The 50 Worst Books of the 20th Century - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The 50 Worst Books of the 20th Century

Last week, the Intercollegiate Review presented the 50 best books of the 20th century. This week, we present the 50 worst books from that century.

To make the task more manageable, our lists include only nonfiction books originally published in English. We define “worst” as books that were widely celebrated in their day but that upon reflection can be seen as foolish, wrongheaded, or even pernicious.

Our “worst” list reveals a remarkable number of volumes of sham social science of every kind. The attempt to understand human action as an epiphenomenon of “hidden” and purportedly “deeper” motives such as sex, economics, or the Laws of History is a powerful yet hardly salutary trend in our century. The presumed “breakthrough” insight that professes to reveal the shape of some inevitable future has time and again proven to be profoundly misguided. And with human life reduced in these theories to a matter for technological manipulation, our century also reveals a persistent attraction to a dehumanizing statist administration of society. 

This list was edited by Mark C. Henrie, Winfield J. C. Myers, and Jeffrey O. Nelson.



1. Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928)

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.

2. Beatrice & Sidney Webb, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (1935)

An idea whose time has come . . . and gone, thank God.

3. Alfred Kinsey, et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)

So mesmerized were Americans by the authority of Science, with a capital S, that it took forty years for anyone to wonder how data is gathered on the sexual responses of children as young as five. A pervert’s attempt to demonstrate that perversion is “statistically” normal.

4. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (1964)

Dumbed-down Heidegger and a seeming praise of kinkiness became the Bible of the sixties and early postmodernism.

5. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916)

Dewey convinced a generation of intellectuals that education isn’t about anything; it’s just a method, a process for producing democrats and scientists who would lead us into a future that “works.” Democracy and Science (both pure means) were thereby transformed into the moral ends of our century, and America’s well-meaning but corrupting educationist establishment was born.

. . . and the rest of the worst

Theodor W. Adorno, et al., The Authoritarian Personality (1950)

Don’t want to be bothered to engage the arguments of your conservative political opponents? Just demonstrate “scientifically” that all their political beliefs are the result of a psychological disorder.

Charles Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1935)

Beard reduces support for the U.S. Constitution to a conspiracy among the Founding Fathers to protect their economic interests. Forrest McDonald’s We the People provides the corrective.

Martin Bernal, Black Athena (1987)

All of Western philosophical and scientific thought was stolen from Africa and a conspiracy ensued to conceal the theft for more than three millennia. Provocative, but where’s the evidence?

Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Our Selves (1976)

Or, Our Bodies, Our Liberal Selves. A textbook example of the modern impulse to elevate the body and its urges, libidinal and otherwise, above soul and spirit.

Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman, After the Cataclysm (1979)

Chomsky’s anti-anti-communism was so intense that he was driven to deny the genocide perpetrated by Cambodian communists—stipulating, of course, that even if the charges against the Khmer Rouge were true, massacres were at least understandable, perhaps even justified.

Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (1968)

A rapist and murderer whose denunciation of The Man brought him the admiration of guilt-stricken white liberals.

Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (1968)

What this scientist proclaimed as an inevitable “fact”—that “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death” in the 1970s—turned out entirely “evitable.”

Harvey Cox, The Secular City (1965)

Celebrated the liberation that accompanied modern urban life at the precise moment when such liberation came to mean the freedom to be mugged, raped, and murdered. Argued that “death of god” theology was the inevitable and permanent future for modern man just before the contemporary boom in “spirituality.”

Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (1919)

A pernicious book that celebrates the growth of the welfare state and champions the unlikely prospect of “achieving Jeffersonian ends through Hamiltonian means.”

Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1936)

Everything you always wanted to know about sex, but were afraid to ask—and rightly so. The first influential book to take a wholly clinical view of human sexuality divorced from values, morals, and emotions.

Stanley Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally (1989)

Fish likes to ask his predecessors and critics, “How stupid can you be?” Well . . .

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (1958)

Made Americans dissatisfied with the ineradicable fact of poverty. Led to foolish public policies that produced the hell that was the 1960s.

Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966–69)

Writing glib, cliché-ridden verbiage about the virtues of irreligion, Gay matches the sophistry of the dimmest lumières.

Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time (1976)

The self-absorbed, unrepentant, and generously fabricated memoir of an American Stalinist.

Alger Hiss, Recollections of a Life (1988)

Hiss draws attention to his essential mediocrity in this sad tale of a life led largely to conceal a lie, a lie in which thousands felt compelled to participate.

Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954)

Huxley paved the way to the ruin of countless lives by writing up his experience with mescaline as a sort of primordial homecoming and lending his all-too considerable prestige to the claimed benefits of hallucinogenic drugs.

Philip Johnson & Henry Russell Hitchcock, The International Style (1966)

Build ugly buildings, wear funny glasses, make lots of money, and justify it all by writing a book.

