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"A mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small, from the familiar to the largely unknown." —The Washington Post A harrowing 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 "A mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small, from the familiar to the largely unknown." —The Washington Post A harrowing 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.


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"A mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small, from the familiar to the largely unknown." —The Washington Post A harrowing 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 "A mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small, from the familiar to the largely unknown." —The Washington Post A harrowing 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.

30 review for The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy

  1. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley I have to admit, I almost didn’t request this title from Netgalley. It wasn’t that the topic, a study of works by dictators, didn’t sound interesting. It did, but there also seemed a possibility for dryness, and I really wasn’t in the mood. But I requested it anyway. I am very happy I did. Mr. Kalder, I am sorry for thinking it would be dry. Honesty, you know you are in good hands when the book starts, “This is a book about dictator literature – that is to say, it i Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley I have to admit, I almost didn’t request this title from Netgalley. It wasn’t that the topic, a study of works by dictators, didn’t sound interesting. It did, but there also seemed a possibility for dryness, and I really wasn’t in the mood. But I requested it anyway. I am very happy I did. Mr. Kalder, I am sorry for thinking it would be dry. Honesty, you know you are in good hands when the book starts, “This is a book about dictator literature – that is to say, it is a book about the canon of works written or attributed to dictators. As such, it is a book about some of the worst books ever written, and so was excruciatingly painful to research.” Kalder took one for the team, and quite frankly, we should repay him by reading this book. The book isn’t so much literary criticism; though Kalder does not shy away from calling a bad book a bad book. For instance, on The Green Book, “it is not merely boring, or banal, or repetitive, or nonsensical, although it is certainly all those things. It is quite simply, stupid . . . “. And he is fair, for Kalder notes of Mussolini’s bodice ripper (which isn’t really one apparently) that it is readable. His survey of literature starts with the Russian revolution and includes present day dictators. Kalder is also as funny as, well, Monty Python. What Kalder does is look at not only what the writings reveal about the dictators, but also why people didn’t take the books seriously as warnings of things to come. He points out that some people should have known better. He also connects it to the thinking and control process, showing how the works did reflect the personality of each man (and they are all men). He also addresses the weird beliefs that make their way into the books – Hussain had strange ideas about bears. The book is an entertaining journey into some really strange minds that produced some really bad literature. Luckily for the reader, Kalder read it for us.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    I first encountered "dictator lit" in a history of the epic of Gilgamesh, since Saddam Hussein tried his hand at turning it into an overwrought romance novel. Kalder here sees the whole panorama of work, whether deliberately written as ponderous and dull--like Lenin's pre-Revolutionary studies--to convince censors that publication would be harmless, or truly and irretrievably bad because the author combined lack of talent with the lack of anyone capable of saying no. If you ever wanted to see St I first encountered "dictator lit" in a history of the epic of Gilgamesh, since Saddam Hussein tried his hand at turning it into an overwrought romance novel. Kalder here sees the whole panorama of work, whether deliberately written as ponderous and dull--like Lenin's pre-Revolutionary studies--to convince censors that publication would be harmless, or truly and irretrievably bad because the author combined lack of talent with the lack of anyone capable of saying no. If you ever wanted to see Stalin's crappy poetry, or fanfiction from Kim Jong-Un, here's your chance.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

    "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." -Karl Marx Who would want to read a book about some of the most despicable dictators the world has ever known, writing books? Clearly at least, the author and myself. I was genuinely excited for this book "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." -Karl Marx Who would want to read a book about some of the most despicable dictators the world has ever known, writing books? Clearly at least, the author and myself. I was genuinely excited for this book not only because of its unique premise, but also because I’ve always been fascinated by how men drunk on power (and it is almost always men it seems) see the world they preside over. What better way to understand this than through their writing? As one might expect, there seems to be a correlation between the stultifying nature of absolute power and bad, bad writing. These excerpts from the likes of Mao, Stalin, Hitler and others were not easy to read. I felt more than a little sympathy for the poor author who forced himself to read works like “Mein Kampf” in its disgusting entirety or slog through the hundreds of volumes of Stalin’s musings. It makes one wonder, as the author does: Many people regard books and reading as innately positive, as if compilations of bound paper with ink on them in and of themselves represent a uniquely powerful medicine for the soul. However, a moment’s reflection reveals that this is not even slightly true: books and reading can also cause immense harm. To take just one example: had Stalin’s mother never sent him to the seminary then he never would have learned to read and never would have discovered the works of Marx or Lenin. Instead, he would have been a drunken cobbler like his father, or perhaps a small-time gangster in Tbilisi. He would still have spread misery, but on a much smaller scale, and the twentieth century might have been considerably less awful as a result. It’s an interesting argument which I don’t fully agree with but I can see his point. Would an illiterate Stalin have caused the destruction the literate one did? It seems unlikely. What can’t be argued is that these men during their lifetimes wrote mountains of borderline unreadable but highly influential works that in many cases presaged the direction their lives would take. Anyone who bothered to read “Mein Kampf” (few did) at its publication could have seen where the diminutive Austrian corporal was headed. Or take the Ayatollah Khomeini who before the revolution of 1979 and hanging out in the cafes of Paris, had written lots of fire and brimstone about destroying Jews and enemies of Islam, but few outside of Iran bothered to read him. Even American State Department officials who were shockingly short of Farsi speakers didn’t read his writings and instead, as one official wrote, considered him to be “like Gandhi”. However, it is not always dictators who are menacing the world producing bad literature (Mussolini and Sadaam Hussein wrote florid romance novels which would make you blush while Momar Gaddafi wrote long treatises on the anatomical differences between men and women) but also small time tyrants who were more than happy to spread misery exclusively to their little patch of earth. The best example of this comes form the former ruler of Turkmenistan who wrote a “sacred” book and proceeded to plaster it over every facet of his peoples daily lives: He was not the most cruel, nor the most belligerent, nor even the most geopolitically significant of dictators, but he was the most colorful since Gaddafi, and perhaps he outdid even the colonel on that score. Who else had banned gold teeth and lip synching, and the ballet and opera, and the circus and smoking? Who else had renamed the month of January after himself and bread after his mother? Who else had a golden statue that stood atop a tripod with its arms held aloft, revolving throughout the day so that the sun was always in its grasp? So what is the lesson here? Or is there one? The author argues that while the 20th century produced the worst of the worst, we should not be too complacent to assume that we have outgrown this in the 21st century. There is always someone, somewhere, with ambition and a ruthlessness geared toward oppressing his/her people and they most likely have already produced some awful literature describing what they will do when they reach their goal. Perhaps it is incumbent on us to be ever vigilant for these works and prevent the rise of those who write them before it's too late.

