The Infernal Library
On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy
"A mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small, from the familiar to the largely unknown."
—The Washington Post
A darkly humorous tour of "dictator literature" in the twentieth century, featuring the soul-killing prose and poetry of Hitler, Mao, and many more, which shows how books have sometimes shaped the world for the worse
Since the days of the Roman Empire dictators have written books. But in the twentieth-century despots enjoyed unprecedented print runs to (literally) captive audiences. The titans of the genre—Stalin, Mussolini, and Khomeini among them—produced theoretical works, spiritual manifestos, poetry, memoirs, and even the occasional romance novel and established a literary tradition of boundless tedium that continues to this day.
How did the production of literature become central to the running of regimes? What do these books reveal about the dictatorial soul? And how can books and literacy, most often viewed as inherently positive, cause immense and lasting harm? Putting daunting research to revelatory use, Daniel Kalder asks and brilliantly answers these questions.
Marshalled upon the beleaguered shelves of The Infernal Library are the books and commissioned works of the century’s most notorious figures. Their words led to the deaths of millions. Their conviction in the significance of their own thoughts brooked no argument. It is perhaps no wonder then, as Kalder argues, that many dictators began their careers as writers.
The 20th century's most infamous dictators were also authors, often prolific ones, complementing the atrocities they visited on humanity with crimes against literature. Kalder (Strange Telescopes), a journalist with a nimble style and an eye for leaden prose, 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. Kalder also extends his purview to the works of latter-day autocrats Fidel Castro, Mu'ammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, and Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov, whose spiritual, autobiographical tome, The Rukhnama, which Kalder encountered while living in Moscow, began his fascination with the subject. The substance of these books is largely beside the point, since, as Kalder observes, these autocrats' texts were not about thinking, but about repetition. Moreover, his zesty put-downs should discourage all but the most serious scholar from actually poring over them. Of Hitler's "almost 400 pages of gibberish," Mein Kampf, he says that it doesn't need to be read; "to provoke unease, fear, hatred, and terror, it need only exist." The enduring significance of these books, Kalder shows, is as totemic objects. Kalder's work is quite an accomplishment, and is the one book people interested in the terrible writing of dictators should read.