6 Hugely Popular Books That Accidentally Screwed The World
Even if you're not a famous writer or politician or brilliant scientist, you probably dream of doing something to change the world. Even if it's just a small thing, like being the guy to single-handedly catch bin Laden and throw him from a helicopter into the rotors of another helicopter.
But be careful what you wish for; as numerous authors have found out, sometimes your "world-changing" work doesn't necessarily change things for the better. Like...
Jaws, by Peter Benchley
It's the book that made the entire planet collectively shit their pants, go swimming, and then shit their pants all over again once the movie came out.
Seriously, what was Peter Benchley's problem with our unsoiled pants?
Together, the Benchley-Spielberg tag team established Robert Shaw as a badass, Richard Dreyfuss as Richard Dreyfuss, the Jaws theme as the last thing you hear before you die, and the fact that the great white shark proves Mother Nature only wants to murder us.
The Ugly Aftermath:
You'd think the world's oceans would be safer now that books and movies like Jaws have inspired countless angry fishermen to kill sharks 'round the clock. Well, they are. In fact, things are now so safe that one-third of the world's sharks are facing extinction, thanks in part to a little phenomenon called "The 'Jaws' effect."
Pictured: The "Jaws" effect.
Once it became clear that sharks were suddenly and rapidly going the way of the dodo, Peter Benchley dedicated the remainder of his life to promoting awareness that sharks aren't as bad as he claimed: "We knew so little back then, and have learned so much since, that I couldn't possibly write the same story today."
Sharks have since been added to the endangered species list, thanks in part to what Benchley described as "popular ignorance about sharks." You know, like the idea that they'll kill you if you don't blow them up with an oxygen tank first.
Coma, by Robin Cook
Despite coming out fresh on the heels of Jaws, Marathon Man and Star Wars, Dr. Robin Cook's 1977 medical thriller Coma gave Americans something else to sweat over besides sharks, Nazi dentists and the Dark Side of the Force.
It was a terrifying time to be alive.
The plot was simple enough: What really goes on behind that scary door in the hospital? While today it is Dr. House deliberately clogging the handicapped toilet, in Dr. Cook's book it was a bunch of white-collar organ thievery, thanks to carbon monoxide-induced comas.
This "hospitals just want your organs so they can sell them" tale was on The New York Times' best-seller list, was voted No. 1 thriller of the year and was adapted to film in 1978 by none other than the same Michael Crichton, M.D., who brought both dinosaurs and Jeff Goldblum's career back to life.
Why Michael Crichton never made it with a family practice.
The Ugly Aftermath:
Sure enough, both the book and the movie were monumental successes in that they scared the collective shit out of the general public. Not that people stormed their local hospitals and demanded to see the organ-stealing room -- no, the effect was much more subtle: "If hospitals are looking to cash in on my organs, then I just won't agree to donate them!"
"If I don't get to use my organs, no one does."
And thus, organ donation took a nosedive by as much as 60 percent, which prompted The New York Times to sweat Dr. Cook's balls on the matter. In the aptly titled piece "Did Coma Cause It?" the newspaper eventually concluded that "coincidentally or not, the decline began about the time the movie was released," which we gather is The New York Times' way of saying, "Oh, HELL yes."
On the Naturalization of Useful Animals, by Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire
Published in 1849, this treatise was the signature piece of an influential French zoologist that spawned a worldwide craze for acclimatization. What is acclimatization? Well, back then, the awesome-sounding idea of deliberately introducing foreign plants and animals throughout the planet.
"Needs more zebra."
For instance, say you notice an ecosystem doesn't have any spiders and thus has no natural predators for spiders, and none of the other species there have evolved to live with spiders or to avoid being eaten by them. You would then dump a bunch of spiders there.
You can never have enough deadly, deadly spiders!
Really, it's impossible to imagine anything going wrong with that.
The Ugly Aftermath:
As demonstrated by the near-death experience Australia went through due to the introduction of the rabbit, the introduction of invasive species into foreign environments is one of the biggest dick moves a person can do to an ecosystem. Unfortunately, some people figured that out only after this book kicked off the acclimatization fad.
For instance, the American Acclimatization Society's introduction of European starlings in New York City alone led to the continent-wide decimation of native birds such as swallows, bluebirds and wood ducks. The population of European starlings eventually exploded to 200 million, causing crop damage and disrupting air traffic. Today the starling disaster is known as a "cautionary tale." Mainly because "starlingocalypse" is too difficult to say out loud.
The worms have been trying to warn us for years.
