So I find myself sitting here wondering how I would feel if Michael Gove had a book by David Icke on his shelf…
Probably more worried, if I’m honest.
Icke doesn’t write out of any respected tradition except that of the seers and mystics who have always been around making a pretty penny from the reading habits of the gullible. David Irving, on the other hand, has been around almost as long but at least he was once considered a scholar of some note. If I recall correctly, he had a reputation for unearthing documents and adding to the knowledge of Nazi Germany, even if many of the conclusions he later developed were repugnant. There’s a video on Youtube of Christopher Hitchens from 1996 (yes, 1996, well after Irving became disreputable) defending Irving’s right to be published in America and describing him as “one of the leading contributors to the field”.
That was a fair point and I think Hitchens was right to argue that nobody should be banned from reading what other people could already read. The video gets a little murkier when it comes to the specific case being argued but I think I’ve had enough confusion for today. I’m already conflating three stories: Irving on Gove’s shelf; Irving not getting published in the US; Icke getting booted off Youtube…
I tackled the last of those yesterday. I’ve just briefly covered the second. That leaves me with the first.
Michael Gove should be free to own whatever books he likes. He should be able to read whatever he likes. Books on shelves, however disrespectable, don’t concern me in the least…
I do, however, worry about people shaming others for owning books simply because they disapprove of them. To put it simply: does Owen Jones (who tweeted on this matter) know why Michael Gove owns Irving’s book, or, indeed, The Bell Curve, which is the other controversial book under discussion? Has he any evidence that suggests that either book influenced Gove more than say, Tony Blair’s biography, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, or Dod’s New Constituency Guide? Does Gove have any moral responsibility to explain himself?
See how this gets slippery?
“Ah, sir wants to buy a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita. I’ll just have to ring the police station to check you don’t have any convictions for that sort of thing…”
“Madam wants to buy Marx? Won’t be a moment. Just want to be sure you have a properly accredited academic interest in economic theory.”
“Your order for Norman Mailer’s Naked and the Dead has been received. Please click on the link in your email to give the authorities the right to check that you never tried to kill your wife.”
While we’re about it: why not call Gove out for owning books by Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and Ayn Rand, all on the shelf and, arguably, contributed to more misery in the late twentieth century than either Irving or Herrnstein and Murray?
Predictably, Twitter is now splintering down the middle and loath as I am to pick a side, I can’t help but feel that book shaming is one step removed from book burning. While is entirely legitimate to attack ideas, it seems entirely wrongheaded to attack simply the ownership of books. You cannot intuit from a bookshelf Gove’s opinion of the books. There might well be times when you feel compelled to do so but it quickly descends into those Orwellian nightmares, where somebody (Owen Jones, perhaps) decides which books we are allowed to own and which ideas we’re allowed to think. Because that’s the principle at stake here. If we accepted that Gove is wrong to own these two books, which other books should join them on the fire? And who gets to choose?