Felicia getting as close as she dares to the water.
The 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.
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