Updated Saturday, March 20, 1999, at 3:30 AM
Slate's readers name the era's silliest books.
New York University's journalism department recently bade adieu to the millennium by picking the 20th century's 100 greatest pieces of journalism. NYU's ranking of Jonathan Schell's 1982 book The Fate of the Earth--an overheated and self-edifying prophesy of nuclear disaster--at No. 59, inspired Michael Kinsley to recruitSlate readers in naming the century's 100 Silliest Books Taken Seriously (By Serious People).
Although we received a wide variety of entries, consensus emerged around these eight books and authors, in this order:
1. The Greening of America, by Charles Reich
2. Earth in the Balance, by Al Gore
3. The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray
4. Das Kapital, by Karl Marx
5. The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich
6. The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama
7. Mein Kampf, by Adolph Hitler
8. Various works of Ayn Rand
What makes a book silly? Some readers selected books that state the obvious: Bill Gates' The Road Ahead ("Computers will be important in the future--gosh!" writes Tim Evans). Gore's Earth in the Balance was accused of both fuzzy thinking and naked political promotion. Others nominated titles whose silliness was revealed by time, public debunking, or both. The easy winner--and easy target--in this category is Ehrlich's 1976 The Population Bomb, a neo-Malthusian tract, which predicted a population explosion that would cause global shortages, raise prices, poison the environment, and lower life expectancy. Ehrlich's theories lost steam after he lost a famous 1980 bet with economist Julian Simon, who wagered that any basket of resources Ehrlich might name would be cheaper at any date in the future. Nonetheless, Ehrlich's book was treated to a 21st anniversary reprinting in 1997.
Our more aggressive respondents, excited to nail entire bodies of work in one go, bypassed books and went straight for the authors themselves. Ayn Rand garnered the most votes for any single author. A sampling of other targets:
Kathryn Harrison ("I can think of no other writer I'd rather unilaterally disarm," fumes Adam Mazmanian);
Gore Vidal ("the consummate pseudo-intellectual who disguises his bilious prejudices as profound insight," writes David Greenberg);
and the entire Michel Foucault canon ("or should I say oeuvre?" asks Ken Baker).
Others took a more literal approach to silliness. "I suppose Alice in Wonderland is not exactly what you meant," writes Andrew Solovay. Maybe not, but you illustrate beautifully our point about interpreting standards.
Second, what did we mean by seriousness? Some readers measured it by amount of attention devoted by the chattering classes on the pages of prestigious periodicals. Reich's The Greening of America--a celebration of the hippie ethos--debuted around the same time as the New York Times op-ed page and dominated that forum for weeks. Other answers interpreted seriousness--well, more seriously, mentioning Das Kapital, Mein Kampf, and Mao's Little Red Book for their enormous impacts relative to their shaky intellectual foundations. Reader Jeff Staiman argues, "People devoted their lives to [Das Kapital], set up national economies and whole countries based on it. Of course, only a minority believed in it deeply, but many of them were serious people." He adds, "if any group is more shrilly serious than the few hard-core socialists I met at Berkeley, I hope never to meet them."
Like NYU's list, Slate'slist has only two discernible effects: It validates already popular opinions (Did you already think Reich's book deserved a comeuppance? Well, others did too.), and it makes the authors feel very bad (or in the NYU list's case, very good) about their work.
Actually, our list does provide one more, far more practical, service: It should serve as grave warning to anyone who is even remotely contemplating writing a book on the fate of the environment.
More Fellas for Hillary
Seven days ago, Chatterbox asked readers who Hillary Clinton should date if she and the president ever split ("Dating Advice for Hillary"). Chatterbox suggested, among others, Leon Wieseltier and Robert Torricelli, but his e-mail inbox overflowed with reader picks. Herewith, a sampler (and please don't send any more!):
Thomas Geoghegan (winsome lefty labor lawyer and author of The Secret Lives of Citizens (click here to buy the book)
Former President Suharto of Indonesia
Jodi Kantor is Slate's New York editor.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.