Review: 10 Books That Screwed Up the World by Benjamin Wiker

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10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn’t Help by Benjamin Wiker

I recently picked this up while browsing the philosophy section of a local bookstore. On a side note, I love to look at what different bookstores call “Philosophy,” as they often differ greatly. Anyways, the title intrigued me and I picked it up and started reading, as I had a good bit of time to waste. I had a good idea of what the ten books would be (some Marx, Hitler, Nietzsche, among others). I’ll save you all the trouble and post the list here, with descriptions from the publisher:

  • Why Machiavelli’s The Prince was the inspiration for a long list of tyrannies (Stalin had it on his nightstand)
  • How Descartes’ Discourse on Method “proved” God’s existence only by making Him a creation of our own ego
  • How Hobbes’ Leviathan led to the belief that we have a “right” to whatever we want
  • Why Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto could win the award for the most malicious book ever written
  • How Darwin’s The Descent of Man proves he intended “survival of the fittest” to be applied to human society
  • How Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil issued the call for a world ruled solely by the “will to power”
  • How Hitler’s Mein Kampf was a kind of “spiritualized Darwinism” that accounts for his genocidal anti-Semitism
  • How the pansexual paradise described in Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa turned out to be a creation of her own sexual confusions and aspirations
  • Why Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was simply autobiography masquerading as science

While I’m happy (and surprised) to see Descartes on the list, most of the list is rather thinly defended, with the exception of Mein Kampf. Ultimately, the problem with 10 Books is not which books are on the list, as we could have an endless debate over the ten books which screwed up society the most. Wiker treats these books as if they were pure subliminal propaganda, and implies that the various negative social movements, ideologies, and so forth would not have emerged had these books not been written. This is not the case: antisemitism in post-Weimar Germany was there long before Hitler; socialism and communism has a long history before the manifesto of Marx and Engels; and the timing is far too off to consider the Kinsey report the sole cause of the sexual revolution that culminated in the late 1960s.

In all, Wiker does not spend any time explaining why each book became so rabidly popular within the cultural context of the time, or why it supported an ideology that was embraced by so many people. Communism cannot be explained by saying that The Communist Manifesto was simply a good piece of prose that convinced millions of people to revolt against capitalism. In fact, without State and Revolution and What is to be Done? by V.I. Lenin, the Communist Manifesto would have entered the dustbin of history much earlier. Communism before the Bolshevik revolutions of 1917 was hardly developed at all. For a rather detailed history of communist thought and practice that explains the delicate mix of personalities, writings, social movements, and historical conditions, check out To The Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. It is more than ten times the length Wiker spends on Marx and Engels, but that is the price you pay for analysis.

The same logic goes with Nazism and Mein Kampf , which is the book’s only decent section. To state that a book “screwed up the world” gives a significant amount of agency to a text. Now , Mein Kampf really did propel Hitler to popularity, which he then exploited. It logically follows that without having written his autobiography, he would not have been able to seize control of the country. However, the other books do not deserve this sort of agency. It seems that most of the time, Wiker’s method of determining which books most screwed up the world is to see how many people died as a direct or indirect (usually indirect) result of someone having read it. Needless to say, this ignores many other factors, especially with highly popular books.

The exception are Kinsey and Mead, whose works are attacked primarily because they are, in the author’s opinion, unscientific. However, solely being an unscientific non-fiction bestseller isn’t enough, or else this list would be hundreds of books long. Wiker’s problem with Kinsey and Mead is that they are culturally destructive and work to create “family breakdowns” (Inside Flap). Wiker attempts to implicate Kinsey as one of the primary causes of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which is a rather spurious claim. Of course the Kinsey Report played a part in the sexual revolution, but saying that it singlehandedly introduced alternative sexualities that aren’t based on the nuclear family into American culture gives it far too much credit. It is needless to say that if you don’t find anything wrong with alternative sexualities you won’t buy these two books as screwing up the world, but Wiker again ignores the cultural setting in lieu of attacking a single book. What would have happened if the Kinsey report was published in 1848, instead of 1948? Would we have had a sexual revolution instead of a civil war two decades later? I think not. And had Kinsey and Mead not written their books would we be living in a Puritan paradise? Hardly.

Finally, the inclusion of Descartes and Hobbes is rather naive, in my opinion. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of either of these philosophers, and think they made many mistakes which Wiker doesn’t even identify (his criticism is mostly a religious one). However, to say that they screwed up the world not only conceptualizes “the world” in ways that are quite Cartesian, but also ignores their place in the history of philosophy. Would first Hume, then Kant have emerged without the writings of Descartes? Would first Locke, then Rousseau have written what they did without the writings of Hobbes? I’m not saying that the works of Descartes and Hobbes had to be written before anything like late-Enlightenment thought could come about, but rather that philosophy is path dependent – in short, that what came before matters.

What I would appreciate is a list such as this that explained why these books were so popular. Not necessarily a prescriptive history that explains why each book had to be written, but one that looks to see why that book became accepted in popular, political, and academic culture. We’ve had enough of the Great Man trope in history – the idea that certain historical events happened solely because of one individual. Hitler wouldn’t have risen to power without the support of the civil institutions in Germany, Napoleon wouldn’t have been able to consolidate power throughout Europe without a delicate mix of situations and events, and Communism in Russia never would have taken off without a series of conditions among the various classes and careful planning not simply by Lenin, but all of the Bolsheviks with all of their sometimes-contradictory interests. Why can’t we have a socio-political history of books that also refuses to make this fallacy?