  4. 5 out of 5

    David

    Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bun Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.-- David Foster Wallace, in Burn, Stephen J (ed.), Conversations with David Foster Wallace, p. 48. This quote, which Wallace made in different forms in various interviews throughout his life, is starting to appear so often that it is now edging into cliché, but it is appropriate here, I feel, because this is a perfectly good book which, if not ruined, is certainly lessened by frequent unwelcome sarcastic asides. The author explains that the sheer unadulterated badness of dictator literature drove him into an emotional state, which is certainly reasonable. However, a writer may write in an emotional state, but then should edit in an unemotional state. If the writer cannot bring himself to do this, he should hire someone to do it before his or her book sees the light of day. An example: Kalder twice punctuates particularly asinine quotations of dictator nonsense by the one-word sentence: “Quite” (Kindle locations 3077 and 3826 of my egalley copy). If we, the readers, have picked up a book and noticed that the title calls books by dictators “catastrophes of literature”, then it seems reasonable to assume that we will be able to tell that idiotic quotes are idiotic. We don't need a flag, even a one-word flag, from the author. We are smart enough to know idiocy when it is presented to us. There are many longer examples of author sarcasm in this book. The sarcasm is a shame, because there are plenty of good ideas, too. For example, the author discusses the soul-killing aspect of living in a society where dictator-written books are published in large quantity. These books invariably accompany a cult of personality for the leader. Failure to participate in the cult may result in, at best, an inability to access state-distributed benefits (a vacation dacha, adequate medical care), or, at worst, imprisonment. So people invariable buy these books because, after all, they are usually very reasonably priced, and prominently displaying the great leader's volumes in your living room will deprive malevolent neighbors a pretext of ratting you out as insufficiently worshipful or, if you are ratted out, provide a more convincing backdrop for your protestations of innocence should you be unfortunate enough to attract the attentions of the internal security apparatus. People tell themselves there's no harm in doing what you must to survive in a dictatorship, but there's something soul-destroying about having to gaze, every day, at these books, sitting accusingly on your bookshelves, telling you that you, too, are going along with the lie that the dictator is a great man, evidence of your complicity and cowardice staring at you ceaselessly from a prominent place in your home. Lest I give the impression that the author gives Western liberal democracy a gold star and a free pass, let me also include a well-turned (to make clear: that adjective is NOT sarcasm) comment on the current state of US political rhetoric: In the United States, however, it seems that we are forever standing on the edge of a political precipice, that a new Hitler or Stalin is forever waiting in the wings to impose tyranny as soon as he is able. The carelessness with which extreme historical analogies are drawn and the frequency with which apocalyptic prophecies are uttered might be amusing were they not so exhausting and did these jeremiads not have so detrimental an effect upon thinking about what is actually happening in the world.In summary, an OK book that could have been a lot better. Note: The “great essay somewhere” that Wallace refers to in the blockquote at the top is "Alcohol & Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking" by Lewis Hyde. The quote there is: "Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage." The essay is available as a 20-page (unsearchable) .pdf here. The quote appears on page 16. Thanks to reddit contributor “yee-lum”, who did the detective work on this quote and posted the results here. I received a free electronic galley copy of this book for review. Thanks to NetGalley and Henry Holt and Co. for their generosity.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Barrow Wilfong

    The Infernal Library by Daniel Kalder is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in recent memory. He took a tedious subject and turned it into a rip roaring good history about the reading and writing habits of twentieth century tyrants. Not only do we get to understand the historical background of the likes of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao Zedong and others, he intertwines it with a fairly full biography. This provides the reader with the political and cultural context which inspired The Infernal Library by Daniel Kalder is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in recent memory. He took a tedious subject and turned it into a rip roaring good history about the reading and writing habits of twentieth century tyrants. Not only do we get to understand the historical background of the likes of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao Zedong and others, he intertwines it with a fairly full biography. This provides the reader with the political and cultural context which inspired these bully boys to write and allowed them to rise to power. It is impressive that he can write so colorfully and at times hilariously about plowing through the most tedious literature ever to blight the earth and brainwash millions. His use of hyperbolic adjectives, similes and metaphors perfectly drive home to the reader just how mind-numbing these works are. I applaud him that he survived. I never could wade through such evil tripe. And there was plenty of it to be had. These guys apparently found writing reams of gibberish, turning reality on its head, and creating a Utopian fantasy centered around their own godhead, a type of narcotic. They got high on their ideas and the best part is they got to spray entire populations with their works like napalm. Really, wouldn’t that be every writer’s fantasy? To force everyone in your country to buy and read your books? Think of the money to be had. No more begging an agent to read the first chapter or negotiating with a publishing company to print and distribute it. All the publishing companies would be arm wrestling each other to print it, since they knew that every single citizen was going to have to purchase it. What fascinates me, and what Kalder gives less attention to (because it’s not the main thrust of his book) is how such bores got into power in the first place. Lenin wrote most of his theories in Switzerland and mostly against other Bolsheviks. Stalin wrote while exiled in Siberia, Hitler was in prison. In case anyone see a discrepancy with the previous paragraph, I should point out that most people were not reading their literature before these men came into power and were forced to. Sources of inspiration for many of these despots were Nietsche, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Their literature in turn became inspirations for future megalomaniacs. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were plenty of power mongers in the freshly autonomous satellite countries willing to take over and create their own utopias where everyone worshiped them. In Turkmanistan Turkmenbashi made his book required reading to pass a driver’s license test. His book lay alongside the Bible and Koran in churches and temples. In the bookstores, his book was all you could buy. This book increases my fascinations with the personality cult. The rabid ecstasy that an entire population responds to their leader’s writings. Mao Zedong’s Red Scarf Revolution among the Chinese youth in the sixties is one example, but it was so in every country under a totalitarian regime. Young people are especially vulnerable to pie in the sky political and economic ideologies. Speaking of Mao, I thought his writing particularly worthy of note, because he had to twist Marxism around to an unrecognizable shape in order to prove that it would work in a country that never had a proletarian generation. Amazing what a person can do with an army behind them to muscle in their own unique fantastical slant on another work of fantasy. But when the imagination is involved the possibilities are limitless. I cannot comprehend how one person can wield that kind of power over so many. Not only physically, that comes later, but mentally, which is how they get into power in the first place. How can people allow themselves to become so brainwashed? They have to be getting something out of it. Kalder deftly proves how literacy and education is not the magic wand to bippity boppity boo wham! produce an enlightened society. It depends on what you read and how you interpret what you read. It’s fine to read bunk, as long as you recognize it as bunk. What concerns me is that in today’s American Universities, students are not taught how to think but what to think when reading the great literature of the ages. Or they are not being taught to read it at all. Dead white males are to be avoided and female literature may only be read terough a feminist lens. Inferior literature is made required reading because the criteria has become the author’s race, gender and sexual orientation, rather than whether they can actually write well. This has had the undesirable effect of making young people, not only crippled with unrealistic expectations of the real world, but also makes them unbearable arrogant. The only objection I have to Kalder's marvelous book is his comparison of these writings to the U.S. Constitution. Why he added this is a mystery, because the constitution was not written by tyrants who then brainwashed the population into bloodthirsty revolutionaries. He seems to think it’s the same kind of personality cult that compels Americans to preserve the constitution in its original state (France and Italy change their constitution all the time!), as though to believe something is true is to be brainwashed. He should re-read some of his own points, namely, that as soon as a tyrant fell from power, his literature rapidly fell into oblivion. Lies can only persevere with an army behind them. True ideas, like, say, all men are created equal, endure. I find it interesting to note that Kalder moved from his native Scotland to live in the Austin, Texas area. Hmmm….could it be that he prefers the opportunities and safe guards our “antiquated document” provides him? Perhaps he should not bite the hand that feeds him. But lets not end on a negative note. This book is brilliant, the writer a genius at wit, a veritable D’Artagnon with the pen and I can not recommend this book too strongly.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mizuki

    One reviewer mentioned the existence of a Mussolini’s bodice ripper, so this book definitely deserves some investigation!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Azita Rassi

    A very interesting approach to dictators’ writings with a tongue-in-the-cheek tone that didn’t let the text become prosaic.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    Solidly meh. I enjoyed learning about the lesser known “classics” of this genre (Saddam Hussein’s historical romance novels, anyone?), but the more well-known Soviet Union works bored me to tears (as I’m sure they did their original readers as well). And oh my goodness, the author loves the words “vituperate,” “homunculus,” and “millenarian.” I received a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Alex Sarll

