The Devil’s Bookshelf

A searing reading list for devastating times


Perhaps it’s counterintuitive to suggest that these dark and scary times call for reading dark and scary books. But instead of chasing escapism in the form of light and frothy stories, I propose readers delve into narratives that tell you how bad it can be and to what depraved depths of inhumanity people can sink.

There are many, many books to choose from on this topic because there are many, many historical examples of man’s inhumanity to man. Right at this very moment, people are being slaughtered, political prisoners wallow in prison, governments are practicing torture, and human rights are being violated.

And, yes, it can happen here. It has happened here. It is happening here.

To understand just how much we have at stake, how fragile and tenuous our civil rights are, we have to learn from those who had them taken away.

Much has been written about the Holocaust, and there is a diverse multitude of moving accounts of that horrendous event, but I encourage people to go beyond the Holocaust, which has become a sort of cultural shorthand for all evil.

I assure you, there is so much more evil to know about.

For instance, there is the case of North Korea. Despite Donald Trump’s assurance that Kim Jong-un is “very honorable,” he is actually a mass murderer who is descended from a line of mass murderers who understand very well how to keep a populace terrified and helpless.

To get an inside glimpse of their insidious techniques, read The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, a chilling and heartbreaking narrative of a man condemned to a labor camp for the crime of…well, really nothing other than being a citizen of a paranoid regime that looks upon its people as expendable fodder in the exclusive service of the ruling class.

In my lifetime, the American public has mostly regarded the Supreme Court as an impartial panel of wise judges who will safeguard the constitutional rights of all citizens. But, of course, they are human beings with deeply held beliefs that cloud their judgment. Supreme Court justices, they’re just like us!

In Korematsu vs. US, the court upheld the legality of Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which removed U.S. citizens from their homes to be segregated in isolated camps for no other reason than their ancestry.

For a powerful account of how this decision affected children in particular, check out Joanne Oppenheim’s Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference, which is filled with personal narratives on how it feels to be an American citizen consigned to a concentration camp for the crime of family origin.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, Japan had descended into a military dictatorship that relied upon virulent nationalism to coerce an entire nation into giving up everything they had, including their sons, in the name of dominating Asia with their pure and noble Japanese master race.

In order to comprehend how fully acquiescent an entire country can become to their deluded and immoral leaders, avail yourself of Japan at War: An Oral History by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, a compilation of interviews of ordinary Japanese who did the cruel bidding of their political masters up unto the brink of annihilation — and, sometimes, beyond.

An excellent, but dense, companion piece is Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix, which details the political manipulation of the emperor in whose name debauched men wrought death and destruction far and wide.

A more recent example of the breakdown of society is the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi by their Hutu neighbors in Rwanda. To understand, or at least to trace, the roots of this “project of extermination,” go to Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld. What you find is that it doesn’t take much to pit neighbor against neighbor and to incite mass killing.

And, of course, we can never look away from that long period in our own history when people were held as the property of a landowning class who treated them as nothing better, and sometimes worse, than livestock. Religious leaders, founding fathers, politicians, and intellectual luminaries declared slavery right and true, even as they upheld Christian principles and talked about equality and democracy.

There is no shortage of great and worthwhile books written on this subject. One of the most articulate, inspirational, and moving accounts is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, which unsparingly recounts the cruel degradation of living under the total dominion of an unjust system.

We don’t know what the future will bring, or how long our experiment in democracy will survive. But to truly know what you are fighting for, and what you are fighting against, you have to understand how easily people can become enthralled by evil, and how quickly the politics of tribalism can sweep through a nation and tear it apart.

Alice Stephens’ novel, Famous Adopted People, will be published by Unnamed Press on October 16, 2018.

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