Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Booked!

Sometimes, books everyone pays attention to wind up causing as many problems as they are meant to correct. Author Benjamin Wiker offers a list of 10 that should be read, he believes -- so that the ideas in them can be recognized as folly and avoided. His 2008 10 Books that Screwed Up the World offers a brief sketch of the offenders and what's come about as people accepted their messages and thoughts uncritically.

For example, Machiavelli's The Prince suggested adapting evil's methods to achieve good's ends, Wiker says. That's not so bad at low levels, but follow the logic to the end and you get concentration camps, gulags and Mao Zedong's deadly Cultural Revolution. All of those are bad. Other books on his list also offered ideas that may have been relatively beneficial in the small doses or on the small scales which concerned their authors, but which when carried forward to their conclusions can result in sometimes monstrous evils. And of course some books, like Karl Marx and Friederich Engels' The Manifesto of the Communist Party, wind up wrong-headed because they start out that way.

Again, Wiker doesn't suggest these books should be banned or even that they should be avoided. Reading them is the only way to know what's in them and counter their harmful influence. His tone isn't always as temperate as you might wish for a scholarly evaluation, but he's not doing one of those as much as he is a highbrow polemic. Whether or not that makes 10 Books that Screwed Up the World a candidate for someone else's list of such books is up to the reader to determine.
According to what most soldiers say about service in a war zone, all of the time that you're not being shot at is as boring as could possibly be, except for the fact that you're thinking about being shot at. Soldiers in World War II, facing the bloodiest conflict imaginable up to that point in history, had the same problem.

So local libraries and communities got together to get donated books to send to soldiers at the front. This worked fairly well, except that not every donated book was something young men wanted to read. And some of those interesting books, being hardcovers, weren't the lightest additions to a field kit.  Some folks got in contact with publishers, who worked out a system of releasing both classic and current novels in lightweight paperback format, giving rise to the Armed Services Editions in 1943 and continuing until close to modern times. Molly Guptill Manning, in the 2015 book When Books Went to War, offers a history of the program and some of its impact.

The ASE editions were well-received -- traded, re-traded and passed around units until they were sometimes just collections of unattached pages. Manning points out the difference between the two sides in WWII -- while the Axis powers had built their expanding empire on an ideology that burned books, the Allies handed out free ones to everyday soldiers. That connection is interesting but probably doesn't prove as much as she thinks it does.

She's on firmer ground, though, that the availability of books as the only pastime for the millions of deployed soldiers probably contributed to the creation of a reading culture. And that culture outlasted their military service and carried over to the hundreds of thousands of former soldiers entering college and earning degrees. Not all of the ASE editions were popular pulp novels like Louis L'Amour or detective mysteries. Some were pretty deep novels and some were historic works of philosophy, all of which took time to process -- which the men serving in the theater had aplenty. ASE editions introduced the idea of the life of the mind to young men who might not have otherwise considered such matters.

When Books Went to War is a brisk survey of a fascinating dimension of military history, and even if it doesn't always justify Manning's conclusions, it's certainly worth having on the shelf of anyone who'd like to learn some more about it.


Todd Bergman said...

Re first book: I'm surprised the Bible is not highlighted with neon and bold letters on the cover.

Friar said...

Well, the guy's a Roman Catholic ethicist, so he probably figures that one's about fixing the world ;-)