    "Literacy, long upheld as a standard bearer of progress, is not always a force for good. Had Stalin been unable to read he would never have discovered the works of Marx or Lenin. Instead he probably would have ended up like his father – a cobbler by trade and a drunk by vocation." The blurb sets out Kalder's stall pretty clearly. What it doesn't make wholly apparent is quite how thoroughly he opposes revolution. I'm far more of a gradualist than many of my friends, precisely because of how revolu "Literacy, long upheld as a standard bearer of progress, is not always a force for good. Had Stalin been unable to read he would never have discovered the works of Marx or Lenin. Instead he probably would have ended up like his father – a cobbler by trade and a drunk by vocation." The blurb sets out Kalder's stall pretty clearly. What it doesn't make wholly apparent is quite how thoroughly he opposes revolution. I'm far more of a gradualist than many of my friends, precisely because of how revolutions almost invariably spill a lot of blood on the way to creating a very slightly rejigged and generally much worse version of the system which existed beforehand. But even I raised an eyebrow* when he dismissed the Paris Commune as a "failed experiment in radical egalitarian living" and somehow contrary to human nature. If you omit mention of the external forces which contributed ever so slightly to that misleadingly impassive word 'failure', it looks shoddy, and agenda-led, and a bit like the very selective reading of the facts against which you're inveigling. And it really doesn't help if you say it lasted two months the first time, three months the next it's mentioned (two months ten days being the usual tally). So do bear that in mind. Evolving from a Guardian blog, this book is best regarded as kin to those comedy quest books, where someone goes around Wales with a camel or sticks a different domestic appliance up their arse each week or whatever. And considered as such, it's a great deal better than Dave Gorman (though frankly, what isn't?). But it's really not a serious work of political philosophy. Then again, as Kalder does point out, an awful lot of purported works of political philosophy, and ones at least briefly taken seriously even outside their authors' domains, have been considerably less informative and far, far less fun to read. And there is definitely something to investigate there. As Kalder notes early on, dictators lead fascinating lives, rich in rare experience; many are the great works of art *about* them. Yet despite obviously not being entirely stupid, or else they'd never have been able to seize control of a country, once you turn to literature *by* dictators they "almost always produce mind-numbing drivel. I wanted to know why". And it's not simply that nobody dares tell a dictator 'no'; many of them were writing before attaining power, and they were mostly dreadful then too. In at least one case Kalder infers that this may have been deliberate; he suggests that Lenin, aware ostensibly tedious books had more chance of making it past the Tsarist censors, deliberately cultivated a boring and orotund style to do likewise, and his heirs then took that as the nature of the form. Which...well, like I said, it's a good gag more than it's a fully convincing case, isn't it? There are a lot of good gags, though, especially in the first half of the book, which deals with the 'canon': Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao. Truthfully, you could make a case for Mussolini belonging in the back with the also-rans, the tyranny in one country mob and the 'homunculi' who nominally ran Soviet client states – but both as a dictator and as a dictator-writer he was influential even without being that successful, a sort of Velvet Underground of brutality and bad writing. I mean, things get off to a pretty good start with a preface entitled 'Tradition and the Individual Tyrant', but that's a little abstruse compared to much of what follows. For instance, comparing Russian Party membership in 1907 to another loopy millenarian sect without the pretence of secularism, the Kropts, Kalder sets himself up with the conclusion that "Even at its peak, then, Marxism was not that much more popular than crushing men's testicles between hot plates". As many a moderately successful comedy event has shown before, taking the piss out of bad books is a fairly easy way to get a laugh, and when you're quite definitely punching up because these particular talentless hacks ran nations, well, then you can really go to town. Apart from anything else, Kalder has a real knack for identifying the subtle degrees and ways in which one evil bastard's awful book differs from another: "Throughout The Foundations of Leninism, Stalin's modest but real strengths as a writer are on display. He is clear and succinct, and good at summarizing complex ideas for a middlebrow audience: the Bill Bryson of dialectical materialism, minus the gags." Still, just as one is becoming aware of a risk that it's going to get a bit repetitive hearing how all these terrible people were terrible writers, there's honest, grudging praise for Mao's early prose (and a footnote which says Ho Chi Minh's poetry is even better) - and the usefulness of his strategies to other revolutionaries in less developed countries is admitted, as against the meaningless waffle so often found in dictatorial works of theory (though of course none of this excuses the superstitious reverence in which Mao quotations came to be held by a supposedly rational society, or the literal miracles attributed to them). Equally, for all his undoubted flaws Khomeini's prose is lucid, and the widely quoted passages suggesting he was obsessed with bumholes have been taken wildly out of context, and even Kim II's book on cinema turns out to be basically sensible. The most surprising recipient of mild praise is Saddam Hussein's first novel which, if not exactly good as such, is at least interesting in the way a true amateur production can be. The second half of the book sometimes feels like it's dribbling out slightly - it deals with minor dictators, from Franco and Salazar to the Kims, and while not without interest (I knew very little about Salazar, who reminds me in an odd way of Theresa May were she genuinely strong and stable) there's just not as much to get into; it's always going to be harder to get the same level of horrified fascination/condescending laughter out of dissing Nasser's literary output as it is Mein Kampf. Occasional exceptions surface, such as Gaddafi's batshit Green Book, whose bathetic musings somehow prefigure everything from the revolutionary optimism of certain chums, to (in the passage on gender relations) the more loopily essentialist end of TERF rhetoric. And it does end with the infamously loopy oeuvre of Turkmenbashi, who combines the Soviet and religious strains of what has gone before with a devoted egotism to rival the Kims. But even in its more rote entries, again and again it brings home Kalder's key findings: the repeated failure of the liberal and/or Western to take seriously what is written by dictators future or present, or even to applaud what is manifestly not there out of some posturing radicalism (Sartre and Foucault appear more than once as particularly useful and idiotic useful idiots). And more than that, the degree to which dictator literature represents at once the corruption and the purest expression of the writer's desire to change the world with words, write something truer than the truth: "Faith does not so much override reasn as enslave it and then exploit it to erect fantastical pyramids constructed out of sheer desire" *Only figuratively, alas. It is a skill which has always eluded me, and in terms of things people can actually do, as against flight and eye lasers and complete physical indestructibility, probably the one by whose lack I am most pained.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jacqueline

