The Infernal Library
‘A mesmerizing study of books by despots great and small.’
The Washington Post
A harrowing tour of “dictator literature” in the twentieth-century, featuring the soul-killing prose and poetry of Hitler, Mao, and many more, which shows how books have sometimes shaped the world for the worse.
Since the days of the Roman Empire dictators have written books. But in the twentieth-century despots enjoyed unprecedented print runs to (literally) captive audiences. The titans of the genre―Stalin, Mussolini, and Khomeini among them―produced theoretical works, spiritual manifestos, poetry, memoirs, and even the occasional romance novel and established a literary tradition of boundless tedium that continues to this day.
How did the production of literature become central to the running of regimes? What do these books reveal about the dictatorial soul? And how can books and literacy, most often viewed as inherently positive, cause immense and lasting harm? Putting daunting research to revelatory use, Daniel Kalder asks and brilliantly answers these questions.
Marshalled upon the beleaguered shelves of The Infernal Library are the books and commissioned works of the century’s most notorious figures. Their words led to the deaths of millions. Their conviction in the significance of their own thoughts brooked no argument. It is perhaps no wonder then―as Kalder argues―that many dictators began their careers as writers.
'The Infernal Library' Reviews
Book of the Week
The London Times
Book of the Week
The London Evening Standard
‘Daniel Kalder…deserves a medal…Dictator Literature is a great book…An insightful book, but also a funny one.’
‘I enjoyed this book a great deal . . . it’s actually a rather snappy read.’
Will Self, Guardian
‘With a nimble style and an eye for leaden prose…Kalder’s work is quite an accomplishment, and is the one book people interesting in the terrible writing of dictators should read.’
Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)
‘A fascinating study…partly an enjoyable romp but mostly a sombre sidelong-glance
history of 20th-century totalitarianism.’
‘Brisk, and full of antic fun.’
‘This about the most discomforting book I’ve read in the past year. Never mind Trump and never mind Twitter: Daniel Kalder demonstrates that words themselves, and the escapist spells we weave with them, are our riskiest civic gift. Kalder’s claim – that he has read the deathless prose of tyrants so we don’t have to – does not go nearly far enough. Dictator Literature sweeps aside the ideas and intentions of its subjects (Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and their imitators) and reveals what’s really been going on: an epic, word-transforming battle between words and reality, between people as they are and people as we would like them to be.’
Simon Ings, author of Stalin and the Scientists
‘The fact that Kalder sometimes finds merit in a dictator’s writing—usually, it must be admitted, before he became dictator, for power corrupts words among the many other things that it corrupts—is testimony to his laudable open-mindedness. His judgments are not facile… [a] valuable book.’
Anthony Daniels, The Weekly Standard
‘Hugely compelling…Like coming across a planet-sized car crash, with hundreds of millions snarled up in the wreckage: you can’t look away. Kalder has really dug deep into the minds of these infernal texts’ creators, and thus delivers some truly enlightening insights.’
‘Full of…wonders, and startling individual facts…An overwhelmingly powerful reminder of 20th-century misrule, and of just how delusional human beings can be―especially if they’re literate.’
The Daily Telegraph
‘This books is hilarious and horrific, appalling and enthralling.’
Francis Wheen, The Oldie
‘Kalder is our cheeky and irreverent guide to the (generally aggressively tedious) prose by history’s despots.’
‘…a perverse feat of literary endurance.’
To the Best of Our Knowledge, NPR
‘A compelling examination of why bad minds create bad writing, and therefore a valuable read for anyone interested in literature–or the world, in fact. Every writer is certainly a little dictator, and every dictator, it seems, a little writer. Kalder’s dry humour makes Dictator Literature a fun tour de force through the mad history of the 20th century and the present.’
Norman Ohler, author of Blitzed
'The Infernal Library' Cover Gallery
Join fearless and possibly extremely foolhardy travel writer Daniel Kalder on a year long quest thousands of miles across Russia in search of some of the most bizarre peoples and places on earth. Will he find the mythical lost city of tramps in the sewers of Moscow or hunt down demons and exorcists in the Ukraine? What happens when he meets the messiah (and one-time traffic cop) whose thousands of followers await the apocalypse in Siberia? And what is the extraordinary secret he discovers in the only wooden skyscraper on the planet?
Here is the fascinating story of a journey that turned out to be far more inspiring, moving and downright strange than Kalder could ever have imagined.
