Why you should never judge a person by the books on their shelves – Evening Standard

Posted By on May 5, 2020

A squall over the contents of the Gove familys bookshelves sent me reeling back to two formative experiences about free speech and its near cousin, freedom of reading. They hail from contrasting ends of the ideological spectrum. The first was studying in the old East Germany, where taking a work by Orwell or Nietzsche out of the university library became a complicated ritual of applications to the Poison Cupboard, where writers deemed too dangerous forgeneral consumption were kept. Such applications were grudgingly granted and permissions were recorded, ensuring that the state could form its judgement on undesirable reading habits.

A few years later, I wrote about the libel trial brought against the Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt by David Irving, a historian who had blossomed from provocative revisionist to into a fully fledged apologist for Hitler and excuse-maker for the mass killings of Jews during the Third Reich. Oddly for someone in this line of work, he objected to being called a Holocaust denier. The outcome, as The Times put it, was that history had its day in court and history was vindicated.

So where does an Irving book belong now that it resides on the scrapheap of historical veracity? Not on the shelf of a Cabinet minister, twitch the scolds. They have confected a case in which a snapshot of a bookshelf featuring Irving turned fast into a Jaccuse moment for those with an idle moment and a grudge. It is, in my book, perfectly fine to dislike a minister or his ideas as ardently as you like. It is a very bad idea to base that on his or her books. The bad faith bit is the implication that to own a book whose arguments are bad and wrong suggests affinity which the author of his ideas. In which case, my shelfload of books on Fifties Stalinism and the archives of an eventful Erfurt communist party congress (its all light relief at my place) will see me court marshalled too, though probably not by the same noisy voices.

The bookshelf police really mean that there must be something wrong with anyone who wants to read Irving or any work they find distasteful or wrong. Yet the whole premise of Lipstadts takedown of his twisting of the truth was that she took the book very seriously indeed and enjoined others to do so (for which reason she remains opposed to censorship).

Anne McElvoy

Probably the worst argument in an admittedly generous bunch is that this dangerous book-owning political family is trying to say something dubious. But what? A coded clarion call to the shabby leagues of Holocaust deniers from a minister who is accused, more plausibly, of being a bit too uncritical of Israel? Coherence, begone.

No, I think its pretty simple, really: the notion that you can judge or condemn people by the books they have read is a shorthand for some other argument you cannot win by more forthright means. To understand the weft of ideas which make up study of history or politics, we need to read as widely as possible. So lets dispense too with the dim notion that there is nothing to learn for reading bad books like this one. The advocate of free reading should reply, Says who? and keep turning the pages.

Richard Evans, the former regius professor of history and key witness in the Irving case, has been a fierce foe of Goves in arguments about history on the school curriculum. They disagree on a lot on wider politics too. And here is his take on the bookshelf test: I was asked to take part in a campaign to remove Irvings works from university libraries. I refused. People, including students, should be free to make up their own minds.

Challenging the mystique of bad books requires knowledge of what they get wrong (I knew a lot more about Holocaust denial having read Irvings convoluted evasions).

In lockdown, the books in our Zoom backdrops might seem like idle distraction from watching our colleagues twitches and glazed expressions, a way of marketing our erudition or, in more entrepreneurial cases, the authors own writings. They do, however, say something essential about the blessings of pluralism and need to guide against its casual erosion. Having books on your shelves is not the same as agreeing with their contents. A wonderful idea this, hard fought for down the centuries and the best retort to the new battalions of armchair censors.

Anne McElvoy is senior editor atThe Economist

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Why you should never judge a person by the books on their shelves - Evening Standard

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