Nothing is more dangerous than literature.
You’re all readers, so I don’t have to provide a list. You can think of books that your parents or teachers considered dangerous (and you were determined to read them for that reason, if for no other). There are books that are dangerous because they’re full of wrongheaded or flawed ideas, or ones that aren’t inherently dangerous until people with misguided or defective reasoning embrace them. Some books contain unpopular or annoying truth which makes them threatening to some elements of society, or to a particular culture, religion or political ideology.
As long as books have existed, some have been declared “unsafe.”
Ah, the dangerous books I’ve read: Catcher in the Rye (prohibited for a time at my high school, so of course I read it immediately), Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterly’s Lover.
Some books are perfectly acceptable, ipso facto, but can be dangerous if embraced by naive or credulous readers. It’s okay, for example, to get a kick out of reading about ol’ Howard Roark’s exploits in The Fountainhead. It’s another matter entirely to adopt a worldview in which some Randian, ubermenschian persona becomes one’s role model.
Having a book banned or restricted from publication or distribution does attract publicity.
Breaking rules, crossing boundaries — intentionally creating a “dangerous book” —is one pathway to garnering attention and — in the final analysis — sales. Engaging in hyperbole gets one noticed, if not respected. William Randolph Hearst allegedly said, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” His business was selling newspapers, not truth. If you don’t think that philosophy pays dividends, go visit Hearst Castle.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a group of writers endorsed a reportorial approach called “New Journalism.” New Journalists rejected traditional objectivity in which the reporter was an anonymous observer, providing only objective facts to the greatest degree possible. They strove, instead, to determine not mere fact but “truth,” with the differentiating judgments provided by an incisive and observant reporter who applied his or her own interpretation of reality.
New Journalism appeared in the pages of magazines like Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Harper’s and Scanlon’s Monthly. Work from authors including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion sold a lot of magazines.
One of the most notable practitioners of New Journalism was Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s immoderate style generated a lot of attention for his subjects and himself. He wrote a number of memorable pieces of journalism, but the work that’s indelibly identified with his byline is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Fear and Loathing appeared first in Rolling Stone magazine, then became a book. It evolved from Thompson’s idiosyncratic and fevered approach to a series of overlapping journalistic assignments covering police corruption, a motorcycle race, a meeting of the National District Attorneys Association and the illicit drug culture. Thompson’s personal participation in the drug culture became part of the narrative, suffusing the book with a distorted and hyperbolic tone reflecting the writer’s extreme form of New Journalism, which he called “Gonzo Journalism.”
Gonzo Journalism, itself, became — along with Thompson, himself — the subject of his book, taking New Journalism about as far as one could extend the genre. It also became a dangerous idea — at least to many critics of journalism — because those definitions of fact, truth and “reality” were blurred by their presentation (distortion?) through Thompson’s less-than-objective lens.
It’s also a hilariously entertaining book. Danger is fun when described by a maniacally madcap participant with a knack for knock-your-socks-off first-person narrative.
At the core of Thompson’s approach is his zest for exaggeration. Nothing is ordinary in his world. I was reminded of his penchant for making everything larger than life a few months ago in a museum, of all places.
In the portion of the book that derives from Thompson’s assignment from Sports Illustrated to cover the Mint 400 off-road motorcycle race (an assignment which he failed), Thompson described some of the motorcycles the competitors rode: Triumphs, BSAs, Indians — big monsters with lots of horsepower. But there was one titanic, legendary bike, inflated in Thompson’s description to mythic status. The fastest production motorcycle ever created: the Vincent Black Shadow.
He wrote, “If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die.”
So extreme, so over-the-top was Thompson’s description of the Black Shadow that when I read Fear and Loathing more than 40 years ago, I thought he’d invented it. It was, I assumed, his Moby Dick or Frankenstein’s monster.
Last September I visited the Petersen Automobile Museum in Los Angeles (I wrote about it here). In one of the hallways connecting room after room of vintage and collector’s item vehicles was a display of motorcycles, including this one:
A 1948 Vincent Black Shadow.
In truth, the jig was already up on my appreciation of the Black Shadow’s existence. I’d previously learned that the British firm Vincent Motorcycles had built something fewer than 1,700 Black Shadows. They were, in fact, ferociously fast, one having attained a speed of 185 miles per hour. Not mythic, but extreme, by any measure.
I’d also seen one other Black Shadow, a 1951 model, in the San Diego Automotive Museum
Those are mere objects: cleverly-crafted assemblies of metal. Dangerous in the wrong circumstances, but in the hands of a master manipulator of language, behemoths of threat and peril. Adopting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a lifestyle template would be far more dangerous than riding a Vincent Black Shadow at any speed, but it’s certainly a thrilling ride. I was happy to stand there in that clean, air conditioned space and bridge the gulf between the inert metal of the Black Shadow and the sizzling psyche and charged hyperkineticism of Thompson’s writing. In an era of “alternate facts,” we might benefit from his apoplectic overreaction to the absurdity of our world.
Have a favorite “dangerous book?” Leave a comment.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Quotation by Hunter S. Thompson © Cycle World, March 1995. The Petersen Automotive Museum and San Diego Automotive Museum, respectively, own the rights to any use of the images.