Tyler Cowen is asked “which have influenced your view of the world:”
The books are in no intended order, although the list came out in a broadly chronological stream:
1. Plato, Dialogues. I read these very early in life and they taught me about trying to think philosophically and also about meta-rationality.
2. The Incredible Bread Machine, by Susan Love Brown, et.al. This was the first book I ever read on economics and it got me excited about the topic.
3. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand. This got me excited about the idea that production is what matters and that producers must have the freedom and incentives to operate.
4. Friedrich A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order. The market as a discovery procedure and why socialist calculation will not succeed. (By the way, I’ll toss a chiding tsk-tsk the way of Wolfers and Thoma.)
5. John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Keynes is one of the greatest thinkers of economics and there are new ideas on virtually every page.
6. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography. This got me thinking about how one’s ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime. Plus Mill is a brilliant thinker and writer more generally.
7. Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object. This is actually a book about how to arrive at a deeper understanding than the one you already have, although I suspect few people read it that way.
8. Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit. This convinced me that a strictly individualistic approach to ethics will not in general succeed and introduced me to new ways of reasoning and new ways to plumb for depth.
9. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae. I don’t think the ideas in this book have influenced me very much, but reading it was, for whatever reason, the impetus to start writing about the economics of culture and also to give a broader focus to what I write. Alex, by the way, was the one who recommended it to me.
10. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. This is still the best book on interiority.
I’d also like to mention the two books by Fischer Black, although a) I cannot easily elevate one over the other, and b) I capped the list at ten. La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims also deserves honorary mention, on self-deception and related issues. Plus there is Shakespeare — also for thinking with depth — although I cannot point to a single book above the others. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon comes to mind as well.
I would encourage other bloggers to offer similar lists.
Peter Suderman at The American Scene:
I’m not sure if the books below are truly the absolute most influential in my life, but they’re certainly the ones that immediately stick out in my mind as having stuck with me over time.
Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury: I’ve always been a little perplexed by the book’s reputation as a defense of free speech. It is, of course, but that’s not its most important point by far. Instead, it’s a novel about mental debilitation and loss of empathy induced by media overload — in particular, overload on shallow, visual, electronic media. It’s also a novel about the love of stories, and the way written stories in particular can provide humans with meaning, purpose, and escape; by the book’s end, the hero joins an outcast community in which individuals devote themselves not only to learning works of literature, but to immersing themselves in them, fusing their identities with these works and, in a sense, becoming them. For reasons that should be obvious, I’ve long found this wonderful and tremendously appealing.
Videohound’s Guide to Cult Flicks and Trash Pics: Before the Internet, and thus before easy access to IMDB and the rest of the digital cinemaverse, cinephiles had to rely on incomplete reference books in order to familiarize themselves with back catalog films. For years, I poured over Videohounds’ cult film guide almost daily, and its sensibility — a quirky mix of giddy, passionate, erudite, snarky, and critical — helped shape my appreciation of and attitude toward pulp ever since.
The Caves of Steel — Isaac Asimov: As an eight year old first reading the book, I loved Asimov’s cleverly constructed murder mystery story, and as an already-devoted sci-fi geek (Star Trek was a staple in my household), I loved the intricate future world Asimov designed even more. But what stuck with me most was the slightly detached, slightly cranky, cerebral-but-not-stuck-up quality of both the detective protagonist, Elijah Baley, and the storytelling itself. As with most of Asimov’s characters (and, as I understand, Asimov himself), Baley was a hyper self-aware invert somewhat vexed by people and social situations, but who solved problems by thinking them through as thoroughly as possible and accepting whatever results, often imperfect, came of this method. Perhaps to my detriment, I related to this quite a bit and found it a useful model for understanding human relations.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — Frank Miller: I got my first copy of this at nine or ten years old, and I literally read and reread it until it fell apart (for a while I held it together with duct tape, but eventually I lost so many pages that it was no longer worth saving). Miller’s fusion of gruff noir sentiment and comic book action helped define the way I think about pop art and genre storytelling; sure, it’s low culture — frequently crude and base — but it’s executed with such verve that it somehow makes it into the upper middlebrow (or near enough) anyway.
Ender’s Game — Orson Scott Card: Speaking of hyper-cerebral! Scott Card’s later books descend into a near-parody of the Asimovian worldview, with protagonists who presume (and act upon) an absurdly concrete and knowable understanding of human behavior. But while you can find hints of this in Ender’s Game, it works anyway, in large part because of the young age of its heroes. These days, I prefer the first two sequels, Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, both of which are more mature in their outlook. But the original is the one I’ve read most often, and the one I think of most.
The Catcher in the Rye — J.D. Salinger: Yes, another novel about a social outcast who spends too much time in his head. But it’s a classic for a reason, and an enduring portrait of adolescent questioning.
American Pastoral — Philip Roth: Probably the finest work of prose in the bunch, and arguably also the most mature, it’s one of those novels that’s both impressive and gripping — not only do you admire it, but you can’t stop flipping pages as you do.
He doesn’t know me and I don’t know him, but it seemed like an interesting idea, and I needed something to write tonight. Note that these books are some of the influential books in my life, not the most influential or the best books I’ve ever read. Like Tyler, this is top-of-my-head stuff, not a definitive list.
1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. This book (and the subsequent “trilogy” of five books — I haven’t read “And Another Thing” yet, so I’m not sure if I consider it canon or not) defined my humor, my geekiness, my wit, my insight into our species and what a silly, messed-up set of creatures we are.
2. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I bought an edition of this called “The Essential Dracula” back when I was a kid, and it got me into literary analysis long before I ever minored in English in college. Here was a pulp story about a supernatural villian told in an interesting way, but when I read the analysis on it, I realized it was actually a commentary on class and wealth, on Victorian sensibility and sex, and the proper modern balanced up against the great old evil myths of history.
3. The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. Batman was my favorite long before I read this book, but this series taught me about how you can deconstruct a legend, take it over, and place it in your own time. I remember reading that Miller wanted to write this because he was worried — Batman, to him, was always an old man figure, and Miller was rapidly approaching the age at which he imagined Batman had always been. So in this book, Miller pushes the clock back, and turns Batman into a guy who will always be the old grumpy bastard. Not to mention the Joker’s death scene — just a perfect ending to that mythical relationship.
4. Jennifer Government, by Max Barry. I found this book later than the other books on this list so far, but it’s one of my favorite books, and it’s the first book that really convinced me that I could sit down and write a novel. Not only is it a cracking good and funny read, but it was written by Barry while he was working at HP — in short, he was like me, a guy stuck in a tech job and trying to write fiction in the evenings about the geeky stuff he knew. I still haven’t come up with a premise or a book this good, but I am still working on it.
5. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. My high school teacher told us that this was the best novel ever written, and though I didn’t believe her at first, I reread it a few years later, and eventually came around to her point of view. It’s not my favorite novel at all, but yes, in terms of voice and story and themes, it could well be the best novel ever written.
6. In the Hall of the Dragon King, Stephen R. Lawhead. There’s nothing really special about this book — it’s straight fantasy, with a kid who starts out humbly but eventually has to save the world with all of his magical buddies. But this was the first fantasy book I ever read, and so it was my introduction to the genre that I keep finding myself coming back to again and again. Nowadays, fantasy is super popular, and there are all sorts of subgenres and different takes, and it’s much more of a commodity. But this book hearkens back to when it all started for me: a little pudgy kid who was pretty unpopular who found all sorts of magical worlds and wonder in the pages of a book.
7. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. As if you didn’t already know I was a nerd — it’s cliche to like this book at this point. But still, this was my introduction to cyberpunk. Nowadays, I think that The Diamond Age is a very much superior book, and I think Neuromancer should be much more respected for its influence and role in the creation of the genre. But Snow Crash was the first one I read that really vibed with me — Neuromancer was always a little too intellectual when you compared it to Hiro Protagonist’s pizza delivery adventures.
8. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. If you want to talk lifetime, this might not register quite yet, as it’s only in the past year or so that this book has influenced me. Still, if you want to talk quality over quantity, this book is more or less responsible for all the thinking I’ve done in the past year about what I’m eating and how I’m dealing with food in general. There are quite a few factors that have influenced my changes in lifestyle over the past 16 months or so, but this book is a big one of them.
9. Gamma World, 4th edition by James M. Ward and Gary Jaquet. I’ll come clean: my introduction to roleplaying games wasn’t through D&D. I never actually played D&D much as a kid — I was in that weird spot where the few friends I had were too cool to concern themselves with video games or D&D dice. But I did buy this book somewhere and I poured over it for hours, reading up on character creation and various weapons and how to design settings for players this postapocalyptic world. I only remember playing this once with my brother, and he didn’t have any interest in it at all (partly because I didn’t really understand it myself, but mostly because he didn’t really care), but I was so darn fascinated by the idea of it.
10. The Holy Bible. Let’s be honest here — I would almost argue that anyone who says they weren’t influenced by this one is lying. But even if you want to claim that this book isn’t a part of your life, I’ll admit that it’s been a big part of mine. I don’t mean to evangelize — personally, I have no real idea what exactly I believe right now, and that doesn’t give me any position to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t believe. I figure, as long as you’re not hurting yourself or someone else, more power to you. But from “In the beginning” to “Amen,” I would argue that there isn’t a part of anyone’s life this book hasn’t influenced in some way. You can talk about quotes, you can talk about story (almost all of our stories involve some sort of messianic figure, and who’s the most messianic figure you know?), you can talk about laws and politics and gender relations and wars, and you name it, this book’s had a hand in it. And even if you want to get personal, I went to a Lutheran school — I know all the stories of Jacob and Esau (oh hi Lost) and Isaiah and Solomon and David and Jesus and Peter and Paul and so on. Like it or not, if you want to list influential books, I’m putting this one on there.
1. David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest. My take-away from that book might be described as “The Exclusive Country Club Theory.” He makes foreign policy in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in the United States sound as if it was the province of an exclusive country club of people with a certain temperament and background. Wall Street lawyers, mostly. I have to say that I have carried this model with me for a long time. To this day, I view the relationship among Treasury, the Fed, the New York Fed, and large financial institutions in Exclusive Country Club terms. These people vet one another, agree with one another, and support one another. They do not question whether their interests coincide with those of the rest of the country–they just assume that the country depends on their institutions and their class leadership.
2. George Goodman, aka ‘Adam Smith,’ The Money Game and Supermoney. He was the Michael Lewis of his time–a great storyteller who also understood the substance of finance. I think his books still read well, although I could understand it if others find the stories themselves too dated. These books sparked my interest in finance theory and in the temptation to both believe and refuse to believe in efficient markets.
3. Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, Information Rules. Again, you may find that the examples seem old, but no better book has been written on the economic issues of the information-driven economy. Among other things, this book convinced me that Price Discrimination Explains Everything.
4. Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines. At first, I did not buy it. However, I have mostly come around. It is now possible to evaluate his predictions for 2009 (made around 1997). He did score with this one (p. 190):
Computers routinely include wireless technology to plug into the ever-present worldwide network, providing reliable, instantly available, very-high-bandwidth communication. Digital objects such as books, music albums, movies, and software are rapidly distributed as data files through the wireless network, and typically do not have a physical object associated with them.
However, for the most part, his predictions are far too aggressive. He was about right on hardware capability, somewhat optimistic on software capability (he thought that functions like language translation would be pretty much mastered by now), clearly too optimistic on the emergence of applications (he predicted computer-controlled cars on main highways by now) and ludicrously optimistic about the speed at which education and health care will be transformed by technology.5. Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man. Folks on the left scorn this book, and it is not without its flaws. But ultimately, I think the left hates Shlaes not for what she gets wrong but what she gets right. What she gets right pokes huge holes in the high school book narrative of the Depression (Herbert Hoover sat back and did nothing, Roosevelt saved the economy). My takeaway from this book is the importance of the battle over historical narrative. We see that today in the determination of the left to blame the financial crisis entirely on “free-market ideology,” even though that narrative is not such a good fit for the facts.
6. George Gilder, Microcosm. This was his history of the microprocessor. My guess is that it will not read well today, but at the time his emphasis on the relative unimportance of the materials in computers (he refers to silicon as “sand”) stimulated me to focus on intangibles in the modern economy.
7. Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed. This book got me started thinking about the origins of the differences between the left and the right. I do not think anyone has fully satisfactory answers, but it is a fascinating question.
8. Amar Bhide, The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses. He breaks down the business ecosystem into two dimensions–degree of capital intensity and degree of ambiguity, and he gets remarkable mileage out of the resulting matrix.
9. Bill James, The Baseball Abstact, 1987. Others can be equally analytical about baseball. What is striking about Bill James is how well he wrote–when he cared. If only Amar Bhide wrote this well…
10. Ernest Graham, The Wind in the Willows. The character of Toad is brilliantly drawn and offers great insights.
11. Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age and Snow Crash. How I came to understand nanotechnology and competitive government, respectively.
1. Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. For me it all started with Sowell. In hindsight what intrigued me about the book was not the economics, but Sowell’s ability to use human reason to understand the world, but in a concrete way. Call it empirical philosophy.
2. Moral Theory by David Oderberg. A defense of natural rights morality against Peter Singer and other utilitarians, but this also inspired by interest in philosophy.
3. The Myth of Monogamy by David Barash. The first work of sociobiology that I’d ever read and it opened my eyes. Interestingly enough, it also removed the last glimmer of the belief that Judeo-Christian sexual morality was an obselete relic of the past. It is about creating peace in the war between the sexes more than avoiding out of wedlock childbirths.
4. Civil Rights by Thomas Sowell. I still think this is Sowell’s best book. Takes a birds eye view of culture and cultural values and shows why it matters.
5. Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. I used to be an atheist and began my walk with God with a very shaky and weak faith. This strengthened me.
6. Microeconomics by Samuel Bowles. Let me slough off my neoclassical chains and learn some real economics, and made me appreciate the need for social norms and cultural models of “life strategies”.
7. Luxury Fever by Robert Frank. A lot of this book was fluff, but the crucial insight of people in an arms race with each other for relative rank (social status) reoriented my thinking about incentives and taxes. I now realize that it brought me to the economic center.
8. Choice Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Allingham. Opened up the world of political philosophy.
9. The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. I knew a lot of the material already but the section on children and behavioral genetics opened my eyes. Culture > family.
10. Herbert Gintis’ Amazon Book Reviews. Ok, I’m cheating a bit. If I wanted to conform to the challenge then I could put his book The Bounds of Reason, but after reading all of his book reviews a couple times I’d already been acquainted with the major points he’d made. Opened my eyes to really good work in the social sciences.
E.D. Kain at The League:
I have thought about this some, and come to the decision that the books I read as a child were by far the most influential – far more influential than anything I read later as a college student or the ones I read nowadays. So here’s a list, from memory, of the most influential books I read as a child.
The Lord of the Rings – This one is the obvious choice for a fantasy reader, I suppose. I read it in fourth grade for the first time and loved it, and have read it several times since. It is still the definitive work of epic fantasy, I believe. The only downside is that so many people attempted to imitate Tolkien when they should have been writing their own ideas.
The Prydain Chronicles – Lloyd Alexander was never as well known as Tolkien, but his Prydian books were wonderful young adult fantasy novels steeped in Welsh myth. So while some of the characters mirrored those in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the stories themselves were unique and interesting and lively. I read these ones countless times.
The Dark is Rising Sequence – This series taps into the old Welsh and British mythology fairly heavily, mixing the modern world and Merlin and time travel together in an epic clash between good and evil. One of many books I read and loved that transports us from the mundane world into one much darker and more fierce.
A Wrinkle in Time – This was one of those books that really stopped me in my tracks. Free will, conformity, and the seduction of evil are all present here.
The Giver – Another glimpse into totalitarianism and conformity and the dangers of ‘sameness’ and ignorance of history. Less fantastical than my typical childhood read, but sort of shocking also.
The Bridge to Terabithia – They made a movie about this book recently. Please don’t watch it. Sometimes movies can enrich the book experience, but not when they are mangled by over-Disneyfication. Terabithia helped me understand tragedy and loss better.
The Castle in the Attic – To be honest, I can barely remember this book, but like Narnia it helped transport me into another world – something I did a lot of as a kid.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – This was a good, funny, cynical take on the King Arther stories. Very helpful to round out all that heroism and chivalry with some good, honest, witty realism.
Narnia – Like the Lord of the Rings, these books are simply staples of young adult fantasy.
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table – I have read so many King Arthur books at this point I can barely keep track of them. This was one of the first.
I Am the Cheese – This was far more dystopian a tale than I typically read as a child, and still sort of haunting whenever I think about it.
Some honorable mentions:
So my list in no order:
— 1. Derick Parfit, Reasons and Persons: This is my alternative to a theological system or religious belief, the set of preposterous-to-those-who-don’t-believe-it-yet ideas that underlies how I think about morality, who we are, and what it all means.— 2. Friedrich Nietszche, On the Genealogy of Morals: I first picked up Nietszche because his image has a kind of appeal to smart, pretentious, angry, lonely teenage boys. But this is a really important book! The fact that Caplan “ultimately didn’t learn much of substance” from Nietszche except the value of being arrogant strikes me as telling.
— 3. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained: The precise content of Dennett’s ideas about human consciousness isn’t important to me, but the practical methods at work are. I’m drawn to Wittgeinstein’s thing about how you need to “show the fly the way out of the flybottle” rather than “solve” these timeless dilemmas, but I find Wittgeinstein almost impossible to read and didn’t understand what he was saying at all when I tried. Dennett I think gave me an example of the shewing.
— 4. William McNeil, Plagues & Peoples: This had a kind of revelatory quality to me, the idea that everything you thought was important about history was actually kind of trivial and the real determinants of human destiny are something else entirely. Guns, Germs, and Steel is arguably the better book in this genre, but I only ever read it because I’d read P&P first so I’m giving McNeil the nod.
— 5. Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: For two reasons. One is that I used to be the kind of jerk who thought education was being ruined by PC demands to represent more women and minority writers. Then I wound up randomly assigned freshman year to a class that was all about women and minority writers. And damnit, if some of the books weren’t really good! Turns out I didn’t have it all figured out when I was 18. This was my favorite of the bunch, and from it I acquired my love of pastiche. If you like “Miley Cyrus and American Exceptionalism” you have Kingston to thank.
— 6. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground: The very beginning from “I am a sick man” to “I will talk about myself” is the greatest stretch of prose in human history. Dostoevsky is also an illustration of the power of great writing to convey radically unsound or even totally nonsensical ideas. And at the end of the day, coming to grasp the difference between the true, the right, and the beautiful is hugely important. Many if not most of the most compelling artistic visions are espousing somewhat crazy ideas, and sober thinking about big issues is boring.
— 7. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: This books is ultimately why I stopped trying to get good grades and go to grad school. Most people, of course, don’t suffer from the “might want to be a professional philosopher when I grow up” problem and don’t necessarily need to be un-bewitched about the nature of the enterprise. But Rorty more generally is the summation of a whole series of thinkers on the Hume-Wittgeinst-Quine-Sellars trajectory who teach a deflationary way of approaching problems.
— 8. Susan Moller Okin, Justcie, Gender, and the Family: I think that to a lot of heterosexual left-of-center men, distinctively feminist ideas can easily seem to be either trivial or else censorious and annoying. I know some men who say their thinking about this was changed when they had a daughter, which makes sense. For me, though, it was Okin that showed that there were intellectually important claims here and that the feminist revolution is likely to continue to challenge the status quo in important ways for years to come.
— 9. Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: I feel like this book is too new and non-classic and I read it too recently for it to deserve a place on this list. But I’m constantly hearing or reading things that remind me of it, and wanting to tediously explain Clark’s whole thesis to people. It’s certainly not convincing in all respects, but I think it’s the model of how to frame a big question and attack it.
— 10. Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: I actually find Structure a bit obscurantist in certain respects that encourages misreadings. Certainly it’s an important classic, but I think I think I would have found it totally unconvincing had I not read Kuhn’s earlier and more accessible book first (and thanks to Michael Rescorla for structuring the tutorial that way). Suffice it to say that the story you think you know about how a diligent empiricist looked at the stars and debunked religious superstition about planetary orbits is totally wrong.
Tyler Cowen has a list of bloggers who have participated
Jason Kuznicki at The League:
Following the meme, here are the ten books that changed my life the most.
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. This book de-Catholicized me, or at least it began the process. It set me on the path to libertarianism, after I’d read Atlas Shrugged. It offered a sense of life, and a lifelong obsession. I still live here a lot of the time.
- The Once and Future King by T. H. White. The most insightful book about government ever written for young people. It taught me that government is a nasty business, even at its best. I have never since been able to see government as noble in the way that I think most people do.
- Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. Sparked another lifelong interest — the French Revolution, which was also a nasty business, but an instructive one. After years of reading in French history, I have all kinds of complaints with this book, but it’s still a great read.
- Candide by Voltaire. I pick this one out of Voltaire’s many short stories both because it’s one of the longer ones — plausibly, it really is a book — and also because it’s familiar. Voltaire’s style, his absurdism, and his sense of justice have always appealed to me.
- The Book of Predictions by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Irving Wallace. Published in 1981. Obscure but fascinating; its influence would be hard for me to overstate. Every year on New Year’s Day I revisit this book to see what various people got right and wrong about the future, which I’ve been lucky enough to live to see. Patterns have emerged over time, and these patterns have deeply influenced how I think about society.Lesson one: psychics are never worth your time. The most accurate forecaster in the book is F. M. Esfandiary, by a landslide (yes, that guy). He got many things wrong, but it’s clear that he was in another league from all the rest.The biggest mistake made by nearly all forecasters (though not so much by Esfandiary) is to think that the future would be controlled by a central agency or authority. No one imagined how decentralized we would be in 2010. We were blindsided by a mostly libertarian, decentralizing technological revolution. This is a tremendously good thing. Most predictors were pessimists, and they were mostly wrong.
