An Anarchist's Nightstand

"By a man's finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs – by each of these things a man's calling is plainly revealed," Sherlock Holmes told his friend Dr. Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four.

And so, throughout the 60 Holmes adventures – four novels and 56 short stories – the master detective deduced the personal habits, qualities, and philosophies of hundreds of people by studying everything from their ashtrays, to their felt hats, to their breakfast dishes.

I've always thought you can tell a lot about someone by examining their bookshelves. But I believe even more can be determined when you observe which books are stacked on a person's bedside nightstand. There lie the books they read again and again, the books that give them comfort and inspiration, the books they live with and live by.

So which volumes will you find at the bedsides of those who write for This would make an intriguing study for even Sherlock Holmes. And yesterday, I took time to consider which books have spent the most time – sometimes years – sitting on my own night table.

In no special order, here are the books I found:

Up From Slavery, by Booker T. Washington

When I'm tired of boo-hoo-hooing about the day's news and need an attitude adjustment, I read a chapter or two from this great autobiography, written in 1901. Without fail, it puts my day-to-day problems in proper perspective.

Born a slave, Washington taught himself to read, fought discriminatory laws, and preached personal responsibility and the spirit of enterprise. For that reason, you don't usually find Washington or this book cited by contemporary black leaders. He wasn't a libertarian, but Booker T. Washington consistently advocated self-help and shunned government handouts.

Up From Slavery inspires and re-inspires.

The Freedom Outlaw's Handbook, by Claire Wolfe

This is a relatively new addition to my nightstand. Published just last summer, it's an update and expansion of Wolfe's earlier 101 Things to Do 'Til the Revolution (1996) and Don't Shoot the Bastards (Yet) (1999), both now out of print. Now, I'll admit that this new edition – a large-paged paperback – is less handy to read in bed than its predecessors. But it remains valuable to any freedom-lover both frustrated by The Way Things Are and wise enough to recognize the futility of electoral politics.

The Freedom Outlaw's Handbook is stuffed with 179 suggestions for taking action (and sometimes not taking action) in moving personally toward liberty. Some items are for shifting your mind-set. Some are methods of outreach to potential allies. Some are downright…well…radical. They range from the obvious (don't forget the Bill of Rights, don't pay more taxes than you must, home school) to the self-liberating (fly the Gadsden flag, celebrate April 19, skip TV) to the more controversial monkeywrenching of the State.

And here's the best part: Claire Wolfe is not only educational and instructional, she's fun to read. Wolfe's certainly one of the best writers in today's freedom movement. I'm never far from her books.

Light and Liberty: Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness, by Thomas Jefferson (edited by Eric S. Petersen)

Eric Petersen did something very clever, and it's something we can be thankful for. He combed through tens of volumes of Thomas Jefferson's letters, speeches, and public documents. Then, taking in hand the most succinct, stirring quotations he discovered, Petersen crafted 34 original Jefferson essays on everything from liberty, to faith, to enthusiasm, to simplicity. The result is a brief but wonderful Jeffersonian primer that rings with wisdom and inspiration.

Every word is Jefferson's. Writes Petersen in his introduction: "My effort to create smoothly flowing text, to the extent it has been successful, is attributable to the remarkable consistency of Jefferson's style and philosophy expressed over the course of his long life."

If you're tired of the constant Jefferson-bashing of the past decade or so, you'll adore this little book.

The Prince, by Niccoló Machiavelli

OK, I don't get much in the way of comfort or inspiration from this volume. But to be effectively anti-political, as any anarchist worth his black flag should be, you must understand politics thoroughly. And 500 years later, still no better book has been written about the subject than Machiavelli's 16th century Italian classic.

Here are the "rules of the game." Here is the ultimate no-B.S. guide for seizing power and, more important still, keeping power. Confesses the author: "This work I have not adorned or amplified with rounded periods, swelling and high-flown language, or any other of those extrinsic attractions and allurements wherewith many authors are wont to set off and grace their writings…"

Essentially, The Prince instructs that ethics and morality have no role in politics.

Sure, the book is centuries old. But politics never really change. Only the faces do.

Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, by Étienne de la Boétie

This comes from 16th century France. And you might call it the antidote to Machiavelli. In Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, La Boétie analyzes the origins of tyranny, and then explains how people can thwart political enslavement and free themselves by withdrawing their consent from the State.

Essayist Carl Watner once described La Boétie as "the first libertarian political philosopher in the Western world." Murray Rothbard, in his rightly famous introduction to one edition of Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, called La Boétie "the first theorist of the strategy of mass, non-violent civil disobedience of State edicts and exactions." For those reasons, this slim volume is vital and deserves to be read and studied repeatedly.

March 29, 2005

Wally Conger [send him mail] is a marketing consultant and writer living on California's central coast. He has been a non-political, anti-party activist in the libertarian movement since 1970. His blog of unfinished essays and spontaneous eruptions can be found at