Back in my now rather distant days of regular residence in Britain, I listened regularly to a radio program called Desert Island Discs. Aside from choosing a number of often superb musical excerpts the celebrity being interviewed was always finally asked ‘What books apart from the Bible and Shakespeare would you take with you on your island?’ I am relying heavily on memory here but believe I recall the gist at least of this long-running program. Hereabouts I can think of two weighty tomes which everyone ought to read today wherever they find themselves. A common cliché maintains that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but you have only to note how many people dress poorly and exhibit little more taste in their homes to discount such a sentiment entirely. By the same token truth is just a matter of opinion is even more flawed. It is only by ceaselessly educating the eye and tirelessly exercising the brain that taste and moral judgment can be formed properly and thereafter regularly augmented.
The first book I recommend strongly in such a quest is English historian Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals which was first published in the USA in 1988 and shortly became a world best-seller. Paul was a good friend and a co-contributor to The Spectator in London. By weird chance, I personally read Intellectuals from cover to cover – 385 pages – when incarcerated in a public hospital in Turin with suspected pneumonia in January 1992. A friend brought me the book and I simply could not put it down. It might even have saved my life. The thirteen chapters cover figures as various as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Bertold Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and many, many more. Johnson concludes this absolute masterpiece with the words: ‘above all we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget; that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.’
Many may share my contention that few more heartless tyrannies than communism have ever existed and a huge tome endorses my belief regarding every country where communism has ever taken root. The Black Book of Communism was first published in France in 1997 (in French) and was subsequently translated into English and re-published by Harvard University Press in 1999.
Here is straight, unadorned history from all over our world. The opening up of archives following the widespread collapse of communism in 1989 provided much of the sad and often utterly heartbreaking detail regarding the deaths of 100 million of their own people under communism. Every country where communism ever took root is covered in forensic detail. Cuba? Cambodia? Bulgaria? Poland? The coverage is as complete as it is for the USSR and all of Asia. 850 pages adds up to a pretty massive tome, I agree, but the book’s price still remains modestly approachable.
Intellectuals in Western countries love to flirt with communism as an idea but the reality has always proved rather different. Democracy grew up in the West and however flawed never remotely approached the day to day problems associated with totalitarian regimes. My own first-hand experience of life is rather different from that of most who grew up entirely in Australia. Here allegiance often to the extreme Left provides for many a fashionable start in life but they are not truly addressing an existent reality. In England by contrast many people of my generation were asked to defend the frontiers of democracy during the Cold War. I remain proud to have served with 118 Squadron the Royal Air Force Regiment who formed a front line against Soviet forces in Northern Germany in 1954. The regiment bore the nickname the Rock Apes from their defence of Gibraltar during the second world war. I was possibly the only member of our squadron who didn’t come from West Glasgow but we found ways of communicating nevertheless. I regret Australia’s endless flirtations with communism which are based generally either on ignorance or immaturity. The unbeatable answer is simply to grow up. No two books I can think of can help anyone better in that essential process than these two.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10