What to Save When the Book Burners Come

From R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., to Karl Hess, writers tell us what they'd keep.


Books. I recall a childhood filled with them—picture books, storybooks; later on, novels, biographies, encyclopedias; works on art, history, archaeology, architecture, nature. Name the subject, we had a book about it. I liked my books for their pictures, their tales, their nuggets of knowledge, their whimsy, their idiocies. I even enjoyed the dictionary, engrossed by the scope of mankind's linguistic versatility.

Don't get me wrong. I was no bookworm. I wasn't one to curl up in a corner at every chance, nose in a book. I liked books, but largely for the real-life experiences they inspired me to seek out. Most of all, I liked books because they so grandly illustrate what a varied lot we are.

A glimpse at my own shelves proves the point. I've got a book of irreverent poems by Shel Silverstein ("God gave us fingers—Ma says, 'Go wash 'em.'/But God gave us coal bins and nice dirty bodies./And I ain't too smart, but there's one thing for certain/Either Ma's wrong or else God is") tucked in beside Euell Gibbons exhorting me in Stalking the Wild Asparagus to eat fried cattails. Then there's Wilhelm Reich's Function of the Orgasm, or Gore Vidal telling me in his Collected Works that Barry Goldwater's "one creative contribution (in the family business) was the invention and promotion of men's shorts decorated with large red ants in the pants." And the (first) Whole Earth Catalogue tells me everything I ever wanted to know about everything.

Somber epics—War and Peace—sit side-by-side zesty remnants of the '60s—Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I have a book telling me that George Burns Sex Franchises might be a good thing to get in on as the baby boomers start hitting 70. It reposes next to a book that says the sexual revolution in Europe, which brought women a table with men in the Middle Ages, made it no longer genteel to "blow one's nose on the tablecloth or wipe one's hands on one's dog."

Even a cursory survey of my not-so-grand library confirms how knowledgeable, nerdish, profound, and petty we can be. Above all, my library reminds me we are all unique.

But alas, our uniqueness is under siege. The bookburners are upon us, "running about," as novelist Ray Bradbury warns, "with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitary, Irish/Italian, Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women's Lib/Republican/Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse."

Censorship is no new affliction. The prim and patriotic have long sought to banish "dirty books" and "un-American ideas" from our shelves. But our schools and libraries, bookstores and magazine racks, are today increasingly prey to these would-be umpires of our ideas.

Poor Shakespeare! His Romeo and Juliet is under fire for "encouragement of suicide and drug use." His Macbeth fares no better, targeted as a tome of "death, suicide, ghosts, and Satan." Bookburners have set their sights on classics like The Wizard of Oz (I guess it fosters witchcraft) and Catcher in the Rye, the Merriam-Webster College Dictionary (for unacceptable definitions—Orwell, are you listening?), and Ms. and Redbook magazines (too risqué!). Others have targeted Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for their allegedly degrading depiction of blacks.

Civil-libertarian lawyers, Bill of Rights in hand, are dutifully putting up a fight. But legal victories snatched here and there offer only partial comfort. The greater battle is against the humorless, joyless, sinister intolerance that springs from a fear of individuality.

Ray Bradbury had it exactly right when he wrote in Fahrenheit 451, his chilling account of a world of bookburners: "So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless." Worse still, the censors want the world's face to be their own.

Classics and trash, good sense and nonsense, reflect what man is—warts and all. Try to remove the warts, fill the pores, cut the callouses, and pretty soon you have a bunch of lusterless wax moon faces.

Ray Bradbury depicts such a soulless, uniform world in his 1950 classic, Fahrenheit 451. But even in this monotonous world of mush brains, a few outcasts "become," by committing to memory, their most cherished tomes—the Bible, Thoreau's Walden, the complete essays of Bertrand Russell, Gulliver's Travels, Plato's Republic, works by Tom Paine, Byron, Machiavelli, Gandhi, Confucius, and Jefferson. Books survive unscathed in the minds of the renegades.

If the nightmarish world of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 were upon us, what would some of us choose to preserve? That's the question REASON posed, for this year's special book section, to various writers and scholars. Those who replied illustrate once again what a varied lot we are.

—Lynn Scarlett

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
Conservative humorist and editor-in-chief of The American Spectator

Had I not just finished Armando Valladares's Against All Hope, I would have objected, perhaps derisively, to the suggestion that human beings are competent to consign whole books to memory. However, in chronicling his 22 years of torture at the hands—and feet—of Castro's adept jailers, Valladares reminds his readers of the wonders humans can perform. Awareness of this human capacity is why, I suppose, many of us value personal liberty. So possibly I could memorize a few books, but in the service of rebuilding a civilization they would have to stimulate the intellect, the moral sense, the spirit, and the imagination. Thus, rather than literature, I would resort to works of philosophy, history, and religion.

