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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Dangerous Books: Late to the Party

A few weeks back, lots of folks were discussing this list of books certain other folks found "dangerous".  Blawging  ensued. 

At the time, many  conceded that Marx's "The Communist Manifesto" necessarily belonged  on a list of influential books. (Christine Hurt argued that books aren't dangerous, people are).  This seemed wrong to me at the time.  Not because I think communism wasn't a hugely influential philosophy (also evil by nature and as applied).  But because I've been re-reading Koba the Dread, by Martin Amis.  In it, he points out that Lenin read Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel "What is to be Done?" (1863) five times in one summer.  Amis relates a scholar's comment that the novel "far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went [on] to make the Russian Revolution."  Or, as Lenin put it, "It completely reshaped me."  Amis concludes that "What is to be Done?" is the "most influential novel of all time."

(Jane Austen fans: I'm very, very sorry.)

(Hat tip to the original listmakers:  they voted "What is to be Done?" as the 12th most dangerous book.)

Maybe Amis overstates the case. But surely Chernyshevsky's novel heads the list of Books You've Never Heard Of That Changed the World.  Also on the list?  The nutshell version of Blackstone's commentaries at the time of the founding. (What, you think Hamilton  waded through the unedited version?)

Posted by Dave Hoffman on June 21, 2005 at 11:37 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Nice post. But I've totally heard of What Is To Be Done? In fact, I've heard of it a bunch of different times. Seemed like half the Russian novels/pamphlets of the late 19th century had that title.

The only book I've read five times though, was Wide Willie, Wide Receiver, by William Campbell Gault. In my defense, I was 12 at the time, and pretty sure that I needed to prepare for my own wild pro football career. I bet The Very Hungry Catepillar - high in the pantheon of currently important written works - has been read repeatedly by a number of world-historical decisionmakers.

Posted by: David | Jun 21, 2005 3:25:16 PM

I had a misfortune to read What Is to Be Done? in high school (this sad circumstance, of course, pales in comparison with the misfortune of growing up in a country built on the ideas of the said book, but let’s put this aside for a moment).

The book is truly dreadful. It has no redeeming literary or philosophical value. Its positive characters are flat cartoon creatures basically indistinguishable from each other. Negative characters are equally flat but at least a bit more entertaining. The plot is thin, which is unsurprising, since scarce and incoherent events are simply fillers between political speeches. Every other page contains a narrator’s monologue, revealing philosophical sophistication and historical awareness of a ten-year-old. There are also pages and pages of “visions of the future” that are about as well-written as a restaurant menu.

The contents of those “visions of the future” are no better than the style of presentation. All adults live in identical dorms made of glass (no privacy is permitted); they eat together in communal kitchens; sleep on identical all-aluminum furniture, and grow coffee, rice, and grapes on the same agriculturally-miraculous collective field (not sure about the purpose of grapes, since there is apparently no alcohol allowed). 90% of the population is assigned to work in the fields and another 10% in the kitchen (I kid you not). Preferred form of art is collective singing. Everyone is physically attractive and happy all the time.

How can anyone be seriously moved and inspired by this laundry list of goodness with light sprinkles of a bland plot? And how can anyone seriously call it “the most influential novel of all times”? Not Dostoevsky? Not Chekhov? Not Tolstoi? But Chernyshevsky? You gotta be kidding.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Jun 21, 2005 5:36:33 PM

Kate: your description of What is to be Done (which I've never read) sounds like Ayn Rand!

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 21, 2005 6:04:36 PM

Trust me, Chernyshevsky is substantially worse. Ann Rand's characters are full of passion, anger, obsession with world domination, and odd desire to inflict pain upon themselves. Good or bad, they are romantic tortured souls. Chernyshevsky’s characters refer to each other as "sweetie" and speak like preteens at a debate tournament. They are beanie babies from a commercial.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Jun 21, 2005 6:26:52 PM

David: I guess my knowledge of Russian late 19th century literature is pretty weak. But I bet if you asked 1000 college educated adults off the street, less than 5 would have heard of this book. (Cf. Marx) As for well-read books, I'm thinking that the Giving Tree has the potential to transform our upcoming generation of leaders' environmental policies.

Kate: Amis didn't say it was good, just that Lenin and his ilk were strongly influenced by it. Your description of having to read it gave me the shudders! (Even worse than what is forced on our secondary students -- e.g., "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn") If this book contributed to the stunted, callous, terroristic worldview of Lenin, then it was a pretty significant novel. Chekhov, god love him, didn't contribute to the death of scores of millions of people.

Posted by: Dave Hoffman | Jun 21, 2005 11:04:33 PM

This was an excellent post. I'd heard of the slogan, natch, but didn't know it was the title of a novel.

I'll repost here part of my comment on Prof. Hurt's earlier post. She had reasoned that many people oppose the regulation of guns for the same grounds that many oppose the regulation of books, even dangerous ones:

I don't see anything wrong with compiling a list of dangerous books, as long as it's not accompanied by a call for censorship. Books can be dangerous, like guns -- as, indeed, can most other tools that play an significant role in grown-up life and politics. One criterion of adulthood is being responsible enough to handle dangerous items.

The books-and-guns parallel is illuminating and pretty extensive, it seems to me. For example, dangerous books are like guns in that it is important for parents to teach kids to use them, but at the right time and under proper supervision.

I would also suggest that Dangerous Books has real promise as a band name.

Posted by: Plainsman | Jun 22, 2005 1:51:46 PM

The italicized text above is of course from my earlier comment, not Prof. Hurt's post.

Posted by: Plainsman | Jun 22, 2005 1:52:50 PM

Dave: my point was that the book is so badly written that I find it hard to believe it could really influence a lot of people. Lenin’s dithyrambs to random populist brochures were very often misquoted (or quoted out of context) by the Soviets.

The book that many Russians honestly believe to be the most dangerous (or influential) book ever written is The Possessed, by Dostoevsky. Quite a difference from Chernyshevsky’s illiterate opus.

Posted by: Kate Litvak | Jun 22, 2005 10:56:51 PM

Kate - sorry for misunderstanding you. Obviously, you are better positioned to know the facts on this issue than I. I do recommend "Koba the Dread," however. Evocative, even if occasionally wrong.

Posted by: Dave Hoffman | Jun 23, 2005 8:56:14 AM

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