    I have mixed feelings about this book, which is annoying, because I really wanted to love it. I guess I'll paraphrase Longfellow, at the risk of sounding completely pretentious: "when it was good it was very, very good, and when it was bad it was..." To be completely fair, "horrid" is a bit extreme, because this book wasn't awful - it's just that I think it could have been better. I honestly felt the book could have been more balanced between history and analysis - sometimes (especially the earl I have mixed feelings about this book, which is annoying, because I really wanted to love it. I guess I'll paraphrase Longfellow, at the risk of sounding completely pretentious: "when it was good it was very, very good, and when it was bad it was..." To be completely fair, "horrid" is a bit extreme, because this book wasn't awful - it's just that I think it could have been better. I honestly felt the book could have been more balanced between history and analysis - sometimes (especially the early parts about Lenin, Stalin, and the USSR) I felt like the various works were getting lost in the wider history and context in which they were created, and perhaps that was the ultimate point, to see how these works were made, but... I don't know. On a more aesthetic level, while I can appreciate sarcasm and even enjoyed some of Kalder's snarkier moments, I sometimes felt the snark was distracting and that Kalder was (to give him the benefit of the doubt, likely unintentionally) mirroring the pretentious, overtly-theoretical prose which he spent much of his time dismissing. Like I said, I don't know. It had a lot of good moments and it's definitely interesting, it's topical and relevant and I feel like I learned from it, but I'm not really sure I could honestly say I actually enjoyed reading it. But like its content, perhaps it's not so much meant to be enjoyed as it is meant to explain and teach.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    ****This book was provided to me for free through NetGalley, but the review is all my own**** Do you enjoy reading non-fiction that makes you feel like a smarty pants while also making it very clear that you are nowhere near as educated on certain subjects as you thought you were? Are you also a smart ass? Then welcome to the Infernal Library. Grab your card and vocabulary study list from the desk, and buckle up for a densely written but satisfying trip through the many faces of the written word ****This book was provided to me for free through NetGalley, but the review is all my own**** Do you enjoy reading non-fiction that makes you feel like a smarty pants while also making it very clear that you are nowhere near as educated on certain subjects as you thought you were? Are you also a smart ass? Then welcome to the Infernal Library. Grab your card and vocabulary study list from the desk, and buckle up for a densely written but satisfying trip through the many faces of the written word as produced by history’s own Legion of Doom. In order to successfully make it through this book, you need to learn the following hundred dollar words, because they come up constantly throughout: millenarian, hagiography, phantasmagoria, homunculus, dialectic (actually look it up, though, don’t count on the half-baked understanding that got you through college). Getting the e-book where you can look up definitions on the fly is strongly encouraged. The good news is that the author, Daniel Kalder, is good company as he takes us through this series of autocratic word crimes. This book could have been a series of self contained essays about individual horrible people and their collected works, but Kalder — poor guy — knows so much about this subject that he turns the whole book into a well structured learning experience about some of history’s worst people. It’s one thing to get the reader to understand just how out much of a hypocritical loon Lenin was, but Kalder manages to give the reader enough context over the course of his chapters about the Soviet era strongmen that you get the whole glorious picture of the USSR as what would happen if you gave a group of tenure track political science professors some guns, word processors, and a shitload of PCP. If you’re already filling in this space with your own "publish or perish" metaphor, this book’s for you. But it’s not all heavy, unified theories of Marxist-Leninist book worship. We also learn all about the times when Saddam Hussein bared his soul to the masses through the magic of fiction before the whole being-pulled-out-of-a-hole-and-hanged thing. We find that, despite seeming to believe that reading was for sissies, Mussolini wrote a pulpy serialized novel to make some quick cash. The last chapter covers the most cartoonish, over-the-top local strongman to ever work in Central Asia and his infomercial ready dream journal/manifesto. These guys suck, and Kalder’s right there with you pointing and laughing. That all said, this is a book that’s best to tackle in doses. It’s dense, heavy on the historical context, and the academic writing style takes longer to digest than regular prose. But if you stick with it, you’ll learn a lot and have a new appreciation for just how absurd the combination of narcissism and mediocrity that fuels the engines of these shitty, shitty historical relics

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jess (bookwyrmbella)

    I have always been fascinated by history and why people did the things they did. This book was about some of the famous dictators we have all heard of and the books they have had published with their ideology. While the author did a lot of research and explained the different dictator's era's very well, the actually reading came off very dry. Some of the details and references are too in depth for the casual reader. I saw a glimpse of how amusing the author can write based on the introduction of I have always been fascinated by history and why people did the things they did. This book was about some of the famous dictators we have all heard of and the books they have had published with their ideology. While the author did a lot of research and explained the different dictator's era's very well, the actually reading came off very dry. Some of the details and references are too in depth for the casual reader. I saw a glimpse of how amusing the author can write based on the introduction of the book but I think the research got in the way of his natural writing. This is the kind of book that would be best suited for someone who is doing research for a school project on a specific dictator mentioned in this book. *Received eARC via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

  13. 4 out of 5

    John

    Who'da thunk that anything interesting to read could be derived from dictator literature. Well I did, although I'm glad I could read about it rather than the works themselves. Thank you, Kalder, for having the courage to plow through mountains of drivel to summarize for me (and for all other curious readers). Findings: Mostly the tyrants (Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Khomeini, Castro, etc.) produced logarrhea (yes, I had to look up that word), but here and there were some surprises. Mu Who'da thunk that anything interesting to read could be derived from dictator literature. Well I did, although I'm glad I could read about it rather than the works themselves. Thank you, Kalder, for having the courage to plow through mountains of drivel to summarize for me (and for all other curious readers). Findings: Mostly the tyrants (Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Khomeini, Castro, etc.) produced logarrhea (yes, I had to look up that word), but here and there were some surprises. Mussolini, for example, was an intellectually curious writer and most articulate of the lot. Stalin, not much of a writer but "a line editor from hell." Hitler's Mein Kampf is 400 pages of dictated gibberish. Mao's quotations are disjointed and banal, destined, following his death, for the land fill. Khomeini's works: lucid and sensible even though alien. I like Kalder's asides, written in the first-person, about his struggles with researching, reading and writing mostly unreadable dross, a dictatorial prose travelogue. He sees the themes of his book all around us today. "This is the story of how it all went down the first time around."

  14. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    Dictator literature. It's a genre. Who knew? Makes sense. Dictators love to hear themselves talk. They write philosophy, religious manifestos, poetry, memoirs, or even romance novels (sigh). Once upon a time, their captive audiences bought up their books, but today they're rarely read (in part, because what they write is, as the author accurately puts it, "mind numbing drivel"). Who has really read Mao Zedong's "Quotations From Mao Zedong," Hitler's "Mein Kampf," Saddam Hussein's romance novel "Z Dictator literature. It's a genre. Who knew? Makes sense. Dictators love to hear themselves talk. They write philosophy, religious manifestos, poetry, memoirs, or even romance novels (sigh). Once upon a time, their captive audiences bought up their books, but today they're rarely read (in part, because what they write is, as the author accurately puts it, "mind numbing drivel"). Who has really read Mao Zedong's "Quotations From Mao Zedong," Hitler's "Mein Kampf," Saddam Hussein's romance novel "Zabibah and the King," or Saparmurat Niyazov's "Ruhnama"? Fun fact: Hitler once worked for the military in an amusingly ironic role-- his job was to monitor extremist, racist, political groups. Lol. As anthropologists say, he "went native" with one of those groups, which happened to be Anton Drexler's anti-Semitic group, later becoming the Nazi Party. We are what we pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be. Anyway, this book has two major points: dictator lit is incredibly stupid, boring, and incoherent, but don't let that lull you into complacency. Their literature is a weapon more powerful than their military. "This is the danger of dictator books. They hide in plain sight, and their sheer awfulness makes it impossible to believe in their power to infiltrate and transform brains until it is much too late."

  15. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    'Dictator Literature' kept reminding me of a study with a research question in need of reframing or abandonment. Malden wants to draw broad conclusions and parallels where a narrow focus would have helped him writing a coherent book. Instead he rambles through historical and biographical events that at times is entertaining but ultimately is not very informative. Using books as a research and narrative frame undermined his own ability to write an interesting or useful book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Molly

    This book had so much potential. I just couldn't finish. It's an odd mixture of sarcasm and dryness.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Riley

    Daniel Kalder set out to read all the dictator literature produced by the ideologues of the 20th century and their progeny. Surprisingly, his account is quite funny. As Kalder wrote about Stalin's works: "Some Soviet minorities had only just acquired alphabets, and this was what they got to read."