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (1956)

Should have been called, Profiles in Ghost-Writing.

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936)

This book did for Big Government what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did for the tse-tse fly.

Timothy Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy (1968)

Leary always said it was a mistake to take things too seriously. This book proves he was right at least once in his life.

Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night (1968)

Fact or fiction? Not even Mailer knew for sure.

Catharine MacKinnon, Only Words (1993)

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Not according to Catharine MacKinnon. This book provides the foundation for some of the most ridiculous developments in recent American law.

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (1979)

Bored with the real Gospels and real Christianity, professors of religion were thrilled to find out how important—not to mention feminist and pre-Socratic—these fragments were.

Simon N. Patten, The New Basis of Civilization (1907)

This favorite of East Coast busybodies gave crucial middlebrow intellectual support to the proposition of an income tax. Called for a general willingness among Americans “to bestow without conditions and to be taxed for public and far-reaching ends.” Thanks a lot, Simon Patten.

The Pentagon Papers as Published by the New York Times, Based on Investigative Reporting by Neil Sheehan (1971)

Publicizing the blunderings of “the Best and the Brightest” did nothing but undermine the new president’s—Nixon’s—statesmanlike efforts to salvage the mess in Vietnam bequeathed to him by JFK and LBJ.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1950)

Popper “shows” that he is smarter and more open-minded than Plato or Hegel. That kind of thinking is one of the main obstacles to open-mindedness in our time.

Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907)

“[The Church] should therefore strengthen the existing communistic institutions and aid the evolution of society from the present temporary stage of individualism to a higher form of communism.” Eek!

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971)

The hollow soul of liberalism elaborated with a technical apparatus that would have made a medieval Schoolman blush.

John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919)

—and after that, Reed went home and the Bolsheviks struck the set.

Charles Reich, The Greening of America (1970)

Out of blue jeans, marijuana, free love, and the monumental egoism of a generation that refused to grow up, a Yale Law School professor concocted an adolescent fantasy: Consciousness III. Groovy, man.

Wilhelm Reich, The Function of the Orgasm (1942)

The notion that sitting in one of Reich’s orgone boxes would lead both to a happy individual and to a healthy and free society was only one indication of Reich’s absurdity. If only the real thing had worked as well as Woody Allen’s orgasmatron.

Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961)

Rogers disconnected human feelings from nature, disconnected the human and the spiritual from both real religion and the rigor of science, and ruined countless Roman Catholic religious orders in the process. Made B. F. Skinner look good.

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979)

The best, and therefore worst, exposition of American philosophical pragmatism. Had devastating effects on the study not only of philosophy but also of literature.

Jerry Rubin, Do It! (1970)

The Bible of the lazy and the crazy.

Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (1936)

Known to be harmful to your spiritual health.

Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (1920)

This founder of Planned Parenthood published Adolf Hitler’s eugenics guru in her magazine in the early 1930s. That Women and the New Race sprang from Sanger is no surprise.

Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (1982)

Amidst much amateur philosophical rumination, Schell proposed a syllogism: Nuclear war necessarily means the extinction of the human race. No human value (such as political liberty) can justify such an act. Therefore, unilateral disarmament is morally mandatory. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan’s vigorous confrontation with the Soviets ended the Cold War and saved us from the fear of Armageddon.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945)

Whig History sees past ages striving bravely to become . . . us. In Schlesinger’s Boddhisatva history, every age has a liberal Enlightened One who comes to battle the conservatives.

B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)

Swallowing whole the superstitions of modern scientism, this psychologist was convinced that the human psyche was nothing but a superstition.

Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (1966)

Don’t think. Just feel.

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1964)

The book that ruined social history. In over 800 pages, Thompson recasts the story of English working folk into a simplistic Marxist romance. This would become the cookie cutter for a generation’s worth of bland dissertations and predictable monographs.

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (1952)

Believing in modern meaninglessness more than in “the God of theism,” this theologian preached Courage (self-assertion “in spite of”) rather than Faith. But would the Romans have even bothered to throw him to the lions?

H. G. Wells, The Open Conspiracy (1928)

Wells emerges as the comically earnest would-be John the Baptist for a new religion of temporal salvation to be ushered in by a vanguard embracing “the supreme duty of subordinating the personal life to the creation of a world directorate.” Oh, my.

Woodrow Wilson, The New Freedom (1913)

According to H. L. Mencken, a book for “the tender-minded in general.” He staggered to behold “the whole Wilsonian buncombe . . . its ideational hollowness, its ludicrous strutting and bombast, its heavy dependence on greasy and meaningless words, its frequent descents into mere sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Malcolm X (with the assistance of Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)

“By any means necessary”? No, violence was not, and is not, the answer.



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