The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
If you've heard of this book at all, it's because of the controversy surrounding the author (Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie) getting threatened with violent death from some radical Muslims after it was published.
We're not going to make a joke about his eye, but we want you to know we could have.
So, based on that, you might have thought the book was devoted entirely to talking shit about Islam, or that the "Satanic verses" were Rushdie calling Islam Satanic. In reality, the book is about a pair of Indian actors who are magically saved from an exploding airplane, transformed into angels and demons, and deal with life as Indian immigrants in modern-day England.
But the Prophet Muhammad does make an appearance, and, well, you know where this is going.
The Ugly Aftermath:
The "Satanic verses" in the title references a then-little-cared-about footnote in Quranic scholarship (verses that supposedly were to be included in the Quran but were cut as they were ultimately found not to be from Allah). But that title was accidentally translated into Arabic to read something along the lines of This Whole Book Is About How Your Bible Was Written By Satan. Since it would have required nothing short of actually reading the book to debunk this, Rushdie was wholly, utterly screwed.
Yeah, that's about as far as we got.
Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of Rushdie, numerous people associated with the book were killed, and Middle East/Western relations became even more complicated to learn in school. By early March 1989, the FBI had received 78 threats against bookstores in the U.S. alone, "clearly only a small proportion of the total number." Numerous bookstores throughout the U.K. were bombed, protests and acts of violence erupted around the world, and 39 people were killed in 1993 during one incident in Turkey.
Journalist Maureen J. O'Brien, a specialist in the book trade, would later comment that "the business of bookselling ... will never again be quite the same."
"It still won't be very interesting, though."
The Dick and Jane series, by William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp
If you grew up in the U.S. at any time from the Great Depression to the disco era, chances are you were forced to get to know two Aryan youths named Dick and Jane in elementary school.
They weren't particularly bright kids, and their neighborhood was not all that racially inclusive, but man, did they ever know how to make learning to read fun!
"Fun" here means "suicidally boring."
The Ugly Aftermath:
It is hard to imagine that any book printed prior to Dan Brown could actually make you dumber by reading it, but sure enough, that remains the No. 1 complaint leveled at the books of the Dick and Jane series.
The books were intended to teach reading using a specific method, often called the "look-and-say" method, which pretty much did for literacy what texting has done for spelling.
The human race is really moving on up.
The method relied on, for instance, putting the word "DUCK" under a picture of a duck, and visually the kid was supposed to remember that those four letters stuck together represented the quacking bird. The kids weren't being taught why words are pronounced they way they are, or how different letter combinations work together. So if a kid ran into a new word, he had no means of figuring out how to say it on his own -- he only learned them as a series of pictures.
We know that's a terrible way to learn English ... now. And educators have changed their approach. But to this day, there are experts who blame a generation of Dick and Jane readers for America's lagging performance in reading skills (U.S. students rank 17th in the world in reading).
We're No. 17! We're No. 17!
Debate still rages about which teaching methods are best, but there seems to be universal agreement that using the Dick and Jane "look-and-say" method by itself results in kids who both hate to read and also really suck at it.
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, by Dr. Benjamin Spock
This landmark book by "totally not the guy from Star Trek" is, quite simply, the quintessential book on baby care for everyone from the Mayo Clinic to the Coen brothers.
Dr. Benjamin Spock's book has sold more than 50 million copies and has been translated into 39 languages. It's literally one of the most popular books ever printed on any subject.
The Ugly Aftermath:
It is one thing to accidentally leave out some good advice that science had not thought up yet, but it is a whole other animal to actually tell people to do something that will kill their babies and then brag about it being common sense ... which is exactly what Dr. Spock did.
Shine on you, crazy, baby-killing diamond.
Specifically, Dr. Spock strongly advocated that babies not be put on their backs while sleeping. No one was in a position to argue with him. We mean, the dude was Dr. Spock. That's why, once research in the 1970s showed that Dr. Spock's advice could lead to SIDS, researchers thought it would be easier to ignore this information than to publicly disagree with Dr. Spock, who at this point was a baby-god.
Whatever you do, don't let this man put your kid to sleep.
Sixty years and 50,000 infant deaths later, the entire medical community realized that there is a lot more to their profession than telling people to buy their book.
Be sure to pick up the bestselling book that's making the world worse while making it totally awesome.
Now check out some books that should've altered history in 7 Books We Lost to History That Would Have Changed the World. Or check out some books that people just don't get, in 6 Books Everyone (Including Your English Teacher) Got Wrong.
And stop by Linkstorm because books are for geeks.
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