  18. 4 out of 5

    Armando Negron

    Daniel Kalder weaves a very interesting narrative that analyzes the different literary works of modern-day dictators. What must have been a daunting task results in a book that does great in providing us with the necessary information to remain engaged and interested, regardless of how bad (or horrible) the source material is. The first few chapters deal with the power-houses of last century's dictators: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Mao. Following this he enters into various chapters in Daniel Kalder weaves a very interesting narrative that analyzes the different literary works of modern-day dictators. What must have been a daunting task results in a book that does great in providing us with the necessary information to remain engaged and interested, regardless of how bad (or horrible) the source material is. The first few chapters deal with the power-houses of last century's dictators: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Mao. Following this he enters into various chapters in which he looks at other players that were active in the world, and while may not have resulted in World Wars or mass killings in the millions, still brought pain and suffering to populations around the world. One of the details that makes this book shine is that Kalder does not limit himself in just focusing on the books. He gives backgrounds on both the upbringing of the dictators and what possibly led to them writing these books, and possibly inspiring the horrible acts that followed. Best part is, the author does not shy away from giving his opinion about the books. Just because he researched them doesn't mean he was liking them. I laughed out loud more than once when reading how horribly written some of these books were. It shows heart, and gives the book this feeling of having an intellectual conversation that is honest and frank. Words of caution should be heeded, as the author makes a correlation with current populist and radical events to say how history could (may) be repeating itself. Embedded in the book is probably the best piece of advise that we can all takeaway from the marvelous experience of reading this book: "This is the danger of dictator books: they hide in plain sight, and their sheer awfulness makes it impossible to believe in their power to infiltrate and transform brains until it is much too late."

  19. 4 out of 5

    Eve Ottenberg

    Dictators are lousy writers. Yet many have felt the urge to commit their thoughts, such as they are, to paper and then to compel their captive audience not only to read them, but also to rhapsodize about them. Given the abysmal nature of this genre, one can only conclude that Daniel Kalder – whose book "The Infernal Library, On Dictators, The Books They Wrote and Other Catastrophes of Literacy", required him to slog through thousands of pages of hogwash – has uncommon stamina. How he did it, and Dictators are lousy writers. Yet many have felt the urge to commit their thoughts, such as they are, to paper and then to compel their captive audience not only to read them, but also to rhapsodize about them. Given the abysmal nature of this genre, one can only conclude that Daniel Kalder – whose book "The Infernal Library, On Dictators, The Books They Wrote and Other Catastrophes of Literacy", required him to slog through thousands of pages of hogwash – has uncommon stamina. How he did it, and wrote so well about it, is something to marvel at. He ploughed through the oeuvre of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Gaddafi, Franco and many others and adroitly summarizes their banal pensées. Having read his book, one feels no need to consult the original sources. Of Mussolini’s "Fascism Its Theory and Philosophy," Kalder writes that it “sounds like the work of a clever autodidact, way out of his depth, drowning in his own pretension.” Of Hitler he remarks, “it seems that Hitler’s ideas were fluctuating, and that as late as 1919 he was interested in pursuing career opportunities other than crazed ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic genocidal tyrant.” The ghastly "Mein Kampf" sold well in Nazi Germany, but could never compare with the market share of another dictator tome: “The billion selling 'Quotations from Chairman Mao' was coming.” Mao’s bibliography reveals that in addition to theoretical works, the chairman wrote poetry, which Kalder describes as “not as bad as Hitler’s painting, but not as good as Churchill’s.” As dictators who murdered more people than anyone else in the history of civilization, Hitler, Stalin and Mao deserve their own category. But Kalder’s literary focus leads him to lump these mass murdering genocidal tyrants together with garden variety murderous dictators. And so "The Infernal Library" also considers the writings of Zaire’s Mobuto, of Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier, of Uganda’s Idi Amin, and of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who “took a break from declaring that he would build socialism while not actually building it,” to issue several tomes on the subject. And then there was Gaddafi’s unforgettable "The Green Book." “The problem is that the book is exceedingly awful,” Kalder writes. “It is not merely boring or banal or repetitive or nonsensical…It is quite simply stupid.” Even by the extremely low standards of dictator literature, "The Green Book" flunks. There is only one point to quibble with here: Kalder refers to Khrushchev’s “naïve good Lenin/bad Stalin dichotomy.” But the man who dared stand before the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 and denounce Stalin to an audience of true believers, was anything but naïve. He knew the difference between a dictator like Lenin, who had killed people in a revolution and a civil war and a world-class mass murderer like Stalin, who had sabotaged any hope in the revolution with his purges, Terror and gulags and, in "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences," reportedly deployed that difference to great effect. He found Leninism useful and Stalinism criminal. Kalder aptly describes Khrushchev as “a jovial fat man of peasant stock,” who, coming to power, “had just spent two decades wading through gore on behalf of a capricious master, who had murdered many of his close colleagues.” But for all his savvy toughness and experience, Khrushchev was maneuvered out of power within a decade of his heart-stopping speech. After this came Brezhnev, who also produced tomes of deadly prose. Somehow Kalder read these too. Addressing dictatorship itself, Kalder asks, could it happen here? And he answers, yes. “It couldn’t happen here? Why not? It happened there.” He cites the United States’ “long, deep experience with millenarian hopes and apocalyptic terrors that, in mutant form, played an important role in the rise of the twentieth century’s great dictators.” Kalder’s in-depth exposure to dictatorial prose gives him a well-informed appreciation of just how fragile and tenuous our exemption from tyranny really is.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mark Farley

    In my continual and (I am sure) never-ending quest to understanding What the ACTUAL FUCK was up with Hitler, the Nazis and World War 2, it has so far led me to the following: 1. Reading countless books and watching hours of documentaries about hidden bunkers, Tom Cruise and Quentin Tarantino movies and actual war crimes tribunals. Which aren’t as interesting as you would imagine them to be. 2. Being politely asked by the local Army Cadet Force not to come back, after giving them a military histo In my continual and (I am sure) never-ending quest to understanding What the ACTUAL FUCK was up with Hitler, the Nazis and World War 2, it has so far led me to the following: 1. Reading countless books and watching hours of documentaries about hidden bunkers, Tom Cruise and Quentin Tarantino movies and actual war crimes tribunals. Which aren’t as interesting as you would imagine them to be. 2. Being politely asked by the local Army Cadet Force not to come back, after giving them a military history talk, that may or may not have included a story about Hitler’s dentist and a re-telling of his favourite joke and... 3. Blagging my way into a Munich police station to see the apartment where Adolf kept his own niece as a kinky sex slave and then had killed, after they made him Chancellor. So yeah. But one thing that I knew that I would eventually have to get round to doing is reading Mein Kampf. I didn’t really want to buy it (because, well…), so I have been trying to track the one copy that the local libraries in the Brighton area are supposed to have. But it looks like some little Nazi has nicked it. Can’t trust the Nazis. Anyway, the goth girl in the main library, the one with the three thousands piercings in her face was like, Oh wait, there is this I saw. That might give you an idea. She was talking about DICTATOR LITERATURE by Daniel Kalder. It is a book that certainly does what it says on the tin. It covers all of your favourite despots and their printed works. You have the main players: Hitler, Mao, Stalin etc and covers many others from around the world from the last century or so. We go through the Arab world, North Korea, the many areas of Eastern Europe and those other war-time collaborators in Spain, Portugal and Italy. It is truly a study of the cult of personality and influence and control. Which all the characters seem to do with a considerable amount of success, as history has very much documented. But even so, according to this author’s examination, every single work a dictator has ever written are seemingly terrible and badly written. This I found a bit flippant and trying too hard to overly devalue them, even though one was a romance novel by Saddam Hussein. Regardless of what I am sure are awful contents and underlying messages, theories and Philosophy. Because, lest he should already be aware, there is some reason as to how and why these individuals captivated and brainwashed millions of people with their ascribed output, which he insists as all to be both gibberish and drivel. Wait, that would explain the success of Marian Keyes also actually. I digress. I did find my attention drifting away a lot in this book, which was a shame. Granted, I was mainly interested in one particular psycho (one shouldn’t take on too many at once), but I was easily distracted during the non-German subjects, I must admit. Plus, in the very last few pages, he talks about the speeches of Barack Obama. Which I find odd, considering that this book is only two years old and that there is someone else that he could compare dictators too, that has a collected written oeuvre (albeit completely ghostwritten) and is behaving not unlike many of the subjects covered in this book. Back to Nazis though. I was fascinated to learn that Mein Kampf was never actually banned in Germany, which is a common misconception. It fell out of print after the war and the state of Bavaria held the publishing rights and they were the ones who prevented its future publication. In fact, when the rights came into the public domain in 2015, it was published again in Germany. And not just that. More recently, the book has become incredibly popular in Arabic. Make of that what you will (nudge). And in India, it is seen as an inspirational self help book for would-be entrepreneurs. Great, so there is that to also worry about now too.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Shelley Alongi

