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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Problem of Hitler’s Library

Have You Read About The New Book On Hitler’s Library?

Here is a short excerpt from the author, 
tinyurl.com/ctzzg2
 and here is a review: tinyurl.com/dbc26j

 Hitler, as it turns out, was a voracious reader. He read at least one book a night, and had, at his death, a personal library of some 16,000 books. Why should this matter to us? I think it exposes a certain fuzzyness, bordering even on bad faith, in how we talk about reading for K-12. We often act as if reading per se, reading by itself, is a good. Once a child is reading, we claim, s/he is on the way to being a lifetime learner. In contrast to not reading — not being able to decode letters and words, or not being willing to step away from computer games, or texting, and settle down with a book or magazine — we hold up reading as a beaux ideal. In other words we have a humanistic view of book reading: if you read more, you will become a deeper, more reflective, more wise and humane person. But Hitler’s extreme case, and his is far from the only one, shows that it ain’t necessarily so.

Hitler, it turns out, read to confirm what he already believed. He had his set view of Jews, so he eagerly read Henry Ford’s anti-semitic tracts. He did read Karl May’s Cowboy and Indian Westerns, but he also gobbled up romance novels. Neither did May’s stereotypical Indians make him prejudiced nor did the romances soften his heart. He read to confirm, to affirm, who he already was. That reminds me of some of the other great minds who formed the worst of 19th century race theory. Count Goibineau read as much, if not more, about the different peoples of the world than any other scholar of the mid-nineteenth century. His research convinced him that race was all, and that the races of humankind could be ranked, with Aryans on the top. Francis Galton, Darwin’s first cousin, was a mathmatical genius. He invented the modern science of statistics. He also invented eugenics.

Moral depth — the ability to question one’s own biases and prejudices — is different from scholarship, reading ability, even genius. While of course we need to have a nation of readers, the example of Hitler’s vast and well-thumbed library shows that what we need, most of all, is a nation of thinkers. Otherwise, the books — and certainly the magazines and websites — we select may merely confirm us in our worst prejudices, and, indeed, help us think of ways to act on them (Hitler also studied how to use Zyklon gas).