Burn After Reading

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from Ernie Smith, the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. In another life, he ran ShortFormBlog.

Controversial literature that lives at the very edge of the First Amendment plays an important societal role: It tests exactly what we can say.

In the age of the internet, it’s easier than ever to get one’s hand on information that touches the very edge of the First Amendment’s limits. (We are by no means recommending you do that. Stick to Disney.com.) But before that, if you wanted to tell someone how to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom—as an al-Qaeda magazine once infamously put it—it came down to literature. And sometimes this literature has pushed the edges of good taste and societal norms, but still these documents remain out there in the world, inspiring more book-burnings than a Harry Potter convention. Today, we talk about controversial literature.

Editor’s note: This issue tackles a bunch of controversial literature from a sociological point of view. In case you need us to spell this out: we don’t condone the views being discussed in some of these works; rather, we’re discussing their cultural and political impact.

Complaints about books

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom was informed 5,000 times of challenges to books in schools and libraries between 2000 and 2009. Books of all kinds—from popular modern authors such as John Green and Stephen Chbosky, to classics written by J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee—have been challenged over the years for reasons related to their content and whether the works are suitable for students. The most popular banned book of 2015 was John Green's Looking for Alaska.

The obscure publisher that lives on the edge of decency

Don’t let the name fool you. Despite its fairly innocuous tone, Paladin Press is no Little Brown & Company, nor does it trade in the kind of mainstream books that Penguin Books or W.W. Norton does.

Paladin, friends, is a publisher that’s built its name on printing the kind of stuff that most publishers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. The validity of their body of work, often couched in the kind of survivalist content that most people would expect to find on obscure online forums rather than in printed paperbacks, has been debated for decades. It’s the kind of stuff that tests the First Amendment and leaves it feeling a little sore the next morning.

Paladin’s books challenge the First Amendment from an interesting place—they tell people how to commit crimes, beat people up, or get revenge on people in cruel ways, among other things. Beyond the many books about guns and self-defense training, these works generally have titles like How To Open Locks Without Keys Or PicksHow To Get Rich As A Televangelist Or Faith Healer, and Acquiring New I.D.

They’re how-to books about things that you probably shouldn’t know how to do. And back in the late ’90s, one of their books proved so controversial that it led to a First Amendment lawsuit.

Did this book kill a couple of people?

Much has been said about whether books and other kinds of content are bad influences on our culture, but one of Paladin’s books, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Contractors, was believed to have been used as an actual how-to guide for a triple murder.

Maryland resident James Perry, who committed the brutal crime in 1993, literally bought the book on how to commit a crime. The book came up when investigators searched Perry’s house. That led to a closely watched First Amendment lawsuit.

And that lawsuit eventually led to a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found that Paladin Press and its owner, led the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals court to rule that the book was not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Here’s the key line from the 1997 ruling:

Paladin’s astonishing stipulations, coupled with the extraordinary comprehensiveness, detail, and clarity of Hit Man’s instructions for criminal activity and murder in particular, the boldness of its palpable exhortation to murder, the alarming power and effectiveness of its peculiar form of instruction, the notable absence from its

text of the kind of ideas for the protection of which the First Amendment exists, and the book’s evident lack of any even arguably legitimate purpose beyond the promotion and teaching of murder, render this case unique in the law.

It was the first time a publisher was held accountable for a violent act by the reader of one of its books, and in 1999, the publisher was forced to settle with the family—and all copies of the books were destroyed.

Public safety

“I am particularly struck that the alleged bombers made use of online bombmaking guides like the Anarchist Cookbook and Inspire Magazine. These documents are not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet.” 

— Sen. Dianne Feinstein, arguing last year that al-Qaeda’s official magazine, along with William Powell’s The Anarchist Cookbook, should be removed from the internet in all ways possible. Powell’s book, which has sold millions of physical copies over the years, is no longer in his ownership—and he has repeatedly disowned the work. Feinstein’s comment was made about a foiled terror attack that only involved the still-in-print handbook because it was handed to them by an undercover FBI agent. So yeah.

The ballad of Jack Chick, official cartoonist of the rapture

(Image credit Scott Beale/Laughing Squid)

In a lot of ways, 92-year-old Jack Chick is like a mixture of colonial-era firebrand preacher Jonathan Edwards, iconic Marvel cartoonist Stan Lee, and an anonymous Twitter egghead with a lot on his mind.

Through a series of portable illustrated tracts, he long has preached a certain kind of religious message, one that seems set on convincing the unconverted that they need to change their ways.

Catholicism is not a controversial religion, but in Jack Chick’s world, it is. “After much prayer, he made the decision that, no matter what it cost him personally, he would publish the truth that Roman Catholicism is not Christian,” his website states. (He has similar views on Islam, and, uh, Freemasons.)

Halloween isn’t a controversial holiday, but that hasn’t stopped Jack Chick from informing us that traditional costumes aren’t nearly as scary as the devil.

(Image credit: Flickr user Joe Crawford)

The messages that he shares in his comics are so easily mockable that numerous bloggers have taken to dissecting them, writing humorous takedowns of his work.

And some of his works are so bizarrely out of step—such as this one taking on Dungeons and Dragons players—that they’ve led to film adaptations.

Say what you will about him (the Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists his company as a hate group, certainly has), but Chick’s distribution strategy for his controversial views was pretty smart. He did three things that helped make his tracts widely read and distributed:

He made them shareable. Guerrilla marketing? Jack Chick invented this stuff. His work has been randomly dropped on bathroom floors, hallways, and in waiting rooms for generations now. The tract size—small enough to keep in a pocket—is as easy to carry around as your pocket Bible. Heck, Chick even has Android and iPhone apps.

He made them cheap. To this day, you can buy a Chick tract online for around 16 cents each, which means that they’re easy to buy in bulk and hand out whenever the mood strikes.

He made them in multiple languages. Chick tracts are available in 100 different languages, which means that if you’re preaching in Iceland or teaching a class in Esperanto, you have options.

There’s a reason why 800 million of his comic books have floated around over the years—simply put, he knows how to get his views in your face.

Whether you want them there, that’s another question entirely.

O.J.'s Bad Idea

O.J. Simpson’s 2006 book If I Did It is the rare example of a really bad idea for a book created with the full support and backing of a multimedia powerhouse. Not only was the concept (a book where Simpson apparently imagined how the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman would have gone down) completely deplorable, the concept had a synergistic vibe due to its planned publishing by HarperCollins. The News Corp.-owned publisher planned to do the media tour complete with TV special.

It was such a terrible idea from the start that Paladin Press probably wouldn’t have even touched this thing. So perhaps it makes sense that, eventually, the Goldman family won the rights to the book in court. The family later published the book, but changed the title to If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer, with the word “if” barely readable on the book’s jacket.

Sometimes, an author’s words get mangled by the hands of a tough editor. Most editors, however, are nowhere near as tough as the Goldman family.


A version of this post by Ernie Smith originally appeared in the Tedium newsletter, which tries in vain to make dull topics slightly more interesting. You can follow along on Twitter or Facebook.


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I still think that The Anarchist Cookbook is an ongoing FBI plant. I once reviewed their bomb recipes and realized none of them would work very well if at all. (And, no, I am not going to discuss the errors or how I came to be given the book.)
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