    I am giving this book 5 stars simply because it can’t be easy reading all of these books that he covers and his research. The reason I know that is because I have tried several times to read Mein Kampf And it is hard going. I came up with a method to read it. Read to the end of first because I have gotten through the beginning several times. So to try and read all of the books that he mentions by all the dictators he mentions is quite a feat. There are methods when researching so my hat is off t I am giving this book 5 stars simply because it can’t be easy reading all of these books that he covers and his research. The reason I know that is because I have tried several times to read Mein Kampf And it is hard going. I came up with a method to read it. Read to the end of first because I have gotten through the beginning several times. So to try and read all of the books that he mentions by all the dictators he mentions is quite a feat. There are methods when researching so my hat is off to you, sir. I know there are ways to get around the amazing amount of verbiage that people can produce. I admit I had to work to get through this book though I found the subject matter in trading. But I gave it my best shot and so I have some sense of what it must be like to have researched all this material. If you can explain it more power to you. I was especially interested in what happened to Hitler’s book after the copyright ran out and I was frankly surprised at the number of copies it sold after the copyright went out. Leave it to the Germans to leave a scholarly addition to posterity. The other question I found interesting was whether or not a dictatorship could happen in the US. This is something I’ve been wondering about myself. Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility and we must remember that. So this book is very good for covering A subject that we probably would rather not talk about and I am including all the books covered in this work. I frankly don’t find myself interested in reading the books ofStalin those certainly I have read about his purges and actions and I do keep an eye out that part of the world. And the human experience is sometimes a little bit unpredictable things happening where you don’t think they would happen. The works of Mussolini were surprising especially the world war one book my diary. That sounds kind of boring but I think I would like to read that. I am one of those people that just like to read primary sources so I was glad to get my hands on this book to give me an overview of the works left to posterity by the man who unleashed the most evil on the world probably since the Roman empire. There is a lot of sarcasm in this book which is a parent and it helps to know the history of the world in at least a somewhat detailed way so that when you come across that you understand it. I thought the book raised some interesting questions and brought out some interesting facts and information that I hadn’t read in any of my college history books. Perhaps I wasn’t looking for that information? I think that if 20th century dictatorship is a subject of interest to you that this book would be one to keep as a reference. I am planning to keep it as a reference.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Geoffrey

    (Note: I received an advanced electronic copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley) One way to sum up this book on behalf of its author would be “I’ve subjected myself to this genre of literature so that you don’t have to.” To say the least, he’s done quite the favor to readers everywhere. It’s little wonder that most of us have never heard of the overwhelmingly majority of the titles put forth by the array of some of the 20th century’s largest figures (and most of the ones we have heard of are jus (Note: I received an advanced electronic copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley) One way to sum up this book on behalf of its author would be “I’ve subjected myself to this genre of literature so that you don’t have to.” To say the least, he’s done quite the favor to readers everywhere. It’s little wonder that most of us have never heard of the overwhelmingly majority of the titles put forth by the array of some of the 20th century’s largest figures (and most of the ones we have heard of are just that - mere titles standing far above their actual content). What quotes Kalder provides offers glimpses into what appear to be a diverse variety of literary slogs, ranging from dense and dry theory to absurd works of fiction and to collections of disjointed, contextless snippets. Even while reading these scattered blurbs, I often found myself fighting fast-rising urges to skim or even skip over them entirely. These little bits of literary torment however are well worth it, however, for in his coverage of dictator literature Kalder provides insight into both the men who spawned them, and the various contexts from which these authors originally sprang from. On top of this, Kalder offers an array of commentary, bitingly blunt observations, and sometimes just mere phrases that feel all-too applicable to this day and age, which feels excessively full of “strongmen” leaders that at times bear more unsettling similarities to the figures covered in “The Infernal Library” than not. One particular line that jumped out to me overly so was nothing more than part of sentence describing Stalin’s grandiose claim that socialism had been more or less achieved in the Soviet Union: “the year the gulf between the word and the world reached epic proportions.” Again, it’s nothing more than a fragment of a sentence, yet that seemed to encapsulate much of what it written and spoken by many dictators and autocratic-minded figures of both the past and this tumultuous present day - no matter their style or the type of works or words they produce, all seem to face a gap between the worlds they are think they’re creating, and the state of things as they actually stands. Kalder’s work could not be better timed. Through his heroic dive into the depths of awful despotic literature, only does he provide us a better understanding of the figures whose acts continue to reverberate into the present day, but also better comprehension of the unfortunately-similar figures that will follow in their wakes, working hard to try and shape reality with their disconnected words every step of the way.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Paul O'Leary

