Failing the Book Test



Sarah Vine, married to Michael Gove, has been widely criticised for the contents of her bookshelf, on display behind her in a post. Among the books she was attacked for having read was one by holocaust denier David Irving and “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. Owen Jones was among those who leapt to denounce her for apparently having read such heretical works.

I can reveal the little-known fact that the bookshelf of Owen Jones itself contains scurrilous and politically incorrect works such as “Think Tank – the Story of the Adam Smith Institute” by Madsen Pirie. And I never show my own books behind me, lest people might spot such unacceptable diatribes as “Chavs” and “The Establishment,” both by one Owen Jones.

I would certainly fail the Book Test, as would the millions who, after the financial crisis of 2008, made Atlas Shrugged second only to The Bible in popularity. My own books include the hysterical ravings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the impenetrable and ultimately malicious mysticism of Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, as well as “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx, and “The Communist Manifesto” he co-authored with Friedrich Engels. When I’ve written about philosophers, I’ve made a habit of finding out what it is they have said, so that I can criticize it where necessary.

The absurdity of the Book Test, and its ultimately anti-rational message, is the claim that some books are in such error that it is an intellectual and moral crime to read them. Sarah Vine’s critics seem to have compiled a latterday Index llbrorum Prohibitorum of books that are to be banned because it is a mortal sin to read them.

John Stuart Mill pointed out that unless people are free to express ideas that may be unsound or perverse, their errors cannot be subject to scrutiny and analysis and exposed as such. David Irving’s whitewash of Nazi atrocities has been widely exposed as mendacious and error-strewn, and has been trashed as deceitful and bigoted propaganda posing as scholarship. This is as it should be. Sentencing him in Austria in 2006 to three years in prison for speeches made 17 years earlier was not the way to refute his absurdities; public ridicule was.

To read books is not to approve of them. Indeed, reading them provides a good way of exposing errors in them. And even a book riddled with errors could perhaps contain some worthwhile nuggets of insight. Karl Marx might have been wrong about most things, but his insights into how the changing technology of production engenders changes in the social structure of societies, and even in their laws and culture, provides a valuable tool for historians.

The campaign against Sarah Vine’s bookshelf calls to mind the rule in Plato’s “Republic” that works failing to propagate “virtue” and “civic values” are strictly censored by the state. Despite his intolerant totalitarian strictures, I have all of Plato’s books on my shelves. If we are not supposed to read books the enlightened political classes castigate as heretical and unacceptable, what are we to do with them? Maybe just burn them? The words of Heinrich Heine seem to echo in the mind: “Where they burn books, they will too in the end burn people.”

Dr Madsen Pirie is the author of “101 Great Philosophers,” (Bloomsbury, 2009).