Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Unabomber's Reading List

(Ted Kaczynski: bomber and bibliophile)

Twelve years ago tomorrow, April 3rd, FBI agents arrested Theodore Kaczynski at his ramshackle cabin outside Lincoln, Montana. Found inside the cabin were a live bomb and the original manuscript of the Unabomber’s Manifesto (which had been produced on a typewriter, of course, since Ted rejected computers along with most products of industrial society). Among the many items the FBI seized from the cabin were 257 books.

After his conviction, Ted Kaczynski filed a lawsuit seeking the return of most of the seized items, especially the books. Here’s an eight-page typed list of the titles Ted wants back, which was filed with his lawsuit. The books are listed by title only, so in some cases you have to be familiar with the work to recognize the author.

It’s an impressive reading list, including serious fiction (Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, James Fenimore Cooper, John Steinbeck, Somerset Maugham, Tolstoy, George Orwell and Arthur Koestler), classic political literature (Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War), and lots of histories on the French and Russian revolutions. One of those histories – Louis XIV and the Twenty Million Frenchmen – is a fairly obscure academic work that I know only because I had it in a specialized readings seminar in graduate school; he couldn't have come across that text casually, but probably only because he made a conscientious effort to track down the works cited in his other reading about the French Revolution.

How many of those 257 books have you read? I’ve read about a third of them, and I still own about 50 (including the Euell Gibbons books, I’m a little embarrassed to admit). It was a shock to realize that the Unabomber and I love some of the same books. What’s more, I see that two books in particular, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, shaped Kaczynski’s world view, as they also did mine.

Hoffer’s True Believer was obviously a big influence on Ted's philosophy since, in the opening and the closing of his Manifesto, Kaczynski uses Hoffer’s concept of the believer-type to analyze leftists, arguing that they are disappointed people who are attracted to a mass movement to compensate for a lack of satisfaction in their personal lives. Kaczynski might even have met Hoffer since both were connected with the University of California at Berkeley around the same time. Kaczynski was an associate mathematics professor there from 1967 to 1969, a period when Hoffer spent one day a week on campus as a visiting research professor.

The Conrad influence is unstated but just as apparent. It was noticed even during the Unabomber investigation. In 1995, a Professor of English at Brigham Young University suggested to the authorities that characters in The Secret Agent provided a rationale for the bombing of professors and scientists. After he was arrested, Kaczynski stated to investigators that he’d read the book more than a dozen times, and he also may have sometimes used the pseudonym "Conrad" when he left his cabin to deliver his bombs.

You can read The Secret Agent on-line courtesy of the Gutenberg Project:

I went back to The Secret Agent after seeing it on the Unabomber’s reading list, and a particular passage jumped out. Mr. Vladimir, a Czarist secret policeman, is instructing Verloc, an anarchist and agent-provocateur, on the finer points of Propaganda of the Deed. As Vladimir narrows down the selection of targets for Verloc, he says:

“Pay attention to what I say. The fetish of to-day is neither royalty nor religion. Therefore the palace and the church should be left alone … The demonstration must be against learning—science. But not every science will do. The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics.”

Did a passage in a novel written in 1907 provide the inspiration that led to a string of attacks in the 1990s? Why not? Almost certainly, Kaczynski first read that passage in his teenage years. I can easily imagine the young anti-social math geek rolling that idea over in his mind: express myself by throwing a bomb into pure mathematics? Hell, yeah. And that is essentially what he did, considering that the Unabomber's targets were scientists whom he selected for no reason other than the “shocking senselessness” of killing them.

I’d be tempted to recommend that Homeland Security ought to round up agoraphobic middle-aged white men who read lots of old books and have an unhealthy fascination with bombs, except that description comes way too close to yours truly.


davod said...

I purchased "The Secreat Agent" the other day. I hope that doesn't mean I am now on a watch list.

TSB said...

Enjoy the book, and I hope you read Conrad's other novels and short stories, too.

If that's enough to put you on a watchlist, then I'll be going down, too.

Anonymous said...

The connection with Conrad is noteworthy, but the statement that "[the Unabomber] selected [targets] for no reason other than the "shocking senselessness" of killing them" is incorrect. The Unabomber's choice of targets was directly connected to his beliefs about the "industrial technological system".

Wavefunction said...

You know who else "threw a bomb into pure mathematics"? Kurt Gödel, the famous Austrian-American mathematician who demolished attempts to make mathematics complete and consistent through his Incompleteness Theorems. That bomb was far more potent than anything Kaczynski ever made; too bad Ted went down a very different route.

TSB said...

Wavefunction - Thanks for your comment. Wow, I see that post was from nine years ago. I'm surprised people are still coming across it.

Also thanks for the Kurt Gödel mention. I'm reading about him now. Considering that he retired about ten years after Kacynski entered academic life, they could indeed have crossed paths if circumstances had been different.