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Reading is dangerous

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Feb. 12th, 2009 | 07:33 pm

Some time ago, a conservative publication (that my father happens to subscribe to) put forth a list of the 10 Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. While I don't think that I would describe books as harmful, I am interested in the sort of reaction that we have to ideas. I'm uncomfortable with calling a book harmful, because that seems to at least imply that censorship would be in order, and I think that perhaps bad ideas are better served by being made public and vigorously debated.

Of course, this got me thinking, so instead of thinking of "harmful books", per se, I thought that I would compose a list of the 10 books that I've actually read, which have been of some consequence, whose philosophical ideas I find at least fairly obnoxious. Disagree with me or propose your own as you might see fit. (PS I know I don't format according to the American style with quotation marks and periods; I find that way nonsensical. This isn't an academic paper, so I'll do as I like).



1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

I think the idea that most people draw from this book is something like this: "Society is structured so that the masses takes advantage of the talented few", thus establishing a philosophical ground for the morality of rational self-interest. To be sure, this is an elitist sort of message, but I don't think that this radical libertarian critique is quite the message of the book. To me the fundamental character for divining its morality is Eddie Withers who is a hardworking, just, honest person but does not posses the "Promethean" capabilities of the members of the hidden community. In the end, he is left alone to die, even though he has arguably worked as hard as anyone. To me this really suggests more of a Nietzchean or Thrasymachan "might makes right" argument, since it doesn't really matter how you act, only that if you are the ubermench rules don't apply to you; you get to make them. Rand simply doesn't care that society shuts down and everybody dies. The argument she has about what makes a human valuable has absolutely terrifying implications.

2. A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law by Antonin Scalia

Scalia seems to honestly believe that we should only interpret the Constitution according to what the original meaning was at the time. His essential claim is that this is the least harmful way to go about interpreting the law. I found this argument running awfully close to something more doctrinal than legitimate. He never really explains how the 17th century definition of a word is appropriate to 20th century application, especially as new contexts arise. To carry it out fully would require far too many constitutional amendments.

3. The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama.

Oddly enough for a darling of the neoconservative movement, he owes a heavy debt to Marx. The difference here is that he turns orthodox Marxian philosophy on its head and asserts that liberal democracy is the end of history. It tries to establish the end of all ideology, thus leading to a sort of peaceful world prosperity ignoring all the other complexities of life. In several hundred pages it never manages to be as insightful as Winston Churchill's dictum about democracy (i.e. Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried), and establishes a basis for "democracy evangalism", that is Iraq.

4. Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida

I really could put anything by Derrida here, but this seems to be his best known book. Derrida writes so obscurely that you can almost never tell what he's saying, then if you criticize him he calls you an idiot. He probably has done more damage to the humanities than anyone. He intentionally establishes obscuritanism as a way to achieve academic renown without actually saying anything interesting.

5. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray

Should anyone really read a book whose title is a comma splice? That should be the tip off right there. This book has inspired decades of pointless psychological research trying to establish sex differences that don't actually exist. Its inane theories of gender-based communication have been essentially disproved, and it has been more of a bane than a boon to people in need of relationship advice.

6. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

I feel even more repulsed by this book now that the movie based on it has the potential to win an Oscar. Reading this put me into a psychological funk for over a week. Holocaust denial has never been able to gain any traction in mainstream circles, but this book accomplishes practically the same thing with its Holocaust expiation plus a generous amount of Nazi porn thrown in. Allegory plays a large role in this book: Hanna seduces a young man who she makes read to her, basically in exchange for sex. Later, he is witness to her trial as a war criminal because she worked as a guard at a Nazi prison camp and later locked a bunch of women in a church and guarded it as they burned to death. As the advertising for the movie plays up, she has a secret worse than murder!!!--illiteracy. Since she couldn't read, she only came to understand what the Nazis were doing (perhaps philosophically) when she reads Primo Levi in prison. Unbelievable! She's just like the German people who weren't able to "read" the Nazi program. See! The Holocaust was really just the fault of a few really bad people. Phew! --- This is the sort of argument that I have absolutely no patience for. If we can't admit our own potential for evil, especially in the most banal of circumstances, how can we ever hope to stop it?

7. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

What would happen if you read about Gautama Buddha in an encyclopedia and then decided to write a novel about him? You would get this book. Theological insight is reduced to some rote parablesque experiences. This is European ecumenicism at its worst, and it impoverishes all religion as a consequence (ask someone actually raised in a Hindu or Buddhist culture what they think of this book, but only if you are prepared for a long tirade). I can't fail but to see how this helped concretize New-Age pseudo-theology as legitimate and undoubtedly led to some of the most horrible books written in recent years (Life of Pi, anyone?).