    I picked this volume up on a whim. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. I do enjoy perusing dictator literature. Well, perhaps that’s poorly phrased. But I have read my share of dictator literature, and then some; that’s true enough. And history has grabbed my attention from time to time. Kalder’s Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They’ve Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy seemed to me not just a novel idea for a nonfiction book, but a fun amalgam of both. I have to report that t I picked this volume up on a whim. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. I do enjoy perusing dictator literature. Well, perhaps that’s poorly phrased. But I have read my share of dictator literature, and then some; that’s true enough. And history has grabbed my attention from time to time. Kalder’s Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They’ve Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy seemed to me not just a novel idea for a nonfiction book, but a fun amalgam of both. I have to report that this offering is rather too heavy with a dispensing of general history, while being somewhat light on its promised examination of Dictators’ written works. There’s an excuse for this according to the author: you see, most dictators write horrible books. Not just aesthetically displeasing, or ideologically repugnant, according to Kalder, but some works are quite unreadable. So he doesn’t burden the reader much by expatriating on their content or analyzing it. I just have one question in response to Kalder’s asserted charity: WTF??? In the first half, Kalder replaces an expected detailed examination of Mein Kampf, or On Contradiction, or whatever with a broad strokes history of the dictator in question. This means that, if you’re quite familiar with Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, and/or Mao’s curriculum vitae and resumé, it’s possible you’ll get kinda bored before long. This boredom only lasts about two hundred pages, though. Kalder’s sarcastic, breezy manner, and flippant dismissal of his own topic can distract you enough from it to plow on, however. Annoyance and disdain can, at times, prod. A Philip K Dick novel, for instance and for some strange reason, finds more familiar and detailed scrutiny than any of Mai’s individual works in the Chairman’s designated chapter. Though an occasional nugget does sparkle amid the drudgery: Mussolini’s early novel was a complete unknown to me, and Kalder generously bestows a full three pages to it. Still, I must admit the first half of this book kinda stinks. Or at least smells stale. Why the hell did I give this one four stars again??? Oh, yeah... Once you move beyond the usual suspects, Kalder starts to produce the goods by treating the work of lesser figures with more detail than the above Evil Five. To be sure, Kalder’s still dismissive as to the quality of, say, Gaddafi’s Green Book, but at least he gives you more than a couple sentences for its synopsis. And it can even happen that Kalder deals with a subject with more than a modicum of equanimity and respect, such as Khomeini. He does seem to harbor misgivings for this rare show of objectivity by admonishing his reader(s) that it is “better to learn from his (Khomeini’s) books than ridicule them.” Really? Maybe Mrs Kalder banged out this section and neglected to read her husband’s material up to that point. Is Kalder married? Maybe; maybe not. He’s also notably charitable to Kim Jong-Il’s cinematic theories. Perhaps we have a closet Pulgasari fan in our author? Maybe; maybe not. What is rather intriguing is the potential subjects who are either virtually or completely excused from Kalder’s ubiquitous berating. The great Romanian hunter and tyrant, Ceausescu, gets hardly a mention, as does the more ghastly cerebral Pol Pot. Indira Gandhi, Ms Police State from ‘75-‘77, gets no mention at all despite having an ample body of work to castigate, including an autobiography rather pretentiously entitled My Truth. Modi and his comic books likewise get no mention. Perhaps Kalder believes graphic novels have no place in a respectable library, even if it be infernal. Still, a comment on the move from bad prose and worse poetry to festive illustration in dictator literature might’ve produced some fun & snarky remarks from Kalder. The only question would be whether the derision be directed at the dictator or at his/her intended audience. The last segment of the book makes me believe that Kalder perhaps leans toward the latter opinion. This book’s Conclusion frankly pushed my rating up a star. Kalder ends this somewhat uneven work by speculating on the influence of dictator literature in the future. His answer is moderately surprising. He claims that the general public has mostly snatched the once exclusive right of Führerprinzip concerning propaganda literature, and now the Great Leader, or any leader for that matter, merely competes for public attention like ever other accountholder on Twitter and Facebook. In this so-called Age of Trump, he smashes the notion that the United States is descending into Nazism. Maybe media anarchy, but not Nazism. Hope(or fear) of a political revolution, we are informed bluntly, is also more than a little farcical. “What we lack is a catalyst. After all, countries that experience revolutions and upon whose people dictatorial bibliographies are subsequently inflicted also tend to be countries in deep crisis. They are war ravaged and impoverished, places where the people cannot live as they are living and the government cannot continue governing. It is in situations of societal breakdown and profound despair that demagogues and false prophets find themselves best positioned to seize power and impose their texts on the rest of us. And right now, the United States, for all its troubles, does not come close to replicating these conditions. It remains the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, where most of the population enjoys a standard of living far higher than that found in other places on the planet. There is rage and anxiety, and the nation is increasingly divided against itself, but there are also streaming video services, smartphones, and lots of jobs, even if they don’t pay as much as we would like, and even if the people at the top make far more money than than the rest of us combined. More than that, there’s a serious lack of engagement with any alternative to the current political status quo. Words such as socialism and fascism are tossed about freely, but there is little evidence that those using them are very familiar with their actual content of those ideologies, or that they have the intellectual discipline to engage with them. The demagogues of our era are much less well read than those of the past.” Kalder reminds us that “public shaming” today has mostly become a public sport as opposed to any authentic tyrannical demand however oppressive end consequences still remain for victims. It must be admitted that Kalder does get the ball rolling on a topic which deserved more scholarly attention even before the publication of Infernal Library. Hopefully others will delve into this strange literary phenomenon of the 20th century much deeper.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kirsten

    I have to admit I haven't completely finished this. I read the introduction, the chapter on Lenin, most of the chapter on Stalin, and then skipped around to read about other, minor dictators and their writings. I'll probably go back to the chapters on Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao, but the minor dictators, such as Franco, and those of the post-Communist era, were most interesting to me. Of all the things I got out of this, so far, a few stick out: 1.) Dictators are generally crappy writers. Their w I have to admit I haven't completely finished this. I read the introduction, the chapter on Lenin, most of the chapter on Stalin, and then skipped around to read about other, minor dictators and their writings. I'll probably go back to the chapters on Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao, but the minor dictators, such as Franco, and those of the post-Communist era, were most interesting to me. Of all the things I got out of this, so far, a few stick out: 1.) Dictators are generally crappy writers. Their writing is most powerful when they are alive and able to enforce their views on their captive audience. In fact, it can make living under them seem hallucinatory to outsiders. 2.) Dictators are fully aware of the power of the word. Even when they can't write themselves, they have ghostwriters to do it for them. They see their published work as a way to spread their doctrine and grow their personality cult. 3.) Depriving people of their history leaves a vacuum that can be filled by whoever has the whim and the power to do so. The Russians and Soviets have a lot to answer for there as regards some of the post-Soviet republics. 4.) Disinformation is key to keeping people in line, and is a tool for intimidation and gaslighting. 5.) Literacy is a dangerous thing. The author points out that Stalin's social class would have prevented him from attending school and encountering revolutionary ideas had his mother not fought to have him educated beyond his station. 6.) Dictators are not only one thing. Stalin wrote romantic poetry. Franco wrote a screenplay. Kim Jong Il wrote a kaiju film called Pulgasari. Saddam Hussein wrote terrible romance novels. But there is always a reason behind whatever they write or produce. These are all people who did terrible things in the name of getting in power and staying there. 7.) Social media may have changed the way dictators do business, if our Tweeter-In-Chief is any example. If I ever get back to reading about the books written by the major dictators of the 20th century, I'll update this. Those chapters are long and some pretty heavy reading. But even if you don't and just skip around to read about minor dictators, there's some fascinating stuff in this book.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sean Mobley

    I rate books not based on how good they are, but how eager I am to re-read them. This one's right in the middle. I picked it up from the Choice Reads section of my local library and I'm glad I did. I thought I knew a bit about 20th Century history, but I learned that there were (and are) faaaaaar more totalitarian governments out there than I realized. Kalder lays out the history of 20th and 21st Century dictators through the lens of the books they wrote. The first half or so of the book focuses o I rate books not based on how good they are, but how eager I am to re-read them. This one's right in the middle. I picked it up from the Choice Reads section of my local library and I'm glad I did. I thought I knew a bit about 20th Century history, but I learned that there were (and are) faaaaaar more totalitarian governments out there than I realized. Kalder lays out the history of 20th and 21st Century dictators through the lens of the books they wrote. The first half or so of the book focuses on the "Big Five" of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao. The second half covers 20-30 'minor' (in the grand scope of history, but certainly not based on the impact they had on individual lives) dictators and totalitarian/authoritarian leaders from Putin to Jong-Un to Gaddafi. The speed of the second half almost makes up for the sensation that Kalder seems to have run out of steam about 3/4 of the way through, where it feels like he presents the reader with a string of late 20th century dictators with little more to day than "they wrote stuff and it was not good." I can't blame him, that's about when I lost steam as a reader as well as names of dictators just sort of ran together and I got bored. I put the book down and about two weeks later picked it back up to finally finish it. I have a history background, both in academic training and in my actual job. Kalder's writing is easy and has that dry UK sense of humor, and I couldn't help but feel a bit sad that since his refreshing take was somewhat irreverent the book wouldn't find much acceptance in academic circles. Perhaps I'm wrong, and I hope I am as it is an overall good read. Not enough for me to be in a rush to read it again like I am with my 4- and 5-star books, but enough that I'm glad I read it and would happily recommend it to anyone interested in a survey of a darker side of 20th century history told by an author with a dark sense of humor.

