Shelf Help: 'The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society'

The aura of deviance around mayhem manuals.
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The aura of deviance around mayhem manuals.
(Photo: iStock/GlobalP)

(Photo: iStock/GlobalP)

The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society
Ann Larabee
Oxford University Press

Since the late 19th century, Americans have been producing (and selling, and buying) DIY “mayhem manuals”: books that teach amateurs how to build bombs, use weapons, cook up poisons, and conduct industrial sabotage. In The Wrong Hands, the English professor Ann Larabee catalogs these troublemaker’s guides, from famous volumes like The Anarchist Cookbook to less-well-known examples like How to Kill and The Poisoner’s Handbook.

Larabee is interested less in the books themselves and more in the panic they tend to provoke. As she demonstrates again and again, the information they contain is almost always easily found in newspapers, textbooks, and government-issued guides, like the Department of Agriculture’s Blasters’ Handbook. Usually, the information in these “official” sources is more accurate. And yet, in a long stream of congressional hearings and court cases, it has been predominantly amateur guides that have been singled out as evidence of a dire threat to the nation.

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The problem, Larabee concludes, is not with the information itself—how could it be?—but instead with these books’ “aura of deviance.” This aura is exactly what makes them so intriguing, but it is also what draws the state’s ire. In the eyes of the legal system, possession of a mayhem manual can be proof of your rotten character or criminal intentions. Nonetheless, they’re enjoying a golden age of circulation online, despite lawmakers’ best efforts. While co-sponsoring a bill designed to combat online bomb-making instructions, Joe Biden read a bomb recipe into the Congressional Record, apparently unironically, and without realizing that this meant it would end up—where else?—online.

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