8. Critique of Judgment by Immanuel Kant

I secretly entitle the third critique in my head as, How to Unconvincingly Resolve Dualism and Make Art Boring at the Same Time. Based on the "sensus communis"(community of taste), he somehow argues that in critiquing works of art, we somehow are able to make "subjective universal" judgments about art. Beauty is defined as "pleasure with disinterest", and from this disinterested pleasure we are able to determine that everyone "ought" to appreciate as art. Like all his critiques, his project of resolving dualism is somewhat unconvincing, but he also makes you never want to engage with art ever again. In fact, he basically ruined aesthetic theory for 100 years.

9. Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy by Viktor Frankl

I never figured out how this book was hopeful in anyway, except for perhaps the credo: "Don't Disappoint God or your mummy and daddy up in heaven by killing yourself". It reminds of the time I was feeling depressed and someone sent me This Video to make me feel better. It's more similar to disaster porn than anything. This book holds up especially poorly to Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi who actually engage with what the experience of the holocaust meant.

10. American Psycho by Brett Eaton Ellis

Before you attack me, I know that it's written as a satire. The traders in the 80s could do whatever they wanted, just as if they were serial killers. I get it. Still, it's not that well done. It ends up not being so much a critique of that culture, as an intense pornographic expression of rage from an outsider. It works against its own satire by presenting these idealized/idolized men with power, and really never giving a persuasive reason why you shouldn't worship the anti-hero. It's covert homoerotic desire for that sort of mainstream heterosexual power. Also, it's inspired way to much grotesque gross-out gore "transgressive lit" that serves absolutely no purpose than to express rage at society (and usually demean women in the process).

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Comments {14}

Eleanor

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from: eleanorgrace
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 09:12 am (UTC)
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I sense some anti-german sentiment in your list!

I read the Reader in German so missed most to all of the nuance, but I don't think it means to speak for all Germans and their lack of responsibility for the Holocaust; I think it's meant to show another kind of tragedy, that this illiterate, probably mentally and emotionally stunted woman was used by this horrible cause in a way that raises interesting questions about guilt and understanding. But doesn't excuse anyone's actions, necessarily. And I think the author wanted to use that sort of unexpected ethical situation as a context for his main character to kind of come of age (when he's the aspiring lawyer, not when he's the statutory-raped child). But like I said, since I read it in German, back before I understood any German, I probably added my own interpretation more than usual.

The list they wrote is is super anti-academic and especially anti-philosophy. Contemporary philosophy has moved away from the universals conservatives love to cling to, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Also, they strike me as strongly anti-sex. What boring lives they must have.

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Samuel

(no subject)

from: samchuck
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)
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The Germans have just been such prolific writers it was kind of inevitable, right? Actually, even though I was born almost 40 years after WWII ended, and nobody in my family is Jewish, I'm obsessed with the Holocaust. Two of the books dealing with it probably tilts my list towards the Germans.

Anyway, you made me think that my reading of The Reader is probably somewhat more of an American reading. I can see how it could work as a coming-of-age story for the generations of Germans born after the war, but whose parents were generally involved in Nazism. I think that post-war generation framing lends itself to a psychoanalytic reading along the lines of love from the war generation is essentially statutory rape on the younger generation who because of the knowledge they grew up with have reconcile feeling of disgust with the desire to give atonement. I think I still find that fairly anemic, though.

But they get Ray Comfort</i> and other people like him. I'm still not entirely convinced that he's not a performance artist.

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(no subject)

from: chahn
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 09:41 am (UTC)
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Fascinating list; thanks for sharing. I completely agree about Atlas Shrugged and Derrida. I don't know what to think about the Third Critique--on the one hand, I really don't find his aesthetics convincing, and yet on the other hand I find myself attracted to the idea of a principle internal to the faculty of judgment that functions as a subjective "rule" for judgment itself. In other words, I'm really interested in the Introduction to the Critique and don't like the details that come out in the body of the book.

I'm surprised by your distaste for Frankl's book. You're right that it doesn't compare to Wiesel/Levi in terms of what the Holocaust meant, but I really don't think that's his goal. I see his discussion of the concentration camps as an extended autobiography that also functions as an introductory case study for logotherapy. It also functions as an empathy-building story (I, the therapist, am not just a talking head, I can imagine what pain you, the person ready to jump off the cliff, are feeling). From that perspective, it's probably a good thing that he gives a more cursory treatment to the Holocaust than Wiesel; the suffering of the event more or less speaks for itself, and trying to account for the uniqueness of the Holocaust would be the therapeutic equivalent of having your shrink say, "Your suffering is nothing! Let me tell you what real suffering is!" Not exactly the most helpful technique.

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(no subject)

from: chahn
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 10:27 am (UTC)
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By the way, frak you for doing this: now I'm going to spend all day and probably most of the weekend coming up with my own list when I really need to be writing my dissertation update for my director. I hate you.

