2017-11-21

Books That Influenced Me

Tyler Cowen reminds us of a blog post he wrote seven years ago, “Books which have influenced me the most.” At the end of this earlier post, Cowen writes, “I would encourage other bloggers to offer similar lists.” It sounds like fun, and I’d like to do just that.

First, though, I need to add a caveat. Cowen’s book lists are interesting predominantly because Tyler Cowen is very secure in who he is. He clearly understands his role as a blogger. He’s a cultural critic as much as an economist, if not primarily a cultural critic. Every day we learn a little bit more about his personal tastes in books, music, food, and ideas. On his blog, he presents himself as the kind of person who can add interesting commentary to virtually any topic, the kind of person who functions as the most important guest at a party, even if not the life of the party. He’s the sort of man who can keep conversation headed down interesting and elucidating pathways, mostly by knowing how to ask the right questions. But if no one’s asking the right questions, he’ll gladly answer them himself, and then put the question back to everyone else when he’s finished.

In short, we’re interested in what books influence a man like that because a man like that is very interesting and has diverse tastes and thoughtful observations.

By contrast, who am I? I don’t mean to say that I’m unimportant or a nobody or that people shouldn’t care much about me – that’s not for me to say, anyway. I just mean to ask the question, if you happen to come across my blog for some reason, why should you care which books influenced me the most? It’s unlikely that you’re curious about that because you’re curious about how I think. I’m not the life of the party and I’m only recently learning how to ask the right questions. My observations can be controversial, but they’re unlikely to cause anyone to think and ponder for a long time.

No, you’d more likely be interested in a list like this to either get some random ideas for book suggestions, or to compare my list to the list of books you like best.

I’ll present my list in that light. This changes the contents of the list a bit, but don’t worry about that.

So here they are, in no particular order:

I. The Castle by Franz Kafka. I was already a Kafka fan when I found my copy of this book – a 2nd English language edition – in the back of a moldy used book store somewhere in California. The thing I love most about this book is that, at the time I read it, I didn’t have a lot of experience with bureaucracy and didn’t fully understand what the book was about; yet as my life unfolded, my thoughts would return again and again to this book each time I encountered a relevant experience in my life. So the book and its themes and messages stuck with me even though I didn’t come to understand them until later.

II. Epistemological Problems of Economics by Ludwig von Mises. After Human Action, I think this is Mises’ most important work. Because of my personal interests, I learned far more from the former than I did from the latter. It is a wonderful book for learning “the economic way of thinking.” It’s also quite a bit lighter reading than Human Action, which helps its contents stick to your grey matter a little better. I think this should be required reading for undergraduate economics students.

III. The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco. It’s not his most popular book, but this one was seemingly written just for guys like me. It’s a book about a young man who commits himself to loving from afar. He never endeavors to win the heart of his love so that he can continue cherishing her from afar. This decision serves to influence everything else that happens in his life. In true Eco fashion, the various events in the story all come together in a superb metaphor unlike anything I’ve ever read before. And the ending is open-ended, left up to the reader on purpose. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but Eco allows us to finish it as we please, which is of course the whole point of the story.

IV. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Screw the haters. Much has been written about what a terrible book this is. I always found the book to be a wonderful character sketch, probably because I actually knew people in real-life who had parallel characters in the story. The ideas in that book won me over from the more left-leaning political traditions, kindled my interest in economics, and served as a source of inspiration for many, many years. I’ve read this book several times and, sadly, I now feel a pang of shame whenever I pick it up, not because of what I think, but because of how badly people are excoriated for enjoying it. That’s not fair. This is a good book. It’s made big waves for valid reasons. No book is perfect. This is a good book.

V. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This one just might get my vote for the greatest novel in the history of mankind. Surely it is the greatest novel in American history. I first read this book in junior high school, heavily abridged. We’d skip whole chapters and focus entirely on the action in the story. As a result, much of the meaning in the story was lost on me at the time. I still enjoyed the book, but not like I do when I read it now. To be honest, I am surprised the modern school systems allow this book to be taught as standard curriculum. It’s boldness in challenging sacrosanct American virtues like Christianity and Existentialism make it the kind of book that would likely be banned if more people understood what it was really about. But that’s the beauty of it, really. There are easter eggs in every paragraph of this book. The prose is directly allusive to specific works of Shakespeare, and to the Bible. Yet all the same, Melville manages to tell the tale in a merry, witty way, in a voice all his own, and to teach us something about “chasing the dragon” along the way. It’s a masterpiece.

VI. A Profile of Mathematical Logic by Howard DeLong. This is essentially a textbook of mathematical logic. As such, there is not a lot I can say about it that will interest blog readers, except to say that it is perhaps the clearest and most elucidating book on mathematical reasoning I’ve ever read. I’ve always been “just okay” at math. Reading this book helped me become “a math guy.” I’m still not a great mathematician, but at least now I can engage in mathematical thinking without fear. If you have the prerequisite math background, I can confidently say that this book can do the same for you.

VII. The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. I thank my sister for introducing me to this book. It is full of sex, drug use, and fowl language, but it is one of the best books a well-read person could possibly read. Almost every major book is referenced somewhere in this novel, and usually lampooned. The story is confusing and psychedelic. It’s reflective of the hippy culture that influenced. It’s a great book for all the wrong reasons, but it still somehow manages to present a wonderful vision of libertarian possibilities and radical freedom. I don’t recommend it for kids, but I do recommend it.

VIII. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. This classic and cautionary tale about vengeance and obsession is the kind of book that every youth reads about ten years earlier than they really should. While it’s certainly accessible to the more youthful reader, the situations it describes simply don’t mean as much until after one has a few more years under his belt. Unlike Dumas’ more popular The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo’s primary source of action is its nail-biting dialogues. I think it’s superb how, over the course of the book, we gradually go from cheering for the hero to… possibly cheering against him? Hoping that someone stops him and that he learns his lesson? Again, younger readers will be dissatisfied by the fact that the hero doesn’t remain a hero all the way through, and that we’re left with a deeply flawed human being who could have been a hero. By adulthood, we can better appreciate ideas as heroes, rather than people.

IX. Better Training for Distance Runners by David Martin and Peter Coe. This is another textbook, one on exercise physiology. The technical sections can be a little dense, but if you don’t mind learning the basics, then the rest of the book will reward you with an excellent primer on how to train, really train, as a distance runner. I think a revised version of this book, with more simplified physiology sections and more compelling prose, would make an excellent book for high school coaches and athletes, and would make a lot people healthier and happier with their running.


X. Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng. This book is a personal account of what it was like to live through the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. It is important as a documented account of communist life, but it is perhaps even more important as a lesson in the universality of human reactions. The Cultural Revolution produced nation-wide witch hunts that evoke the mob mentality that envelopes any country when a mass delusion takes hold, whether it come in the form of “terrorists” or “drug lords” or “racists” or anything else. Liang Heng is a wise man who lived through a terrible set of circumstances, came out on top, and was willing to pass along his life lessons for the rest of us.