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. 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 so much as the one major, underappreciated point: most conversations in most situations are boring and predictable. Solution: shake things up. Predictably can be boring. Chances are, no one wants to tell you where you’re from; ask them for an opinion that elicits their interpersonal beliefs instead. In addition, most guys are 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.

I’ll stress that I’m not most proud of these books: The Wheel of Time is terrible, some seem like lightweight popularization, but 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 fail to apply: that money above something like the median individual income won’t make us happy; that our sex life matters more; and that 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 answerers 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.

The year's best in reading, not in publishing

Like D.G. Myers, I don’t find much interest in “year’s best” lists and the like. Most of them are, as he says, boring; maybe that has something to do with the nature of the list and the arbitrary divisions that we use to mark milestones in our lives.

That being said, I read a lot, and I’d prefer to write about what’s new to me, rather than what happens to be published in a particular 12 month period. Last year I wrote about “pointless listmaking,” and I’m reminded of a comment from Rob, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, when he’s at a party given by an ex-girlfriend:

The difference between these people and me is that they finished college and I didn’t… as a consequence, they have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they are self-confident and I am incontinent, they do not smoke and I do, they have opinions and I have lists.

(Emphasis added. The novel’s first sentence involves a list: “My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order: 1. Alison Ashworth…”)

Umberto Eco likes lists, or at least studies them. As previously mentioned, he said that “The list is the origin of culture.” Being the origin, however, is very different from being the destination, or the evolution, of culture, and so in that light the list might be a primitive device that is still nonetheless useful to consider. As such, after a great deal of meta commentary regarding the nature of the activity in which I’m about to engage, I’m going to give a non-numbered, non-ordered list of books I happened to read in the previous 12-month period that are books I now recommend to others, found moving, or otherwise think deserve special attention.

* Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game, which I keep meaning to write about and then not doing. If one were writing an ad for the novel, it could say, accurately, “Did you love The Shadow of the Wind? Then you’ll love The Angel’s Game!” The two novels are written in the same half-mocking Gothic style, are both set in Barcelona, and both deal with murder, love, and literature.

* Max Jamison, Wilifred Sheed’s improbably hilarious novel about an unhappy theater critic.

* The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s take on what magic school might seem like to those who are already aware of magic school and fantasy conventions. As with real school, nobility takes front seat to sex and power, which occupy the back. I also read (and haven’t written about) Donna Tart’s The Secret History, which features school and murder in a surprisingly pleasant literary package.

* Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness ought to be required reading for those who are alive.

* John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.

One nice part about reading is that books are effectively inexhaustible: given constraints on time, no one can read everything worthwhile (although Harold Bloom is apparently trying). Therefore we need developed opinions, yes, but we also need pointers to books that are worth having developed opinions about, and to my mind the handful of books above meet that criterion. Apologies to those of you who have read this far and just wanted a couple books to read, and to those of you who think the whole idea of lists so noxious and boring that, even with the aforementioned meta commentary, you don’t know how you managed to get this far into the post.

Umberto Eco's web of lists and The Name of the Rose

In an interview with the German newspaper SPIEGEL, Umberto Eco says that ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die.’ His first answer goes:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

One can see the intellectual footprints of Eco’s work at the Louvre—he’s curating an exhibit about lists—in Reflections on The Name of the Rose, where he discusses the composition and ideas behind The Name of the Rose: “I dug out a huge amount of material (file cards, photocopies, notebooks), accumulated since 1952 and originally intended for other, still-vague purposes: a history of monsters, or an analysis of the medieval encyclopedias, or a theory of lists. . . .” (emphasis added). On page 24, he says that he made “Lists of names and personal data for many characters [….]”

Alas: the interviewer didn’t know about these obscure references and missed the chance to ask about them. Does he perceive his books as an effort to order chaos? Do books bring a certain amount of chaos (intellectual, social) of their own? He describes The Name of the Rose as a text composed of other texts, as all books are to some extent, but how does this metaphor of the web fit with our conception of lists? I could try to answer some of these questions, and do in my mind, but I would like to see the master’s thoughts too.

Granted, maybe my curiosity simply implies I should see the exhibit, but the Louvre is a long way from Tucson. Eco, however, still firmly resides in my mind, and implicitly on the minds of others; over at The Atlantic Andrew Sullivan says that “It’s staggering really that modern American Christianism supports wealth while Jesus demanded total poverty [….]” Maybe Jesus demanded poverty and maybe he didn’t: as Eco says in both Reflections and The Name of the Rose, the “poverty debate” dominated learned circles in 1321, masking a larger debate about power and its deployment. The arguments Eco recounts in The Name of the Rose shows that, if the answer were as simple as Sullivan describes, there would be no debate. But where there is money, and by extension power, there is sure to be a multiplicity of interpretations based on who stands to materially gain—and lose.

As so often becomes the case after one becomes familiar with his work, Eco has already been there.

The mandatory end-of-year post

In case you’re interested in pointless listmaking, the New York Times offers its 10 best books of 2008. Of them, I’ve read only Netherland, a novel I felt ambiguous about and still haven’t reread. Roberto Bolaño is on the list for 2666 and is highly praised by many good critics, but I didn’t like The Savage Detectives. The nonfiction side looks more worthwhile, especially given the books that delve into the unconstitutional, anti-democratic, and cruel things the United States is doing to people, but those things are already fairly well-known and the books seem more destined to be cited than read.

Last year, I expressed skepticism at the top 10 and 100 lists at the New York Times, and this year I’ll reiterate that (although I’ve read fewer books on the list this time). This year, I’ll link to a post from January 2008 that in turn linked to a number of my favorite (and much recommended) books. To that list I’ll add The Name of the Rose and The Time Paradox.

No novels published this year enraptured me; if you think I missed one that should, send an e-mail. Finally, if you’re going to read novels based on lists, you might try Modern Library’s Top 100 instead, although it has some clunkers (Appointment in Samarra at 22? Someone(s) must be sentimental for his (their?) youth).

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