The Last Century’s Fifty Worst Books

The Last Century’s Fifty Worst Books August 1, 2014

Starting with Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, the Intercollegiate Review presents the Fifty Worst Books of the Twentieth Century. The others in their bottom five are Beatrice & Sidney Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (as Muggeridge noted, in a latter edition they dropped the question mark), Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, and John Dewey’s Democracy and Education.

Reading the list is kind of a blast from the past, given that almost all these books were among the Most Important Books when I was younger (and and that most of them — like the first five — were constantly invoked but as far as one could tell rarely if ever read. All you needed to know about Mead’s book, for example, was that she had shown that people in a kind of state of nature mated like rabbits in blissful innocence, which showed that we should too, if only we could free ourselves of the moral chains imposed by civilization. This was among those things everyone knows. Only as it turned out it wasn’t true and Mead had found what she wanted to find, and what many people wanted to hear. For her, that meant fame and fortune. For people who tried to live in that alleged state of nature, mostly pain.

By my count nine of the books dealt with sexuality in this way and several others lent support to the kind of understanding of man into which this idea of sexuality fits best. But it’s oddly cheering that only one-fifth of the list dealt with sex and that most of the list dealt with mistakes about economics, history, and religion.

The inclusion of The Autobiography of Malcolm X I’d protest, though it also appears on the magazine’s Fifty Best list so the editors sort of agree, and also of Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which as a book is neither here nor there. The editors snipe that it was ghostwritten, but then so was Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative.

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