There’s a “list the ten books that have most influenced you” meme floating around some of my haunts in blog-land, starting with Marginal Revolution and drifting far and wide from there. Let’s see what I can come up with:
- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem
- Great writing, good reporting, provocative ideas. It makes you think seriously about a subject that more of us ought to spend some time thinking seriously about.
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
- I “got” evolution via natural selection after reading this book, whereas before I had just sort of acknowledged it — and not just in the realm of biology but as a more abstract template that reveals patterns in economics, culture, and elsewhere.
- Edward Fitzgerald, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
- I read this again and again. It takes the place of prayer and meditation in my life. I still hope to commit it to memory one of these days. Every once in a while I pick up Ecclesiastes also, which strums the same strings for me, at least up to the point where the vandal takes over and spray-paints orthodoxy in at the end.
- Ammon Hennacy, The Book of Ammon
- As a book it’s a kind of hodge-podge of various letters, pamphlets, articles, and journal entries that can be repetitive and that bogs down in parts, so I hesitate to recommend it. On the other hand, it’s a rare book in that I think it swiftly made me a better person for having read it.
- Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves
- This book gave me hope that people who are fighting for a better and more humane world aren’t wasting their time but that sometimes the crazy visionaries chalk up a victory.
- Myron Levoy, Alan and Naomi
- I read this children’s book with a grown-up theme without being warned, so it took me by surprise and hit me hard, deep in my soul, and probably bears a lot of the blame for who I am today.
- Fitz Hugh Ludlow, The Hasheesh Eater
- Written in 1857, before any of the now-familiar clichés about the psychedelic inner landscape had been invented, it remains probably the best attempt to put the bizarrely magnified introspection available through the use of psychedelics into words.
- Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia
- An interesting argument, and also a fun, companionable ramble through a philosophical garden.
- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
- I read it at a vulnerable moment as an earnest young liberal trying to keep an open mind, and, while I never went Randoid, I could never go back to being an earnest young liberal either.
- Henry David Thoreau, Resistance to Civil Government, Slavery in Massachusetts, and A Plea for Captain John Brown
- I return to Thoreau often. He and I see eye to eye on a lot of things, and I read his writings to rally my spirits and forge ahead.
Those are my ten. Remember that this is supposed to be a list of books that have most influenced me, not necessarily those I think are the best or that ought to be the most influential. Here are some honorable mentions in the same category:
- Albert Camus, The Plague — and if you like that, you might also like Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone
- William Golding, Lord of the Flies — this, along with books like 1984 & Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and The Chocolate War, ought to be thrown at high school students constantly in the hopes that some stick; I’m probably leaving out lots of sci-fi/fantasy books that were also good in this respect
- Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
- Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions — a good example of where it’s better to get the arguments directly from the author than second-hand
- Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
- The Oxford Companion to Philosophy — arranged like an encyclopedia, but good enough to read cover to cover
- Donald D. Palmer, Kierkegaard for Beginners — another little book that, like the Rubaiyat, I pick up when I need to pace a mental labyrinth in meditation
- Fredy Perlman, Against His-Story, Against Leviathan
- Wendy Pini, Elfquest — totally captivated me when I was in junior high school for some reason; I’ve been afraid to go back and look at it again to remember why
- Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
- Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit — turned me into a primitivist for a while
- Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
- Gene Sharp, Waging Nonviolent Struggle
- Robert Solomon’s audio lectures: “No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life”
- Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness or The Manufacture of Madness
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods
- Various audio lectures by the friendly mind-benders Alan Watts, Terence McKenna, and Stan Grof.
- Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
This leaves out many books that I found beautiful and inspiring, but that I don’t think I was particularly influenced by.
I can’t help but notice the scarcity of women authors in my list (there’s Arendt and Rand, and then Wendy Pini & Margaret Atwood get also-rans). This is also true of the lists by other people that I’ve seen. I’ve read some fine stuff by, for instance, Joan Didion, Laura Miller, Donna Kossy, Susan Blackmore, Claire Wolfe, Ursula K. McGuin, Mary Warnock, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, and Lauren Slater, but none of it really much altered my trajectory (but this can be as much because I’m already on a course that harmonizes with the book as because the book doesn’t much move me) — any recommendations?
Timewise, the books in my top ten have a couple of clusters: one around and another around , with only one outlier, also the only book on the list from this century, Hochschild’s Bury the Chains.