that is rooted in God's Creation.

Nonetheless, I think we have similar judgment, so I KNOW I will want to read this book. I'll add it to my future wishlist. Thanks!

Ruth said...

P.S. Is this the same as Dictator Literature by the same author?

James said...

Thanks for sharing the "Earl of Oxford" piece. That and the other British band classics are among my favorites,
The book sounds fascinating. The reading habits of people can tell you a lot about them.

Sharon Wilfong said...

HI Brian. You're right. The was a great book, very funny, good writing, but the section (even though brief) about the U.S. Constitution seemed out of left field.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Sylvia. And these tyrants had to have an army to back them up. I would like to read more about the people who were willing to enforce madness. What makes them tick.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi R.T. That's a really good point and I did not even think about it. Hope you find and enjoy this book.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Ruth. Yes. Truth is absolute and eternal and we believe there is only one way to view the world. By the way, I looked at the book you mentioned and I'm not sure, but it looks like it my be an earlier version of this book.

Sharon Wilfong said...

HI James you're welcome. I love British classical composers too. You're so right about a person's reading habits. I have had friends who are scientists and medical doctors, but for fun they read pulp. I mean like yucky lame pulp: Harlequinn Romance; the books with a body builder stripped to the waist embracing a well-endowed woman. Their excuse is they just need to relax when they read. I must confess, I don't get it at all. I have never found lame writing relaxing.

mudpuddle said...

Frederick Fennell had a great ensemble... i used to have several records of his wind ensemble... gone now, tho... the realization of the Oxford piece was extravagant, tho... all the runs and counterpoint made it not too much like the original, which was probably scored for shawm, sacbut, bass and continuo... a pleasure to listen to, tho...

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Mudpuddle,

I found all my old vinyls at my parents house and since Josh and I got a record player I eagerly brought them back. And....they were all warped. I can only play a couple that don't sound like the sound track to a horror flick.

It's a toss up for me, which I like better, period instruments played according to the era, or some license taken on modern instruments. I guess I love both.

RT said...

Postscript to all ... problems with blogger forced a restart with modified address:
https://miscellaneousmusinds2d.blogspot.com/
Best wishes to you ... Tim

mudpuddle said...

oh i'm so sorry Sharon! i have some old records also; now i'm afraid to look at them... i have one of Franz Hammerlaw playing the second Spohr Clarinet concerto that is really a treasure... i hope it's not...

mudpuddle said...

maybe they could be straightened out somehow? like in a pressure vessel or something; might be worth inqui i just looked up "how to fix warped records" on google and it said how to do it! i hope you give it a try and let me know if it worked or not...

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Mudpuddle. Josh said you're supposed to put them in the oven to straighten them back up, but I haven't tried that yet.

It's probably the way my parents stored them or maybe the speed is wrong. I don't know.

mudpuddle said...

there's a way to do it for sure; i think it said you're supposed to use two panes of glass...

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi mudpuddle. Well, I can always try. I've nothing to lose.

RT said...

Regarding political figures as writers:
https://lithub.com/how-obamas-reading-shaped-his-writing/
Hmmm .... perhaps not what your posting is all about .... or is it ....

Carol said...

Fantastic review, Sharon! A pleasure to read & it sounds like a book right up my alley. Interesting that he' a Scot. I read a book at the end of last year called 'Our Glasgow.' My Mum grew up there & we lived not far away when I was a child so I know a bit of the background of the place but what I didn't know was how Communist the Glasgow dockyards were!

Debbie Nolan said...

Sharon first and foremost - glad to read your mom was able to enjoy the sunsets and walks. Great review on this book...it is hard to imagine such men rising to power and yet we know these types continue to exist. Thank you for your thoughts. Have a blessed week.

Sharon Wilfong said...

HI R.T. Well, I knew that Obama embraced both Marx and Saul Alinsky. He certainly made no secret of it.

Sharon Wilfong said...

HI Debbie!

Thank you for concern and yes. Books like these help us gain insight into the tyrannical mind, for sure. Be blessed, my friend.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Carol, yes it seems that the working class across Europe are very pro communist. Hope you're doing well. Prayers with you.