electrical substation

I often rhapsodize about the virtues of book reading on this blog. Books are the best! But are there downsides to book reading? Can books be dangerous?

A recent article in Harper’s magazine enthralled and sickened me. “The Machine Breaker,” by Christopher Ketcham, describes Ketcham’s conversations with an “ecoterrorist” named Stephen McRae.

McRae shot up electrical substations and toppled billboards. He believed that modern civilization was destroying nature and wished to destroy the machines of modern civilization. He was planning to commit further, and worse, acts of destruction when he was arrested and imprisoned. This occurred in 2016; he was released in 2022.

In his article, Ketcham describes his first encounter with McRae, pre-imprisonment, which didn’t go well. Ketcham writes:

“I thought he was a blowhard and a liar. I figured he’d read The Monkey Wrench Gang too many times. (He had.) The 1975 novel by Edward Abbey—the literary father of ecological sabotage—features a quartet of citizen defenders of the sandstone wilderness in southern Utah, so-called monkey wrenchers, who, like their hero Ned Ludd, the mythical eighteenth-century English weaver who rebelled against the machines overtaking the textile industry, vow to throw a spanner in the works. (Ludd’s forebears in fourteenth-century Holland are said to have used wooden shoes called sabots to smash the weaving machines that were putting them out of business.) Armed with gasoline, explosives, and rifles, Abbey’s saboteurs burn bulldozers and other road-building equipment, blow up bridges, and send coal trains into canyons, all the while pursued by local authorities. McRae, it seemed to me, was playacting in some cartoonish Abbeyite pulp fiction.”

As it turned out, McRae was not playacting. He actually was an “ecoterrorist.”

And he was inspired by a novel.

I have not read The Monkey Wrench Gang, but the novel seems to have inspired many environmental activists. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with caring about the environment and working against its destruction. And there’s nothing wrong with reading a novel about criminal behavior. A line is crossed, I believe, when a person starts to emulate novel characters to the extent that they begin committing felonies.

But. This is a difficult subject to parse because of course there are numerous times throughout history when people have disobeyed the law because they felt that the law was immoral or unjust. And many times, the law was indeed immoral or unjust. And there have even been times when the law was immoral or unjust, and lots of people realized this through reading a novel—I’m looking at you, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Back to my original question: is reading books dangerous? The answer has to be that it can be. Books tend to contain ideas, and ideas are well-known troublemakers. However—ignorance is another well-known troublemaker. The best way to use books is to read a wide variety of high-quality publications and think about them critically. And then make your best decisions in the world.

What do you think about this?