There are a lot of very good, very long books out there: Middlemarch, War and Peace, Don Quixote, the Neapolitan Novels. And then there are the very long books you probably won’t ever want to read, like Leonid Brezhnev’s memoirs, Saddam Hussein’s hackneyed romance novels, or the Kim family’s film theory. This show is about that kind of very long book, and the man who decided to read all of them: Daniel Kalder, who joins us on the show to talk about his journey through The Infernal Library and what these books tell us about the dictatorial soul, assuming there is one.
Check out the podcast with The American Scholar.
The 20th century’s most infamous dictators were also authors, often prolific ones, complementing the atrocities they visited on humanity with crimes against literature. For his new book, The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy, Daniel Kalder read the significant works from this benighted subgenre, from the vast theoretical corpus of Lenin, through Stalin’s The Foundations of Leninism, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Mussolini’s My Life, and Mao’s Little Red Book. Here's what he found.
From Mussolini to Mao, many are the dictators who have inflicted atrocious books upon their subjects. Yet though these tomes are revered as sacred texts while their authors are alive, they vanish almost as soon as their regimes fall. Fascinated by this phenomenon, I set out to read my way through the dictatorial canon. I wanted to know what was really inside these diabolical books, and to understand what the poetry, political theory and (yes) romance novels of the world's worst tyrants could tell us about their authors and the relationship between the word and the world. The fruit of my suffering is called The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy. And here, for your reading pleasure, are just a few of the things I uncovered on my odyssey through the long dark night of the dictatorial soul.
1. Hitler knew he wasn't any good as a writer. Although generally not known for his modesty, and despite the fact that he forced two volumes of Mein Kampf on the German people (including a Braille edition and a luxury "wedding edition" for newlyweds), the Fuhrer seems to have suffered self-doubt regarding the quality of his magnum opus. Years after Mein Kampf was published he confessed to his lawyer that he would not have written the book had he known he would become chancellor. He also admitted, with startling frankness: "Ich bin kein Schriftsteller"-- "I am not a writer."
Daniel Kalder is the author of two of my favorite books of the 21st Century: Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist and Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse from Moscow to Siberia. His newest book, The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy, will be released on March 6, 2018.
In our Q&A, Daniel discusses some of his experiences as an anti-tourist, i.e. one whose duty is to “open up new zones of experience. In our over-explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid.“
Q1: Which foreign land that you've visited so far was the most impenetrable in your travels -- the one that had the most barriers to entry e.g. physical distance, bureaucracy, cost, etc. ?
It is well-known that when Lenin died in 1924 his brain was extracted from his skull and subsequently dissected by Soviet scientists who sought to reveal the source of his genius. Less well-known is that while his embalmers were excavating the rest of his innards they found his soul dispersed throughout his torso. This is a photograph of Lenin's soul.
On a recent visit to Istanbul I stayed in an apartment looking out on the Bosphorus. Every morning I’d get up and see the sun sparkling on the surface of the water as birds circled languidly overhead. At night it was even better, as the thumping techno from the pleasure boats and the call of the Muezzin intermingled. It was very different from my usual mode of accommodation when I travel: cheap hotels, dirt, and the lingering possibility of sudden, violent death.
In many ways it was the culmination of a quest that began years ago in my hometown of Dunfermline in Scotland. Over there, you don’t see too many balconies. It’s too windy and wet. Yet I remember one house that had a huge balcony on the second floor. I used to walk past, wishing I lived there. I didn’t care that it was useless, that if I sat up there the wind would probably pick me up and drop me in the North Sea. I only saw the ideal of open living, close to the sky.