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On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy

by Daniel Kalder

Pub Date: March 6th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-62779-342-1
Publisher: Henry Holt

A singular look at how dictators have gained control through literature.

When asked to look back on history, we go first to significant historical events. We examine world wars, local battles, social injustices, and the dictators that have served as resistant and challenging road blocks in the peaceful evolution of society. In his latest book, Texas-based journalist Kalder (Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse from Moscow to Siberia, 2009, etc.), who lived in Moscow for 10 years, explores a handful of dictators that have helped shape our conception of 20th-century history by way of the works of literature they produced. “I was struck by the fact that many dictators begin their careers as writers,” writes the author, “which probably goes a long way toward explaining their megalomaniac conviction in the awesome significance of their own thoughts.” Indeed, each of Kalder’s subjects displayed a true passion for irreverent, revolutionary literature. The author begins with Lenin, who “resisted the impulse to deliver a full-throated demand for revolution,” though “immediately after the revolution, he moved to establish part control over the written word.” Stalin was “deeply provincial, describing revolutions and intellectual battles taking place far away, in more interesting places.” Mussolini misidentified “his true vocation as dictator instead of writer.” Hitler “desired to seduce his readers, to present himself as a child of destiny, the logical choice for the national savior” during a time of unrest. Mao defended “the primacy of evidence, research and investigation” and expressed “a desire to shut down everybody who hasn’t done the work.” Following a chapter on each dictator, Kalder delivers a series of focused essays on specific issues such as religion, geopolitics, ecology, technology, and the role literature played in informing the policies written in response (he touches on Castro, Kim Jong Il, Putin, and Hussein). The author renders his highly compelling narrative in a cheeky yet erudite tone that will keep readers smirking despite the monstrousness of the book’s protagonists.

Dictators have never looked so educated.