Selected as one of the 10 best books of 2009
The National Post
R.I.P. Nikolai Sutyagin’s Tower at the Top of the World
Read a moving eulogy from Daniel Kalder.
'Strange Telescopes' Reviews
‘Kalder is not only an excellent writer, with a vivid turn of phrase, but a sympathetic one: his concern is to understand his subjects rather than exploit them … his insight and skillful writing keeps you reading.’
‘Kalder sets out to create an atypical travel book set in a series of parallel worlds. The result, recounted in a fractured, collage-like style, is as surreal as any fiction, and blackly comic in parts. By turns frustrating and astonishing, this outlandish and unusual collection of absurd stories, full of experience and anecdote, veracity and invention, nonetheless manages to capture some of Russia’s perverse anarchy and extreme beauty.’
‘Kalder is…the Anti-Palin, scouring obscure locations for eccentrics, malcontents and lunatics … Thoughtful and funny.’
'Strange Telescopes' Cover Gallery
LOST COSMONAUT documents Daniel Kalder’s travels in the bizarre and mysterious worlds of Russia’s ethnic republics. Obsessed with a quest he never fully understands Kalder boldly goes where no man has gone before: in the deserts of Kalmykia he stumbles upon a city dedicated to chess and a forgotten tribe of Mongols; in Mari El, home to Europe’s last pagan nation, he meets the Chief Druid and participates in an ancient rite; while in the bleak industrial badlands of Udmurtia, Kalder looks for Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK 47 and inadvertently becomes a TV star.
Profane yet wise, utterly honest yet full of lies, LOST COSMONAUT is an eye-opening, blackly comic tour of the most alien planet in our cosmos: Earth.
Book of the Week
BBC Radio 4
Selected as one of the best non-fiction books of 2006
Travel Book of the Month
Reviewer’s Choice Non- fiction Book of the Month
Book of the Month
'Lost Cosmonaut' Reviews
Times Literary Supplement
‘Kalder has written a brilliantly funny travel book that questions the essence of exploration and the nature of tourism in an age when there’s nowhere new to go…’
‘Kalder’s black humour is a new voice from the black holes of the world.’
The Times (London)
‘Imagine a musical by Beckett, with lyrics by Hunter Thompson and the Sex Pistols…’
The New York Times
‘A considerable achievement’
‘Irreverent and laugh- out- loud hilarious… Kalder challenges us to see the beauty in
Los Angeles Times
‘Lost Cosmonaut makes both an insightful travel journal and a good memoir… His
observations on his existential dread and self-consciousness are just as sharp-eyed as
those on, say, pagan ritual in Mari-El’
‘…mordantly funny yet deeply affecting… the antithesis of every travel book I’ve ever read.’
Scotland On Sunday
‘Imagine a Bill Bryson with Tourette’s, and you’ll have some of the flavour of this spasmodic, deliberately crass, strangely wonderful book’
'Lost Cosmonaut' Cover Gallery
Cornerstones is an anthology of writing about landscape and geology, based on a BBC Radio 3 series. My contribution was on the subject of the tundra, and it appears alongside essays by poet/author John Burnside and the former Welsh poet laureate Gillian Clarke, among many others.
This was an anthology of writings about the post-Soviet world, in which contributors were “charged with the express mission of drafting, oddly enough, a Soviet and post-Soviet lexicon with missing words in order to compile a dictionary with missing definitions.” I was presented with a photograph and asked to respond to it; the results were creative and rewarding.
Company of Shadows was an art book by Paul Gerrard, a concept artist in Hollywood who has worked on films such as Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and many others besides. I supplied prose fragments to accompany Gerrard’s horrific imagery.
Around 2009 or 2010 I re-established contact with my friend Ian Moir, an artist and curator in Fife. Whereas I had left our hometown of Dunfermline as soon as possible, Ian had stayed behind to fight the good fight for the arts and has since opened an innovative gallery space in the town. One of his earlier projects was an anthology of new writings from Fife; I contributed an essay about Fife, Texas.
This book is a moving tribute by the Scottish-American photographer Sandy Carson to his mother, exploring his memories of the years he spent growing up in the mining community of Newmains before emigrating to the US in his 20s. I contributed an essay.
In the aftermath of the hurricane that devastated Galveston in 2008, photographer Sandy Carson made several visits to the coastal Texas town, documenting the aftermath with his sympathetic, but surreal eye. I contributed the foreword.