To put things in perspective, consider that in 1907 the Social-Democratic Party had a membership of around 150,000. The Skopts, a millennarian sect who believed that salvation would come once they had managed to castrate 144,000 people, had around 100,000 members during the same period. Even at its peak, then, Marxism was not that much more popular than crushing men’s testicles between hot plates, a method of castration practiced by the sect. By 1910, it was much less popular, as membership of the Russian Social-Democrats had dropped to 10,000: it took a combination of both its squabbling factions to equal a tenth of the Skopts’ total.

— Daniel Kalder, The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy

I remember reading a review by Theodore Dalrymple of Kalder’s book some time ago, so when I saw a copy at a library sale this past spring, I grabbed it. I’m sorry I let so much time elapse before finally starting on it, because this book is hilarious. Kalder has such a mordant wit, which I suppose you need if you’re going to subject yourself to reading the literary output of 20th-century dictators and summarizing it. He started from the puzzlement over the fact that these men, who achieved levels of power and influence akin to minor deities, produced the most unimaginably tedious writings. How could these gods among men be so incredibly boring, so bereft of insight? He notices the curious fact that most dictators start as writers, to which he attributes the megalomaniacal obsession with the awesome significance of their own words. He makes the counterintuitive case against literacy, arguing that the history of last century would surely have been better had Stalin gone on to be a drunken yokel cobbler like his father, rather than be sent to seminary to learn to read and eventually discover the works of Marx and Lenin. I think his tongue is mostly in his cheek, but then again, looking around at so many overeducated mediocrities causing so much trouble, maybe he’s on to something. Anyway, I’m not even finished with it yet, but it’s already one of my favorite books of the year.