This is Hitler. See Hitler read.

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Hitler is the poster boy for the limits of activities and practices that are supposed to be good for you.  For example, Hitler advocated vegetarianism and seems to have practiced something close to it.  He probably even ate granola.  Nonetheless, he wasn't interested in giving peace a chance.  As for the purported health benefits of a vegetarian diet, for Hitler, vegetarianism didn't impart glowing skin and glossy hair; nor did it counteract the effects of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head.

Now Hitler is exposed as an avid reader.  In Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life (reviewed by John Gross in The New York Review of Books), Hitler is revealed as a bookworm and condemned as an "autodidact, with an autodidact's limitations."

After quoting the book's epigraph, a passage from Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring," Gross reflects:

The trouble was not that [Hitler] didn't drink deeply enough, but that he drank from the wrong springs. . . . It wasn't his defective learning that was dangerous, but his ideas.
I see the problem a bit differently.  Ideas, from my perspective, are neutral.  They take on positive or negative valences depending on how people make use of them.  Shielding Hitler from the idea of anti-Semitism, for example, wouldn't have protected the Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals or handicapped who also died in concentration camps, or humanized the Slavs and Russians who were characterized as animals by the Nazis.

The problem wasn't the idea of anti-Semitism, but the way Hitler responded to it.  And his response may have had something to do with the way he read.  I have been extremely enamored of an explanation put forth by Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid (reviewed by Caleb Crain in The New Yorker; shamefully I haven't read it yet) about the way reading changes human thinking.

"The secret at the heart of reading," Wolf writes, is "the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before."  According to Wolf, reading doesn't use much of the brain, allowing the rest of the gray matter to engage with the text, both rationally (e.g., interrogating the accuracy of a given statement) and irrationally (e.g., calling up emotions provoked by the text).  "The efficient reading brain," Wolf explains, "quite literally has more time to think."

Our brains don't respond the same way to video, for example.  Crain writes:

Moving and talking images are much richer in information about a performer's appearance, manner, and tone of voice, and they give us the impression that we know more about her health and mood, too. The viewer may not catch all the details of a candidate's health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion. . . . The viewer feels at home with his show, or else he changes the channel. The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion. It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show.
With the caveat that one can never know what's in the mind of another, I'll hazard that Hitler can't have been engaging very strenuously with his reading material.  He seems to have been reading not to "have thoughts deeper than those that came before," but to "feel at home with his show."  Ryback "constantly reminds us [in Hitler's Private Library] of [Hitler's] intellectual shallowness," says Gross, and Gross himself labels Hitler a "lumpenintellectual."  Hitler apparently read, not for the pleasure of learning, but to bolster his insecurity.  "Cruelty, resentment, and the lust for power weren't the only things driving him.  He needed to believe in himself as a thinker as well," writes Gross.

A man who read to appear learned, and who abstained from meat in order to appear humane.  (According to Léon Degrelle, an SS general, Hitler "could not bear to eat meat, because it meant the death of a living creature.")  Perhaps Hitler is not the poster child for the limits of vegetarianism and bookishness, but instead the poster child for the hazards of cultivating a facade at the expense of the interior.  

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on July 3, 2009 7:50 AM.

Dissent into madness was the previous entry in this blog.

Bad books making bad law is the next entry in this blog.

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