Fiction never really becomes obsolete. There are varying qualities of fiction. Themes may be addressed with greater skill in some works than others. Even works that, due to the passage of time, contain elements we now know to be impossible can still retain a certain antiquated charm. But even poor works of fiction cannot be said to be obsolete.
The same is not true of non-fiction. As some biologists have remarked, we might be better off disregarding most things written on their subject prior to 1859. Even ancient history is subject to revision as new discoveries and better interpretations are made.
There is also a certain materialistic and obsessive quality that many book collectors share that can make it difficult to part with bad or obsolete books.
Nevertheless, the following are five obsolete non-fiction books that I can afford to dismiss from my shelves. These are not only obsolete, they were probably erroneous from the start, though we may not have known that at the time.
It’s Not About the Bike, Lance Armstrong (with Sally Jenkins), 2000
I resisted buying this book for years despite its continued strong sales and frequent appearance on people’s favourite book lists. But as his victories mounted I succumbed and bought it at a sale price and placed it on my shelves where it has sat ever since waiting for me to read a few hundred other books first before I would get around to it. In those years Armstrong’s fall from grace has been well documented, and although this book addresses his battle with cancer as much as his pursuit of sporting glory, I no longer have any interest in reading this book. He was right though, it wasn’t about the bike (it was about the drugs).
Hitler’s Pope, John Cornwall, 1999
I bought this incendiary book some time ago. It is Cornwall’s investigation of the actions of Pope Pius XII with respect to the Nazis and the holocaust. Cornwall’s conclusion is that the Pope’s actions helped legitimise the Nazi regime and his subsequent silence and failure to condemn their actions, in war or against Jews, helped sustain it since Pius XII was one of the few who had the knowledge and the power to offer a real resistance that Germans, Italians and others would listen to. Cornwall also suggests that the Pope’s anti-Semitism was responsible for guiding some of these actions.
Naturally, the book is very controversial but not just for his conclusions. Several historians have challenged the evidentiary basis of Cornwall’s thesis and pointed to several sources of contradictory evidence. Cornwall appears to have gone from defending his conclusions, to moderating them and finally does not seem to lend them much support any longer. My interests in reading his book followed a similar trajectory; from being very interested, to being mildly interested, to wondering if there is any point anymore if even the author can no longer vouch for it. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church’s relationship to European fascism in the early 20th century, its charge of deicide against all Jews (not repealed until 1964), is a history that needs to be exposed and explored but in a more robust and considered way than on offer here.
Muhammad, Karen Armstrong, 1991
I bought this book before I knew who Karen Armstrong was and now that I do, I have little interest in reading it. Armstrong’s contradictions, hypocrisies and credulities are too numerous for me to list here and she has been thoroughly critiqued elsewhere. But perhaps the greatest of these is that she repeatedly claims that, on the one hand, God is infinite, unknowable and beyond comprehension to human minds; yet on the other hand she then proceeds to tell people what God is or is not.
Armstrong’s latest book, Fields of Blood, is an attempt to argue that there is no real link between religion and the vast amount of violence committed in the name of religion. Everything from the Inquisition, witch-burnings, anti-Semitism, 21st century terrorism, etc, can be explained away as the result of cultural, political or societal factors. Even some conservative reviewers, who you might expect to support her defence of religion, have exposed the obvious flaws in her arguments with little difficulty.
Yet, she remains immensely popular on her tour promoting Fields of Blood, with normally respectable interviewers and reviewers not daring to ask tough questions or scrutinise with a neutral or open mind. Perhaps this popularity is a sign of a legitimate fear amongst the faithful – that their refusal to denounce extremists and fundamentalists within their own faiths has the effect of offering silent approval for these views and in the absence of any counter argument the path to violence becomes inevitable. Perhaps, the popularity of Armstrong (and similar voices like Reza Aslan) despite the flaws in her arguments, is a result of the fact that she allays those fears and tells the faithful what they want to hear.
But getting back to the book at hand, Muhammad, the major flaw here is credulity. Armstrong commits the cardinal sin of any academic, historian or scientist – she never doubts or questions her source material. As such, her ‘biography’ of the prophet cannot be considered as anything more than a speculative history; devoid of the scepticism, acknowledgement of doubt or weighing of probability that must accompany any respectable history. I say I have ‘little’ interest in this book of Armstrong’s. The little interest I have comes from the acknowledgement that it has received some positive reviews from Muslim sources such as the Muslim News. It may therefore be of use to understand the view as seen through the eyes of blind, unquestioned, faith. By comparison, I have much more interest in reading Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword.
In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters & Robert Waterman, 1982
In Search of Excellence was the general-audience business management book of the 80’s. It touted an almost-Newtonian mission to find the practices that America’s best corporations had in common. It has all the appeal of a self-help manual, supported by research with only a slight scent of snake-oil salesmanship. The book has achieved classic status, but considerable criticism surrounds it.
Chief among these is that the research contains significant selection bias. By only studying already successful companies, the author’s results may not represent factors that created that success initially. Without including failed companies it cannot be said that the factors chosen in this book were the difference between success and failure. Many failed companies may have engaged in similar practices yet failed for altogether different reasons – reasons that may have a greater say in the success or failure of business ventures but would be completely missed by such selective research.
Instead, I may pick up Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect. While not a book of business advice, it promises a more academic study of the infiltration of pseudoscience in business practice.
The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh & Henry Lincoln, 1982
I first became aware of this book following the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as the authors took legal action against Brown for plagiarism. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is, of course, as fictional as The Da Vinci Code with perhaps even more plentiful historical inaccuracies. The list of inaccuracies and critiques by historians is a long one, but perhaps most damning is the assertion from people close to the book’s sources that the Priori of Scion, one of the foundations of the book’s thesis, is entirely fictional.
Unlike other books on this list, I have actually read this one. While I can certainly share the critic’s conclusions as to its fancifulness and falseness, I can’t share their resentment and revulsion. I have to admit, with considerable shame, that I did find it very entertaining. I have similarly torn feelings about The Da Vinci Code, which I readily admit is poorly written, but very appealing. There is something about conspiracy theories, so prevalent during my teenage years from TV shows like The X Files to films like JFK, that continue to entertain me. And it is harmless as long as we do not mistake it for fact.