Let us include a collection of Shakespeare's plays, for they cover all the aforementioned disciplines plus literature. Let us include The Politics and The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle, and throw in Plato's Republic. Aristotle will assure that our new civilization values freedom, reason, and virtue; and Plato assists in all this but reveals the dangers of freedom's antithesis.

Only an ass would deny generations yet to come that combination of ribaldry and politics, philosophy and religion, inhering throughout the Bible. Finally, let us not forget to include an anthology of editorials from The Nation, that we might all be reminded of mankind's weakness for becoming dolts and cads. And did you ever read Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ? Valladares seems to have been fortified by it, and the conditions your editors present to me suggest that in the incunabular years of our new civilization, some of us will be in need of fortification.

Poul Anderson
Science fiction author, Tau Zero, Orion Shall Rise, etc.

For facts and background on which thought must base itself if it is to mean anything, and for some of the best of such thought, I would preserve: (1) the King James Bible, preferably annotated—a cornerstone of Western civilization and, in this version, the English language; (2) the complete Shakespeare, also preferably annotated—people would realize what's been taken away from them; (3) a good one-volume world history—with all its faults, H.G. Wells's Outline might still serve; (4) The Federalist Papers—my copy appends both the Articles and the Constitution; (5) On Power, by Bertrand de Jouvenel—a vatic work, which would point out that the bookburners aren't the only enemies of liberty; (6) Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science, by Hermann Weyl—a guide for the eventual reconstruction of these endeavors.

For books that arouse emotions and give personal insights, I would preserve a second, probably more idiosyncratic, list, its criteria being evocativeness and the sheer joy of language: (1) Homer—especially if I'm allowed to learn Attic Greek; (2) Shakespeare again; (3) The Family Mark Twain—maybe I'm cheating a bit, since this volume includes several books as well as some of the best short pieces; (4) Den Lange Rejse (in English, The Long Journey), by Johannes V. Jensen—a tremendous, mythic account of man's growth from the first taming of fire to the Age of Discovery; (5) The Complete Sherlock Holmes—okay, not the greatest of literature, but storytelling art at its peak and a picture of an era when freedom was vigorously alive; (6) Rudyard Kipling's Verse—he isn't often very subtle, but nobody would sound better at an outlaw campfire!

Walter Williams
Economist and author, The State Against Blacks

One wonders whether bookburners would put the torch to science books, but just in case I would grab Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia. Weighing in at 20 pounds, it represents the most complete single source of scientific reference material.

As sure as night follows day, some people in the new world would opt for the "fairness" of socialism. That's why I'd take along Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's Communist Manifesto. These books could be used to make the lesson clear that there are few conceptual distinctions between socialism and Nazism.

Just in case one of these forms of totalitarianism were to grab hold in the new world, I'd take along Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Since its eloquent arguments for freedom rallied our Founding Fathers against the tyranny of King George, it might serve a similar purpose in the new world. To capture the wisdom of Locke, Hume, and Adam Smith in one small bite, I'd also grab Milton Friedman's Free to Choose. It is the best readily understood single source of the strongest arguments for voluntary exchange and individual liberty.

Finally, since all work and no play tires the soul, I'd take along Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. It makes for fine stories and great political satire. Furthermore, the work could be easily adapted for our children. We need only to get Gulliver to refrain from urinating on the castle grounds in his voyage to Lilliput and eliminate that bizarre experiment in his voyage to Laputa where the natives go through the seemingly futile exercise of trying to reduce human excrement to its original food.

Leonard Liggio
Historian and president of the Institute for Human Studies

The following are the books I have felt to have been personally of importance for me intellectually. Henri Pirenne's histories of Europe, especially his Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, gives an introduction to the development of market relations. Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State provides an introduction to the growth of the state that he follows through in his many books on European history, especially of the French Revolution. Albert J. Nock's Our Enemy, the State presents an analysis of the 20th-century statist revolution. John U. Nef's War and Human Progress shows that the industrial revolutions arose not in warring Europe but in peaceful England and that pure and applied science flourished most in peace and least in war. Robert A. Taft's A Foreign Policy for Americans summarizes the Hoover-Taft position that war preparation led to growth of government and that war undermined economic structures, paving the way for the popularity of communist insurgencies. Charles Callan Tansill's Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933–41 has the dean of American diplomatic historians completing the work of the dean of American political scientists, Charles A. Beard, in explaining the role of the Roosevelt administration in American intervention in the Second World War.

William Simon
Former Secretary of the Treasury and author, A Time for Truth and A Time for Action

Here are my recommendations, my list of books that might sustain our heritage of liberty and limited government: the Bible, to recover the Judeo-Christian heritage of human dignity; Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, to recover the essential importance of liberty as a cause of prosperity; The Federalist Papers, to recover the philosophical basis of the U.S. Constitution and the importance of limited government in sustaining our fundamental freedoms; Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, to recover the lessons our generation has painfully learned, that reliance on the state to do what individuals can do for themselves leads inevitably to ruin; Winston Churchill's The Second World War, to tell an unborn generation how we almost lost our civilization by accommodating tyranny and at what cost we saved ourselves; Whittaker Chambers's Witness, to tell the story of one man's odyssey from infatuation with totalitarianism to appreciation of liberty and to demonstrate what the stakes are between these stark choices; Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, to show how democracy is supported by customs and institutions and how it is threatened by the temptation to sacrifice liberty in favor of equality; Joseph Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, to outline the choices with which we are faced, and to emphasize the importance of moral habits in maintaining our system of private enterprise; Carl Sandburg's Life of Lincoln, to demonstrate what great leadership in crisis is and how Americans were able to find such a leader in a time of supreme crisis; A Time for Truth, my own diagnosis of the ills of our time and a call to return to those truths that made our nation great, based on my reading of the above works.

Nat Hentoff
Civil libertarian, jazz critic, and writer for the Village Voice

My choices would include Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's A Hundred Years of Solitude, Charles Dickens's Bleak House, and T.S. Elliot's The Four Quartets.

Erika Holzer
Author, Double Crossing

My powers of memory, once acute, have practically atrophied since leaving the institutions of higher learning many years ago (where memorizing was so much in demand). So our dissident leaders are asking a lot, given my first two choices: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead (725 pages!) and Atlas Shrugged (1,168 pages!!). Quite simply, I cannot imagine a world without either.

While there is no more eloquent symbol of intransigent individualism than The Fountainhead's Howard Roark, he inspires me, more precisely, for never letting pain penetrate too deeply and for achieving the enviable goal of serenity while struggling for his values in an irrational world. In the world of the bookburners, such inspiration should prove invaluable.

I see Atlas as our political, economic, and spiritual blueprint for the future. But even more important, perhaps, is its sheer emotional impact as a work of art. The larger-than-life comes to dramatic life, and any soul starved for the sight of human potential—for romantic heroes like Francisco D'Anconia—will find a lifetime of sustenance.

It would be an impoverished world, indeed, without the literary genius of Victor Hugo somewhere in evidence. Forced to choose from among his lushly romantic, value-laden novels, I would pick Ninety-Three for its unforgettable characters, engrossing and deeply moving plot, and superbly integrated theme—one that no dissident can be reminded of too often: loyalty to values.

Every dissident movement needs an authentic hero to emulate, and I know of no greater inspiration than Vladimir Bukovsky. Within the pages of his autobiographical To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter can be found courage, integrity, a probing, analytical intelligence, much wisdom, and the breathtaking experience of watching one man—one intransigent soul—stand immense and victorious in defiance of evil.

But in the dispiriting world of bookburning tyrants, inspiration is not all. One needs to fight against. Surely, the oppressed would be tempted to slip into mysticism—an orgy of "suffer today and live for an other-worldly tomorrow." What would happen to the resistance movement? Gladly, then, would I memorize George Smith's inestimable Atheism: The Case Against God. Take it from an ex-Catholic: no good-faith argument can withstand its irrefutable logic.

For the laissez-faire capitalist in exile busy planning revolt, impatient with peroration, yet eager to know pure truth, he will find it in swift, sure strokes in Henry Hazlitt's rousing little classic: Economics in One Lesson. No economic fallacy can survive his common-sense expose.

Tom Sharpe
Britist novelist and political satirist, Wilt, The Throwback, etc.

For the most part I would take "the low road" and memorize novels I've enjoyed in the same way that I've enjoyed music—in other words, without any regard for "intellectual content." I suppose it can be argued that every book has content, and I have to agree. But…well, we won't go into that now. I am choosing for my own pleasure and for the pleasure this oral library would give my hearers. Children come first, and I certainly wouldn't inflict The Magic Mountain or War and Peace on them, so how about Robert Louis Stevenson and Treasure Island? And then Kenneth Grahame and The Wind in the Willows. After that Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, which I first read at school when I was 10 in 1938; P.G. Wodehouse's Galahad at Blandings; Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago; F. Dostoevski's The Possessed, or as it's been recently called, The Demons.

It's difficult to make a choice like this, because one knows that other authors are involved and one doesn't want to duplicate books. It is even more difficult to justify one's choice, but Dr. Zhivago and The Possessed are there because the latter, based as it is on historical fact (the Nechaev case), is the best novel I know on nihilism and its destructive potential. It includes Dr. Zhivago partly because I took it with me to read in prison when I was deported from South Africa in 1961, because it is the most civilized account of the effect of ideological civil war on individuals and is in itself an example of dissent in literature. But in the end one makes choices for personal reasons. I just hope mine make some sense to the reader.

Lech Walesa
Polish Solidarity leader

The two literary works most worth preserving for future generations are the Holy Scriptures and Quo Vadis by Henrik Sienkiewicz.

Robert Nisbet
Sociologist and author of The Quest for Community, History of the Idea of Progress, etc.

Confucius, in whatever single volume gives us the essentials of the greatest system of moral philosophy yet achieved by man, as steeped in social realism as idealism and as pertinent today as when it was created in the sixth century B.C.; St. Benedict's The Rule—it is a guide to the proper ordering of human groups, a multiplicity of which will be necessary to rescue mankind from cultural devastation; Francis Bacon's The New Learning—it is the most eloquent and profound prophylaxis against superstitions ever written, particularly those in the forms of entelechies, dialectics, and the like that flourish in the minds of Hegelians, Marxians, and Freudians; Shakespeare's Sonnets—these will be sufficient to remind any age without genuine poetry, such as our own today, of what the essence of poetry is, now and forever more; the Constitution of the United States and The Federalist Papers—these remain what they have been for two centuries: the most practical and evocative portrayals of freedom and order within the political state ever written; Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—to keep alive the precious, indispensable spirit of fancy and humor.

Finally, I offer two more, briefly, to serve as inducements to sleep when sleeping pills run low: the works of Hegel and of Herbert Spencer. Infallible!

Tibor Machan
Philosopher and author, Human Rights and Human Liberties, etc.

I would preserve Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics—the ethics of good sense, and my first book in philosophy; John Locke's Second Treatise on Government—the best sense in politics among the classics; Karl Marx's Grundrisse—Marx as he would have liked to say it elsewhere, with no holds barred; Ayn Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and We the Living—Rand for adults!; David L. Norton's Personal Destinies—the best in contemporary ethics by far; Stanley Cavell's Must We Mean What We Say?—the cream of the crop of the analytic philosophy, which is by no means all bad; Montaigne's Essays—the best common sense within classical essay writing; Ludwig Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity—the real dope on religion (don't underestimate the stuff).

George Gilder
Author, Wealth and Poverty, Men and Marriage, etc.

Herewith my list: Richard Feynman's Lectures on Physics—lucid, readable, and profound exposition of the paramount news of the 20th century; Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged—an encyclopedia of libertarian wisdom, eloquence, and indignation, espoused in the best novel since War and Peace; the Bible—contains the higher realm of wisdom that Rand glimpses in her tributes to reason and to faith in a "benevolent universe" but presumptuously denies in her philosophy; John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress—has got it all, from Vanity Fair to the Delectable Mountains, and is the unacknowledged source of much subsequent literature; Jude Wanniski's The Way the World Works—he captures more of the essence of economics than any other writer; Paul Johnson's Modern Times—the tale of 20th-century follies and fantasies and an antidote to Wanniski's political excesses.

Karl Hess
Editor of the Libertarian Party News and former speechwriter for Sen. Barry Goldwater

Assuming (reasonably, I believe) that my liberty-loving friends would choose to "become" the great classics of politics and philosophy, I would delight in becoming a shelf of most mundane but, to me, exciting and survival-enhancing books. My first choice would be Euclid's Elements, to assure the survival of essential skills of mensuration and of that elegant, linear thinking that has led us to important aspects of the scientific method. I feel that with the Elements available to us, we would have a wonderful head start toward rebuilding a devastated or despotic world. To add reading good enough to occupy us around a campfire, as well as knowledge of another indispensable tool of civilization, I would become W.W. Sawyer's Mathematician's Delight.

Next I would memorize in every detail that classic of survivalism, the U.S. Army's field manual 21-76, Survival, Evasion, and Escape. The reason is straightforward. In order for our collection of books to survive, the people who have memorized them will have to survive, and this small, useful book would help immensely in that enterprise.

Should it seem prudent occasionally to dispatch, as well as evade, the agents of tyranny, I can think of nothing better to memorize than Yank, Levy's terrible little book on hand-to-hand combat prepared for the British Army at the outset of the Second World War. And because the enterprise is likely to be perilous under any circumstance, and also could include the birthing of babies, I would become the most rough-and-ready book of bone-setting, wound-tending, and general emergency treatment available: The Ship's Medicine Chest, published for the Merchant Marine by the Public Health Service.

For similarly practical reasons I would become standard, basic textbooks in biology, botany, chemistry, and mineralogy. Rodale Press's classic Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening would be memorized in this same line-up. All of these would help build a solid material base for our remnant of a free society, preserving knowledge as indispensable to the human condition as its poems and metaphysics.

And if I felt need to become just one unrelated volume to keep the spirit of resistance, individualism, and self-reliance poetically and vibrantly alive with the American accents that are dear to me, I would become Thoreau's Walden and his Essay on Civil Disobedience. There might even be times when I would recite, for an appropriate audience, sections of my combat lore and the disobedience essay antiphonically. What a sound to upset a tyrant!