Podcast: The Killer's Canon

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.

10 Things I Learned From Reading Terrible Books Written by Dictators

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: The Nervous Breakdown Self-Interview

So, I hear you’ve written another book.
That’s right. It’s called The Infernal Library and it’s a study of dictator literature, that is to say books written by dictators, that is to say the worst books in the history of the world. I trace the development of the dictatorial tradition over the course of a century, starting with Lenin, then exploring the prose of Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, et al before arriving in the modern era where I analyze the texts of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and assorted post-Soviet dictators (among others). It’s a bit like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, only the books are terrible and many were written by mass murderers. It can also be read as an alternative cultural history of the 20th century, with implications for our own troubled times.
How did you manage to read so many execrable books without becoming a gibbering wreck?

Ask the Expert: Anti-Tourism


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. ?

Lost Territories

I  Soul

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 Russian Balconies

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.

Kremlin Kids Gone Wild!

Life is not easy for the offspring of dictators. Look at Gaddafi’s kids, who are either dead, in prison or in exile. Bashar al-Assad would have been an ophthalmologist if his elder brother hadn’t died. But now he has to kill thousands or be killed himself. Even Kim Jong-un, allegedly the supreme overlord of 24 million North Koreans looks vaguely terrified by the awesome responsibility of carrying on the family tradition of EVIL.
It’s not always easier for children who don’t get near actual power. Consider the case of Russia in the 20th century. For seventy years the country was ruled by authoritarian strongmen; all of them bar Lenin had children, and many of those “Kremlin kids” led deeply unhappy lives.
Stalin’s eldest son Yakov was a