  26. 5 out of 5

    William Schram

    The Infernal Library talks about dictators and the books that inspired them. If they wrote something, it includes that in the text. It emphasizes the idea that while dictators might enjoy free speech for themselves, they don’t really like when it comes to their subjects. They might get ideas and then it is the dictator that is overthrown. The book really shows that Literacy is a very powerful weapon in the proper hands. Unfortunately, in this book, a great many of those hands were stained with bl The Infernal Library talks about dictators and the books that inspired them. If they wrote something, it includes that in the text. It emphasizes the idea that while dictators might enjoy free speech for themselves, they don’t really like when it comes to their subjects. They might get ideas and then it is the dictator that is overthrown. The book really shows that Literacy is a very powerful weapon in the proper hands. Unfortunately, in this book, a great many of those hands were stained with blood. It covers all of the dictators and horrible people that I can think of. It’s really a triumph of literacy that one can go and even stand reading these works. In that sense, I salute the author, Daniel Kalder. In any case, the book contains a biography of the dictator or leader, tells us if they were bibliophiles and other little things. It was enjoyable and interesting to read. The book starts with Vladimir Lenin, moves on to Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Chairman Mao and so on. This comprises the first section of the book. The second section moves into smaller dictators, people that were satisfied with having their ideologies infesting a small country rather than overthrowing the Status Quo. Finally, the book goes into the Arabian Spring. The book is relatively recent, so it can cover many recent events. Other than that I really don’t have much to say. The book is quite good though.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Scott Martin

    (Audiobook) A work that offers a synopsis of dictators, especially in the 20th century, would not qualify as especially unique. However, Kalder takes a very different, but intriguing, approach to this analysis of dictators, by looking at their literary achievements. Kalder does a literary survey of the written works of many of the most notorious dictators. It is not exactly an easy or enjoyable task, which Kalder makes very clear in his work. He offers a generous dose of sarcasm and humor in his (Audiobook) A work that offers a synopsis of dictators, especially in the 20th century, would not qualify as especially unique. However, Kalder takes a very different, but intriguing, approach to this analysis of dictators, by looking at their literary achievements. Kalder does a literary survey of the written works of many of the most notorious dictators. It is not exactly an easy or enjoyable task, which Kalder makes very clear in his work. He offers a generous dose of sarcasm and humor in his analysis, which can only be seen as a coping mechanism. The works offer insight into the intentions and failures of their respective leaders, but they clearly do not make for great reading (aka, this is not a labor of love). Still, through the analysis of the writing, Kalder reveals the motivations of these varied dictators, ranging from Lenin to Kim Jong Il. Even if you are familiar with the lives of these leaders, you will still learn more about the leaders and their motives (didn't realize most of these individuals were voracious readers, which helped spur their writing). The narrator does a great job with the work. It is long, but it is engaging. Worth the read.

  28. 5 out of 5

    kaitlyn

    starts out strong, but peters out towards the end. it's in roughly chronological order so that's understandable. i thoroughly enjoyed the beginning about lenin's work, how often he contradicted himself, and how stalin later tried to get a consistent message out of all that. the chapter on mussolini was really interesting too. these early chapters contain a good amount of comic relief, largely self-deprecatory on the author's part about monolithic Writers, which got plenty of chuckles from my frie starts out strong, but peters out towards the end. it's in roughly chronological order so that's understandable. i thoroughly enjoyed the beginning about lenin's work, how often he contradicted himself, and how stalin later tried to get a consistent message out of all that. the chapter on mussolini was really interesting too. these early chapters contain a good amount of comic relief, largely self-deprecatory on the author's part about monolithic Writers, which got plenty of chuckles from my friends who are or were in the industry themselves. the later chapters, on the latter leaders of the USSR, and the leaders of ex-soviet states in the modern day, were quite a lot drier and felt denser, even if they maybe weren't actually any denser. this is the type of book i would absolutely recommend checking out of a library, but not to purchase for yourself. now that i've read it, i have no desire to read it again. additionally, this was printed in the USA under a different name: "the infernal library". presumably those reviews are not comingled with these reviews, even though the contents are going to be 99% identical (largely being spelling, like program/programme, etc).

  29. 5 out of 5

    John

    Have you ever wondered about the writings of famous and infamous dictators? Author Daniel Kalder takes us on a humorous--sometimes too humorous--journey through the history and writings of some of the 20th centuries most notorious and noxious dictators. The adventure begins with Lenin, who passed the pen to Stalin, and some of the other USSR despots; we learn about Hitler, his opus Mein Kampf, and other writings; travel to China to learn about Mao and his "popular" titles such as his Little Red Have you ever wondered about the writings of famous and infamous dictators? Author Daniel Kalder takes us on a humorous--sometimes too humorous--journey through the history and writings of some of the 20th centuries most notorious and noxious dictators. The adventure begins with Lenin, who passed the pen to Stalin, and some of the other USSR despots; we learn about Hitler, his opus Mein Kampf, and other writings; travel to China to learn about Mao and his "popular" titles such as his Little Red Books; as well as other, not quite as (in)famous dictators. Kalder provides some interesting yet not overly detailed information on each authors' childhood, background, and "literary" influences, and reads between the lines of these often quite influential texts. The writing is lively and full of humorous anecdotes, but Kalder sometimes stretches the humor a bit too far into groan territory. Overall, however, an interesting and unusual take on history through the texts of the men--yes, all men--who defined dictatorship in the 20th century.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    The Infernal Library covers dictator literature through the twentieth and early twenty-first century. What is dictator literature? It's books written by dictators. Oddly specific, but it turns out there's a lot of it, and the author has some interesting takes, especially when it's not another damn book of impenetrable Communist theory (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, various dictators in Soviet Europe...). The book is very good, an easy and intriguing read. I did feel uneasy in his discussion of public sham The Infernal Library covers dictator literature through the twentieth and early twenty-first century. What is dictator literature? It's books written by dictators. Oddly specific, but it turns out there's a lot of it, and the author has some interesting takes, especially when it's not another damn book of impenetrable Communist theory (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, various dictators in Soviet Europe...). The book is very good, an easy and intriguing read. I did feel uneasy in his discussion of public shaming at the end, because asking for an apology is not the same as requiring "groveling self-criticism," and not wanting a racist or sexist or transphobic person in a position of power is not the same as hounding someone out of a job. He also asserted that Putin will not reopen the gulags, which, uh, tell that to all the queer people in Russia, friend... Really, though, it's an intriguing work of literary analysis that is occasionally quite clearly blinded by straight white male privilege. Take the epilogue with a grain of salt, but it's well worth a read.

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