May 21, 2015

Osama bin Laden liked the same books as your Uncle Jeff


(image via the Office of the Director of National Intelligence)

(image via the Office of the Director of National Intelligence)

Yesterday, the United States Government declassified a trove of documents acquired by Navy SEALS uring their raid of Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. According to CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani was long-planned and the timeing was unrelated to Seymour Hersh‘s recent provocative counter-narrative of bin Laden’s assassination—one of Hersh’s main assertions was that the information gathered from the raid were forged and that the evidence suggested bin Ladin had little influence in post-9/11 al-Qaeda.

Whether or not you buy Hersh’s narrative or the CIA’s assertion that the government’s document dump was unrelated to said narrative, there’s a lot of interesting—if relatively inconsequential—stuff, especially when it comes to bin Ladin’s reading material, which was embargoed until yesterday.

The books in question were digital files, and were found on computers, thumb-drives, or discs. Presumably by necessity (as it’s the only aesthetic defense), bin Laden was that rarest of readers: someone who read on a computer, rather than from a print book or on an ereader. Most of the attention paid to bin Laden’s library has focused on the higher profile names who had a place in bin Laden’s library—Bob Woodward and Noam Chomsky being the most renowned—or the incongruities—bin Laden possessed a book focusing on suicide prevention and books covering 9/11 conspiracies

For the most part, bin Laden’s library is dominated by what you could describe as “Uncle Books.” While “Dad Books” are sweeping, somewhat overgeneralized historical works that sand away rough edges and meld moving, if relatively unsubstantiated claims of American exceptionalism with banalities that suggest that, under the skin of every man likes a Great Man, if only he could learn how to Mold His Genius and Devote Everything To Securing His Greatness, “Uncle Books” are all about the invisible structures that prevent men from being great. Osama bin Laden loved Uncle Books—books about military tactics and fuckups, the Illuminati, contradictory conspiracy theories; books about ancient history that are actually about how contemporary society is decaying and about to collapse; books that suggest wide-learning but generally reflect an all-consuming, uniform paranoia. These are books whose subtext explains why your Uncle Jeff got divorced from your Aunt Carol and moved back in with your dad’s folks—they also explain why your Uncle Jeff keeps mailing you fireworks and Army patches.

According to BuzzFeed:

“Of the 38 full-length English-language books he had in his possession, about half of them were conspiracy theory books” about the Illuminati, Freemasons, and other conspiracy topics. Texts listed on the “bookshelf” include Bloodlines of the Illuminati by the American conspiracy theorist Fritz Springmeier; The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 by the 9/11 conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin; and The Secrets of the Federal Reserve, a book by the Holocaust denier and anti-Semite Eustace Mullins.

Most of the other half—excluding the two that have gotten the most attention, those by Woodward and Chomsky—also reflect that paranoia, though more indirectly. In other words, Osama bin Ladin likes the books your Uncle buys from the discount racks at Barnes & Noble.

Melville House publishes none of the following books, which were found to be in Osama bin Laden’s library:


Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.