Stalin’s library and mine

In his review of Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books, by Geoffrey Roberts, Nigel Jones writes in the Spectator:

Roberts takes us through Stalin’s life and shows how his reading molded his actions. Books transformed the bright seminary student into a ferocious revolutionary, prepared to sacrifice family, friends and a vast array of enemies — capitalists, kulaks, fellow Bolsheviks, imperialists, Trotskyist deviationists and millions of ordinary Soviet citizens — on the altar of his rigid dogmas.

* * * * *

Stalin’s Library tilts our image of a paranoid killer interested only in power towards a more nuanced — but even scarier — one: of a deep thinker prepared to turn his ideas into bullets to mow down those who thought differently.

As the world anxiously waits to see whether another ruthless Russian ruler with a similar fixity of purpose will go to war in his effort to reconstruct Stalin’s state, this brief but penetrating book offers an object lesson: a little learning may be a dangerous thing, but so is a lot.

Bad books can do a lot of damage. Earlier this week, after quoting Leo Strauss’s extemporaneous tribute to Churchill on learning of Churchill’s death in 1965, I took a break to pull down books by Strauss from my own library. Reading Strauss in college rescued me from the suffocating historicism and relativism that were carried in the air we breathed. If you know a bright young student who might benefit from an exposition of the paradoxes of relativism, I recommend the first two chapters of Strauss’s Natural Right and History. They strike with something like surgical precision.

If you know a bright young student who has an open mind and/or who needs to be disabused of the doctrinaire racism and other orthodoxies that permeate the left, the academy, the mainstream media, and just about every other significant institution in American life, I have five books to recommend (plus one from my teacher). The first such book that put me on the path was Edmund Burke’s Reflections On the Revolution in France, a classic of political analysis, yet it doesn’t quite fit in here.

These five books have a Lincolnian emphasis because Lincoln provides such a powerful antidote to the new racism and old hatred of our country that is at the heart of the current orthodoxy. They are extremely unlikely to harm young men and women trying to think things through for themselves. On the contrary…

1. Harry Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

2. (a) Robert Johannsen, editor, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858.

2. (b) Paul Angle, editor, The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858.

2. (c) Harold Holzer, editor, The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text.

3. Roy Basler, editor, Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings.

4. Leo Strauss, On Tyranny.

5. Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.

Plus one: I meet weekly with a friend to study political philosophy under the tutelage of an outstanding college teacher who is younger than I am. I asked him this week what book turned him to political philosophy. It fits right in here. He cited:

* Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students.

UPDATE: A trusted friend writes to recommend the Audiobook edition of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, with David Strathairn delivering Lincoln’s remarks and Richard Dreyfuss delivering the remarks of Senator Douglas.

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