How can a dictator hide in plain sight, telegraphing evil intentions years or even decades after their demise? Daniel Kalder posits that it’s simple: Many of them left behind a body of literature. Kalder, a journalist who lived in Moscow for 10 years, immersed himself in “dictator literature” and has collected his analyses of their often terrible writing and its consequences in The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy. As it turns out, in addition to being despots and practitioners of genocide, dictators are typically megalomaniacs who like to put their thoughts on paper for posterity.
Kalder started reading the works of dictators around 2011 and somehow managed to finish the requisite reading and complete his own book within the decade. To say this was a tall task would be an understatement—there has been no lack of dictators in the course of human history—but Kalder delivers with this entertaining and highly informative book. It helps that he keeps his sense of humor. “Dictators usually live lives that are rich in experience,” he deadpans early on, and the quips are sprinkled throughout (including a shot at everyman author Bill Bryson). Given the subject matter, they are never unwelcome.
As for the dictator-authors, it’s safe to say there are no Brysons among them. Mussolini comes off best in terms of writing skill (“borders on the readable”), while Hitler (“staggeringly incompetent”) takes a pounding. Kalder then dutifully leads us through the writings of Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini and a few lesser-known despots. There’s a handy summary at the end in which Kalder also considers the impact of social media and warns—perhaps more aptly than he realized when writing this book—about the ability to “wage war . . . through the medium of text.”