Can books be dangerous?

There has been some interesting debate about Human Events’ Ten Most Harmful Books List (mentioned earlier this month by Phil). Apparently it threatened Jonathan Chait’s “efforts at ideological toleration” among other things.

I am not here to defend the list per se, as any list of this nature is rather subjective and unserious to a degree. But what I do find interesting is that so many people can’t seem to get past the fact that books can be dangerous; that they can even have unintended negative consequences. Many of the books listed are in this category (see here for more).

This is an issue that Jonah Goldberg takes up in NRO’s The Corner. Responding to a reader’s email Jonah has this to say:

This reader wants me to buy into the notion that books — i.e. ideas — can never be dangerous. Alas, I think that’s bunk. Of course books can be dangerous. Everything important, everything with the power to change mens’ minds can be dangerous. How you can believe a book — or a movie or a play — can make the world a better place but that it can never make the world a worse place is beyond me. Any medium which can uplift can confuse. Does the reader really think the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is only dangerous when thrown?

The notion that “art” can only be enlightening is a carbunkle of a cliché. The relevant question is, Therefore what? Since most people think censorship is the greatest evil known to man (a belief I’ve disputed many, many times), I certainly think criticizing ideas is not only fine, but sometimes necessary. Pragmatically, I admit this can backfire (calling a book “dangerous” increases its appeal). But I don’t see why, as a matter of principle, we can’t say some books made this world better and some books made this world worse.

This is an important issue. People fly into a tizzy any time someone so much as hints that a book shouldn’t be read or made available to everyone. Censorship! Everyone cries, as if that settles the point. But this is actually a much more difficult issue and not one in which all conservatives agree by the way (William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk – two giants of American conservatism – disagreed about the issue).

So let me throw this out to the peanut gallery (if there is one). Can books be dangerous? Should certain books and ideas be discouraged or kept from those unprepared to handle them? Or should the battle of ideas be left alone; with assuring a level playing field our only goal?

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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4 Comments

  • Of course books can be dangerous; it’s the old “ideas have consequences” thing. However, books or ideas can also be quite influential for good, and evaluating the ideas in any given book means reading it and discussing it and maybe even trying out some of the ideas contained therein. Also, dare I say it, Christians are told to compare the ideas of men to Scripture. Doing all of this reading and evaluating means that the books themselves must be available to read. And I don’t really trust the government or some group of elite evaluators or even the church to read for me and decide which ideas are good and which are dangerous.
    Now if you’re talking about children, parents have the responsibility to protect them from ideas and concepts that might be dangerous in the hands of those who are too immature to discern wisely.

  • Yes, books can be dangerous, and certain ideas should be suppressed. The mechanism of suppression is all anyone really is arguing about. I don’t think most people who cry “censorship” would invite the author of “The Turner Diaries” to a cocktail party. I would be pleased ot personally ostracize bigoted people, and if I owned a bookstore, would not stock certain books. I am a censorship regime of one!

  • I suggest that what Ben describes is not censorship. It’s discrimination and healthy. Censorship is something only the government can do on a macro level. It isn’t censorship for a publisher to reject a book, a reader to reject or destroy a book, or even a school board or teachers group to reject a book. That’s just making judgements.