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Samuel

(no subject)

from: samchuck
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC)
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My main issue with Kant here is what he has to define as beauty in order to fit it into his philosophy. The "pleasure with disinterest" seems to rob art of something almost vital for making art interesting. I think about "Mona Lisa" versus "Guernica". I would think the ML would be rated the more beautiful under Kant's schema, but I'd still rather look at G given the chance, and in large part because of the passion it arouses, specifically passion I wouldn't expect it to arouse in everyone (or at least I wouldn't make it an ought). In fairness, I find his concept of the sublime much more engaging. I'm sure that some philosopher has done something exploring the relationship between these two that I'd find much more palatable.

About Frankl: I just have this thing about the Holocaust, wherein I find not acknowledging the horror of it to be abhorrent. I was really put off by his assertion that there were good and bad guards just like good and bad prisoners. The best guard (who isn't actively resisting-sabotaging equiptment, smuggling people out, etc.) is still much worse than the worst Capo.
Also, Logotherapy strikes me as uncompelling. It's like Sartrian existentialism with its arms and legs chopped off. Frankl forces you to believe that life always has meaning. If you can't engage with the radical notion that it doesn't, then it makes the subsequent conclusion depressing shallow. It's like listening to the local nondenominational pastor talk about the story of Abraham and Isaac or reading Kirkegaard's Fear and Trembling. I guess, on the whole, I find his cure worse than the illness.

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winstonsbitch

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from: winstonsbitch
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
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On a uselessly unrelated note, I would like to observe that I have heard a lot of sermons and homilies or whatever the hell the kids are calling them these days... and I've never heard a good one on Abraham and Isaac, or the Book of Job.

Also, what's your beef with Fear and T?

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Samuel

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from: samchuck
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC)
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That "or" was intended to be "compared to". I meant to imply that Fear and Trembling is complex and interesting and awesome compared to a shallow Baptist sermon. It's just that haven't slept yet, so things are starting to experience some slippage.

Good sermons(or homilies, my bi-religious upbringing has left me thoroughly confused) are almost impossible to hear these days. Everyone now talks down to the congregation.

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winstonsbitch

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from: winstonsbitch
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 06:37 pm (UTC)
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Actually, you know who else should be on the list? The language poets. Not even kidding. I honestly think theory is getting in the way of American poetry and these fuckers are completely bought into thought without pleasure. It makes me want to spend the rest of my life writing limericks.

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seamus mclean

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from: seamusmclean
date: Feb. 15th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
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Back in the day, we Prof. Kugler for Honours Old Testament. He was a Lutheran Minister. He explained in class his theory that the Book of Job was actually written as a condemnation of Judaism's conception of God, and was included in Hebrew Bible sort of by accident, from people who mis-translated a preposition and ended up missing the point.

Shortly thereafter, he was pressured to leave Gonzaga.

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Samuel

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from: samchuck
date: Feb. 15th, 2009 02:08 am (UTC)
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I hadn't though about Prof. Kugler in so long. He was one of the best Professors I've ever had. We ended up taking the Synoptic Gospels from him, and I still use stuff I learned in that class all the time. I would have majored in theology if he would have taught every single class.

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seamus mclean

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from: seamusmclean
date: Feb. 16th, 2009 08:21 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, Kugler was amazing. Spring semester my freshman year, I basically blew off all my other classes because I was just having way too much fun working on my big paper for his class.

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winstonsbitch

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from: winstonsbitch
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 01:08 pm (UTC)
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a. Fuck "The Reader." I tried to read it and I couldn't finish it, not for moral reasons, but out of a dislike for contrived plots.

b. The first list is awesome. But what bugs me more than, say, putting "The Feminine Mystique" on the same list as "Mein Kampf" is putting "Mein Kampf" on the same list as "The Communist Manifesto." It drives me nuts that they can't distinguish between different kinds of influence.

c. I don't dislike Frankl as much as you, but in general it's a bad sign that I finished that book and thought, "Huh, well that book detailing the Holocaust was a nice easy read."

d. I am stealing this idea from you and making it still more masturbatory... as you shall see..

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Something so wild turned into paper

(no subject)

from: ann_septimus
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)
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I entirely agree with the assessment of Hesse. I'm sorry -- I just had the crushing feeling that Hesse got slightly confused (or just wasn't informed enough) about his point when writing it and ended up patching in the gaps with Christo-centric pablum. That is not, however, to say that all Hesse is bad (have you read "Damian"?)... but just that this book drives me up the wall.

Should anyone really read a book whose title is a comma splice? Thank you.

I wish I could say that I had dredged my way through Fukuyama... but honestly, after the first 75 pages, I got annoyed with it an put it down. I'm sure the bookmark is still in there somewhere. Honestly, I don't care.

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seamus mclean

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from: seamusmclean
date: Feb. 13th, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
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I've tried to steer so many people away from "American Psycho." Especially after the movie came out. Kept having to try to explain to them "No, really, the book is way more horrible."

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