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Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2000 /25 Teves, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The worst books of the Century -- WHAT A DELIGHTFUL IDEA. While everybody else seems to be compiling lists of the best books of the year, the century or even the millennium, The Intercollegiate Review has put together a list of the 50 worst books of this regularly deluded century. It can't have been easy, considering how many worthy -- or should that be unworthy? -- candidates there are to choose from.

Certain lines had to be drawn in this search for the worst of the worst, lest the judges be overwhelmed by a whole century of buncombe. The nominations were limited to nonfiction books first published in English, which narrowed the fetid field only slightly.

And the winning -- losing? -- books had to have been "widely celebrated in their day but which upon reflection can be seen as foolish, wrong-headed, or even pernicious.''

How limit so ambitious a list to only 50? But what fun. There's nothing like a good salutary jaunt through the weed-filled garden of fashionable intellectuality, which isn't at all the same as intellect, and toppling the gilded statuary as we go.

The very worst book at the top of the Review's list -- or is it the bottom? -- is Margaret Mead's "Coming of Age in Samoa,'' which may still be required reading on some of the more intellectually correct campuses around the country.

The more one thinks about this choice, the better it seems. Its research was faulty, its acceptance unquestioned, its fantasies Everyman's, and its effects baneful.

To quote the Review's all too accurate summary of its Absolutely, No. 1 Worst Book of the Century: "So amusing did the natives find the white woman's prurient questions that they told her the wildest tales -- and she believed them! Mead misled a generation into believing that the fantasies of sexual progressives were an historical reality on an island far, far away.''

That summary judgment may err -- on the side of understatement. Not just one generation was influenced by Margaret Mead's prodigious imagination and paltry facts. The line from "Coming of Age in Samoa'' in the Twenties leads to the equally adolescent dreams of the Sixties and the current confusions of the Nineties.

Once the god of self-fulfillment is enthroned, all the rest follows: the outward promiscuity and the inner alienation. And the damage isn't just psychological. It can be measured in the rising number of abortions, illegitimate births and venereal diseases, including AIDS. The new morality, stripped of its intellectual pretensions, bears a striking resemblance to the old immorality -- certainly in its results.

Contrary to Margaret Mead's imaginative research, there are some universal taboos, perhaps because there are some universal experiences. It used to be called natural law, and the function of our seers and lawgivers was to discover it, not make it up as they went along.

Running close behind Margaret Mead among the worst of the worst are the Webbs, Sidney and Beatrice, on the strength, or rather weakness, of their 1935 opus, "Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?''

The answer, contrary to the Webbs, was No. Their new civilization proved an old barbarism -- a criminal conspiracy in the guise of a political revolution. To say its victims have been legion in this century would be a vast understatement.

John Dewey's "Democracy and Education'' made the Worst of the Worst because of its emphasis on the means of education, rather than any ends, but does it really belong on this list? Dewey's emphasis on learning-by-doing still has much to recommend it -- if it leads somewhere. It wasn't so much John Dewey who confused ends and means as his disciples, whose educanto by now has just about replaced education.

Before putting John Dewey on this list, I'd give the nod to some of the other nominees, who need to be remembered in all their vainglory lest their ideas stage a comeback.

This century has not lacked for bad books, and no list of the worst would be complete without these:

-- Margaret Sanger's "Women and the New Race,'' with its oh-so-advanced, almost hitlerian enthusiasm for eugenics. That "science'' is now enjoying a revival under a variety of new names -- from reproductive freedom to assisted suicide.

-- Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb,'' which was all the rage in 1968, when it predicted that "hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death'' in the 1970s. Mr. Ehrlich wasn't so much ahead of his times as behind them. The great famines of the 20th Century have been largely man-made, going under names like Mao's Great Leap Forward and Stalin's collectivization.

-- Lillian Hellman's "Scoundrel Time'' may be as false and pretentious as any other memoir of an unrepentant stalinist, but this one has about it a certain artistic gloss that distinguishes it from, say, the dull gray memoirs of an Earl Browder.

There's also some happier reading in this current issue of the Review. For in addition to the century's 50 worst books, it nominates the 50 best. The best include authors whose works are still as incisive as when they first saw print:

C.S. Lewis' "The Abolition of Man,'' Whittaker Chambers' "Witness,'' and T.S. Eliot's critical essays, which are a big step above his poetry. Also listed, naturally enough, are George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia,'' Flannery O'Connor's letters, and Booker T. Washington's "Up From Slavery,'' whose call for self-reliance is only a little more relevant now than when it was published in 1901.

One of the Review's choices for the Best of the Best strikes me as belonging in the Worst of the Worst: Arnold Toynbee's "A Study of History,'')which is more a study of the author's wispy but very wordy prejudices. Which may explain why, celebrated and puffed as Toynbee's history was at the time, nobody except a few masochists ever actually read it.

To quote a real historian, Pieter Geyl: "There is hardly an incident or a phenomenon quoted by Toynbee to illustrate a particular thesis that does not give rise to qualifications -- if the reader is conversant with the matter.'' Toynbee was sufficiently prudent to write about ancient matters only a very few were conversant with, and so he was confused with a far-seeing sage.

Some books were nominated for both lists, the best and the worst. For example, Malcom X's autobiography. And for good reason. Like people, books can be a mix of the very good and the gosh-awful.

It's been said that, for every new book you read, you should read an old one. It's some comfort, pressed for time as many of us are, to remember that, for every new book not worth reading, there's an old one not worth reading, either. Maybe 50 of them.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate