Influential books (on me, that is)

Econ (and generally interesting) blogger Tyler Cowen lists the 10 books that have most influenced him and invites other bloggers to do the same. Here’s mine, in the order I thought them up rather than importance:

1. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: I think many people find that their first “adult” books is a powerful influence, and I first read Lord of the Rings in late elementary or early middle school and reread it periodically: its commentary on power dynamics, the limits of knowledge, and the challenge of understanding still affect me. And it makes its way into a surprising amount of otherwise unrelated academic work. And the story. And, and, and…

2. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and the DragonLance series: Another early influence, this time mostly for the worst: the view of sexuality in both series is juvenile, the writing atrocious, and the mindless glorification of battle and power for its own sake is, from my current vantage, almost sickening. But they now show me what not to do as a writer and thinker and probably contributed to the lost, unhappy middle school years so many have.

3. Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind: Robin Hanson recommended this. Its ideas about the role of art and culture in sexuality and why the second half of Darwin’s theory—sexual, as opposed to natural, selection—clarified a lot of my thinking. Even today, many people focus on “natural” selection but miss the importance of sexual selection. I still don’t think I’ve exhausted the book, although I have read others in the genre. Along with some of the books below, it pointed me toward a better understanding of how people signal and how people perceive, which I didn’t understand previously.

4. Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: I’d read many critiques of our rationality, but before Predictably Irrational I probably would’ve argued that we should look solely at behavior to discern individual wants and that individuals are independent in an almost Ayn Rand way. Although Predictably Irrational isn’t solely responsible for this shift and others, it probably catalyzed them.

5. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: By most of the conventional tropes of creative writing classes, Heart of Darkness is terrible. But it reminded me of the power of the unknowable and of the limitations of what we know. The most famous scene is of course Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!”, but what strikes me in rereadiang it is how little time Kurtz actually gets and how great Marlowe’s anticipation of Kurtz is. The novel is more about how Marlowe perceives (and thinks he will perceive) Kurtz than about Kurtz himself, which taught me the power of how perception shapes reality.

6. Paul Graham’s essays: Although not technically a book, some of Graham’s essays have been collected into Hackers and Painters. I pay special attention to the essays about social structure and the role of the individual in social structures. Some of the ones about school, especially high school, I assign to students.

7. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: This is the kind of novel that I wish someone had demanded that I read earlier than I did. Claiming that something is the “greatest novel” strikes me as silly, but if I were forced to choose one, this would be in the running and seems like it contains the world as few novels do. Is this vague? That’s because trying to encompass it is beyond me.

8. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: This book made me more cynical and hopeful about politics—at the same time. Its style isn’t baroque but tends toward long, beautiful sentences; Jack Burden’s understanding of what actually matters, which doesn’t really occur until the last chapter, is so authentic and wonderful that it seems truer to life than the darker ending of Gatsby. Still, its depiction of sexuality now feels very much of its time, rather than of all time.

9. James Wood, How Fiction Works: Wood asks a critic’s questions and gives a writer’s answers with such precision and beauty that this essentially defines the terms of the novel for me. The last two words of the preceding sentence are essential: the joy of the novel is the inability to define or encompass it.

10. Neil Strauss, The Game: I didn’t love The Game for its stories about pickups, but it has a central, important idea: most conversations in most situations are boring and predictable. Solution: shake things up. Predictability can be boring; in social situations around an attractive person, many people (not just men) get scared, and when they’re scared they become more conversationally conservative, and then fail through excess caution. Chances are, no one wants to tell you where they’re from; ask them for an opinion that elicits interpersonal beliefs instead. Most guys are also poorly educated and socialized around dating, women, and sex. The Game may not be a perfect book but it moves the conversation about dating and sexuality forward in a way that few other books have accomplished. Most of the negative discourse around the The Game doesn’t address the elisions The Game is addressing. If you have a prosocial equivalent of The Game I’d be happy to hear about it.

I’ll stress that I’m not most proud of these books: The Wheel of Time is terrible, some seem like lightweight popularization, others are not books I would necessarily recommend today, or to everyone—but they all did their work. If I could pick an 11th I’d choose Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which has several core insights that I try (and often) to fail to apply: money above something like the median household income won’t make us happy; our sex and social lives matter more; and our ability to predict what will make us happy is weak. Robertson Davies continues to be a favorite author because he has perspective in a complicated way I can’t easily define, but he combines much of the best of Victorian fiction with a modern sensibility and style that’s his and yet universal. In the His Dark Materials trilogy Philip Pullman shows how fantasy can be done not just right, but spectacularly well.

Another omission: I wish I could think of an individual book that convinced me dense cities are vital because of their networking effects, environmental improvements, the possibility (seldom achieved) of affordability, and the well-intentioned but wrong preservationist/anti-growth types. I’ve had several arguments with people who are a) pro-affordability, b) anti-sprawl and c) anti-height. You can’t consistently have all those things; a) is most often neglected. Newspaper articles in particular like to pretend these trade-offs don’t exist.

Many others have answered the call for books too, and I find their posts fascinating even though I don’t read most of the bloggers involved. But the books themselves (and the rationale for their influence) point to deeper ideas about how influence works and the serendipity of the right person finding the right book at the right time. Most of the answers are political science- and/or economics-oriented, but a fair amount of fiction crops up.

At some point I’ll also post a list of books that I wish someone had shoved into my hands when I was younger with a demand that I read said books.

EDIT: Julian Sanchez has an interesting meta post about influence, in which he posits that people mean influence in two major ways: on a formal/substantive axis (does it show me how to do something?) and on a theoretical/practical axis (does it show me what I should think/believe?). The distinction seems useful. Most of my list is heavier towards the theoretical/practical level. One thing that I’ve noticed about meta lists is that they very seldom have examples of what not to do—in other words, books that one reacts strongly against.

8 responses

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