- Island by Aldous Huxley. It’s hard to read or understand this book without Brave New World, but Island is a positive statement of Huxley’s beliefs, not a negative one, so what he really thinks comes across more clearly. It’s also the only utopian society in fiction that I’d ever really want to live in. The others either leave me cold or make me want to run away as fast as I can. I’d have some problems with Huxley’s utopia, but I think I could live in it.
- Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. Sort of a stand-in for all of his other works. Didn’t dare cite The Order of Things because that one’s so hard to understand that I’m not sure whether it’s had an influence on me. Whenever I try self-consciously to “be” a libertarian in my writing, I often end up sounding like Foucault.
- Virtually Normal by Andrew Sullivan. Andrew would do better to blog less and to write more in print. He’s an extraordinary prose stylist, and maybe among the best of all time, when he slows down. When he blogs, he’s repetitive and formulaic. I learned to write by reading Virtually Normal. It was also the first book I ever read about gay politics, and it seemed just so clear, so right, and so wise.
- Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. This is the closest I’ve ever read to a convincing theory of everything. The book is too modestly titled, however, because while Darwin is certainly the key to the story, we also get Diderot, Hume, Leibniz, Popper, Gould, Penrose, and a host of others. It’s an intellectual tour de force, and especially remarkable for its linkage of biological evolution to a theory of mind.
- Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World by Jack Goldstone. This book nearly destroyed my faith in non-quantitative historical methods. I take it as a reminder that while philosophy may be a tyrant, she is a tyrant with short, pudgy little arms.
I’ve written this sort of thing before. The mainstays on my list are John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” Tom Geoghegan’s “Which Side Are You On?,” Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” Richard Ben Cramer’s “What It Takes” and maybe a handful of others.
But I always feel like a fraud.
These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking — particularly in my current thinking — than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that’s consistently present in my approach to new issues.
Much of my emphasis on the institutions of American government and the processes by which they work (or don’t) came from my relationship with Mark Schmitt, first through his blog and then through his editorship at the American Prospect. That was cemented, of course, by reporting deeply on health-care reform, which is an opportunity that TAP gave me but that few other outlets would’ve been even mildly interested in letting me pursue. I consider reading the blogger Demosthenes use the word “props” in relation to politics as something near to an epiphany; it was the first time I realized that I could speak about Washington in a language I recognized.
1. Clive James, Visions Before Midnight or The Crystal Bucket. His TV criticism. I think I read one or other these when I was twelve or thirteen, having bought them on holidays somewhere. Not exactly Leavis or Empson, I know. But it taught me a lot about how to write, encouraged me to pretend I knew about the literary stuff James habitually referred to in passing, and I’m pretty sure helped make me an insufferable teenaged shit.
2. Steven Vogel, Life’s Devices. Another random bookshop discovery. This is a book about biomechanics but also, and more importantly, a terrific introduction to what is means to do science. A lot of it went past me when I read it first, but it was still irresistible in part because (as I remember) it’s written with this quiet wit right the way through. Chock full of trivia that isn’t really trivia. Strangely enough, I think Vogel still teaches here at Duke. I should thank him personally for writing such a great book.
3. Bernd Heinrich, Ravens in Winter. Another book by a biologist. (Are you seeing my imagined career path here?) Another classic book on the practice of science. Heinrich follows ravens around in Vermont, trying to figure out why the hell they would share carrion they find. I’d recommend this book to anyone.
4. Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior. So clever, so unassuming, so it made me want to be an economist. Then I took some economics and it wasn’t much like Schelling at all.
5. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. I think this book made me want to do sociology. Bluntly creative. Briskly suggestive. Deeply frustrating.
6. David Warren Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany. I don’t know a damn thing about medieval German history, but I had to read this book very, slowly, carefully and repeatedly as part of a Sociology of Community course as a third year undergraduate. I learned a tremendous amount in the process. The cases are fascinating: a girl branded as a witch, a man who refused to say his prayers, the ritual burial of a bull at a crossroads. The analysis is subtle: Sabean is excellent on the fine grain of relations between the State and the peasantry, and how religion and cultural meaning generally express these relations. But for me it was the first academic monograph I really grasped and, in the process, came to understand how hard it must be to write a book that good.
7. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice. I had to read chunks of it as a postgrad in Ireland, and as my reaction was one of constant irritation at Bourdieu’s writing style coupled with the feeling that he was getting at something important. I reread the first few chapters recently and was struck by how direct (and properly documented) its engagement with the literature was in comparison with much of the rest of his work, so I guess professional socialization has had its effect on me. But I was also surprised that it was as compelling as I remembered.
8. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve. This came out the year before I moved to the U.S. for graduate school. The book and the ensuing controversy around it taught me a lot about American academia, the wider world of the chattering classes in the U.S., the institutional structure that supported them, and the American public sphere generally. It wasn’t a pleasant lesson. As a piece of social science the book was terribly executed and written in transparently bad faith; the social sciences in general and sociology in particular botched their response; the pressure of media narratives flattened people into parodies of themselves; and many people who I’d thought might have known better turned out to have a healthy appetite for eugenic tripe, as long as it was presented more in sorrow than in anger.
9. William S. Cleveland, Visualizing Data. “This book presents a set of graphical methods for displaying data”. Does it ever. Tufte gets the Presidential Commissions and the high media profile, and deserves all that, but Cleveland shows you how it’s done in practice and wrote the software that lets you code it yourself. For me it opened up the world of serious thinking on data and model visualization for quantitative data.
10. Richard Titmuss, The Gift Relationship. Reading this wasn’t a transformative experience in some existential sense, but it obviously left a mark seeing as I ended up writing a dissertation and a book that revisited its main questions.
1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer. This book made me realize that it is possible to play with words and ideas. I can’t even remember much of the story now. (Is it Milo?) What I remember is the revelation that it is possible to get a thrill from manipulating ideas and the words that express them.
2. Dune by Frank Herbert. The Dune books connected with me deeply as a teenager. They appealed, I think, to the sense that people have profound untapped powers that discipline can draw out; e.g., Mentats, Bene Gesserit. Also, it appealed to the fantasy that I might have special awesome hidden powers, like Paul Atreides, and that they might just sort of come to me, as a gift of fate, without the hassle of all that discipline. I think this book is why I was slightly crushed when I turned 18 and realized that not only was I not a prodigy, but I wasn’t amazingly good at anything. I sometimes still chant the Litany against Fear when I’m especially nervous or panicking about something.
3. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller/The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’m cheating on this one, since these came out about the same time and had a similar effect on me, and I don’t know which one to pick. Superhero comics can give a kid a pretty comprehensive mythology, a well of types and tropes and quests to draw from in the effort to make sense of the world. Miller and Moore/Gibbons convinced me at a vulnerable, self-conscious age that superhero mythology was not necessarily kid’s stuff, and that even superhero comics could be real art. So I planned to become a comics auteur, like Frank Miller.
4. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. This book ordered and amplified my awe at the natural world. The fact that I could more or less understand it made me feel confident about being smart.
4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I read this at nineteen while working at the Joseph Smith Historic Center in Nauvoo, IL for the summer. I was just getting a strong sense of myself as a person apart from my family and hometown friends. I’d been excited by Bill Clinton in the 1992 Democratic convention and was toying with voting for him. Then I read Atlas Shrugged. I began reading the libertarian canon and I voted for Andre Marrou that Fall. I started paying more attention to my philosophy classes than my art classes. Ayn Rand is why I almost became an academic philosopher, why I became a libertarian, and why I work at Cato. She also all-but destroyed my interest in making art, since I could not at the time I was under her influence square her ideology of art with my own creative impulses. I still suffer from this.
5. The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. This is the first intellectual book I ever reviewed in print. I gave it a mixed review in the Northern Iowan. (I think I had some misgivings about some of the race and IQ stuff, but I understood that it was not a book about race.) A sociology professor either sent me an email or wrote a letter to the editor (I don’t remember which!) condemning me for not condemning the book for being racist. This was my first taste of the excitement and frustration of participating in public intellectual life. I was impressed with Murray’s fortitude and grace in the face of what seemed to me to be outrageously unfair, truly scurrilous attacks. And it helped me understand the difference between trying hard to honestly think through tough social problems because you care and mouthing comfortable pieties in an effort to get credit for caring.
6. The Geneology of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche. Morality has a history and its value is open to question. Our deepest intellectual commitments reflect deeper psychological needs. If this book (or Nietzsche generally) doesn’t make you wonder why you really believe what you do, then you are a clod. If I am hungry for the buzz of illumination, I go back to Nietzsche.
7. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. The best class I had as an undergraduate was a grad seminar on the Nicomachean Ethics taught by a Straussean. This is one of the best books ever written (or best set of lectures compiled) by one of the best minds ever. The paper I wrote for this seminar on what it means to have a stable disposition to action sparked my interest in moral psychology.
8. Law, Legislation, and Liberty by F.A. Hayek. Rand made me a libertarian. Hayek made me a liberal. I don’t know how much of what I believe comes from Hayek, but it’s a lot.
9. Tractatus Logic0-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Still dominates how I think about modality and the bounds of what may sensibly be said. There is no book more like great architecture.
10. Universals: An Opinionated Introduction by David M. Armstrong. Initiated my love of metaphysics and Australian realism, though Armstrong never did argue me out of nominalism.
11. In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen. This book angered my inner Randian, but delighted my native sensibility. When I got home from my first IHS seminar, Tyler Cowen lecture in mind, free Tyler Cowen book in hand, I went straight to my computer to begin writing a furious denunciation, which I never finished. But I’m still curious about folk art and foreign cuisines and have since repeated Tyler-like arguments to so many people so many times that I forget what I ever thought was wrong with them.
12. Morals by Agreement by David Gauthier. This book was the key that unlocked the contractarian treasure chest for me. Made me understand at a much deeper level the point of moral constraints on self-interested behavior, and why they would be impossible if we were well described by stripped-down models of instrumental rationality.
13. A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. I dug into this book with the intention of saying what was really, really wrong with it. Instead, I ended up feeling like I understood political philosophy.
So I guess I’ll throw out my ten books. But just to be ignorant, I’m going to list eight1.) Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston–I always hated the exhibitionism of Native Son. I felt like Richard Wright was basically using black people as a prop to make a point to white people. Their Eyes, on the other hand, struck me as the best aspects of the Afrocentric idea, and certainly that part of it which I carry with me today–the notion of writing, and thus existing, on your own terms.2.) The Orgins Of The Urban Crisis, Thomas Sugrue–A brilliant corrective to the whole “Negroes and Coleman Young ruined Detroit” myth. Sugrue debunks Detroit’s golden age by depicting the city’s deep-seated institutional racism, and illustrates the complexities of white flight, and effectively argues that the exodus began almost two decades before the 67 riots.3.) When And Where I Enter, Paula Giddings–This is just masterful and colorful history of black women in America. It was the first place I really learned about Ida B. Wells, feminist, militant, and later Garveyite, packing a pistol while investigating lynchings. Beautiful book, and in no small measure the reason for my son’s very existence.4.) Battle Cry Of Freedom, James MacPherson–They need to make people read MacPherson’s history of the Civil War in order to vote in this country. I don’t think I’ve read an 800plus page book that moved so smoothly. This is the greatest work of history I’ve ever had the privilege of reading.5.) The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forche–Heh. I spent much of college trying to ape this book. Once I realized I would never write anything as beautiful as “The Return,” I gave up poetry.6.) Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow–I think about this book almost once every day. Books like Ragtime really define, for me, how writers should deal with inserting the politics into books. Doctorow’s pinko-commie leanings definitely shine through, but the book is so damn beautifully written that you almost don’t notice. On another note, this book–weirdly enough–was actually a guide for me when I went to write my memoir.7.) Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth Jackson–Much like Sugrue’s book, Jackson’s history of American suburbs is just a superb take-down of much of the mythology surrounding the fall of the American city in the 70s and 80s. I think Jackson’s greatest contribution is how he outlines the distorting effects of red-lining on black people, and on cities themselves. I’m waiting for someone to write an entire history of housing segregation, covering red-lining, restrictive covenants, the whole gamut. This is the closest that I’ve seen to that.8.) Drown, Junot Diaz–Much like Their Eyes, Drown was a book that really convinced me that that your voice, the one native to your neighborhood, was OK. There’s a story in there called “No Face,” about a kid whose face is so mangled that he wears a mask. But, a’la M.F. Doom, No Face has super-powers (or imagines himself having super-powers) that allow him to avoid the neighborhood bullies. I can’t recall the line, but at the end of the story, the boy comes home to his little brother who says something like, “Where have you been all day?” And the boy just says to him, “I’ve been fighting evil.”
Matthew Continetti at The Weekly Standard
UPDATE: Daniel Drezner
Will at The League
UPDATE #2: Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy
UPDATE #3: Austin Bramwell at TAC keeps score
UPDATE #4: Tim F.
UPDATE #5: Matthew Schmitz at The League
UPDATE #6: Mark Thompson at The League
UPDATE #7: Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative