Top 8 influential books

Tyler Cowen, a libertarian economics blogger at Marginal Revolution, wrote up a list of the top 10 books that had most influenced his thinking, prompting a wave of similar posts from intellectual bloggers across the Internet in the last week. I might as well chime in. The list below isn’t of the best books or authors, but of the books and authors that most influenced my way of thinking and being at crucial times in my life. I’m probably leaving out a couple key books, but here they are, in no particular order, my top 8 most influential books:

  • Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: I read this at a ridiculously young age (2nd or 3rd grade), and though I clearly didn’t understand everything in it at first reading, it still left me obsessed with the all-pervasive cool-ness of the universe. It’s incomprehensibly large, fantastically complicated, and inherently fascinating. What we see in everyday life is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s lots to learn, so get busy.
  • Richard P. Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Feynman wasn’t just a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, he was a constant puzzle-solver, prankster, and amateur enthusiast in dozens of scientific and artistic disciplines. Reading his autobiography early on (5th grade?) really imparted to me the sheer joy of learning and instilled in me the desire to acquire the habits of inquisitiveness. I fell in love with what Feynam shows is a really attractive culture of playful intellectualism. I guess if Hawking showed me how fascinating the world is, Feynman gave me a rough idea of how one can make a socially and personally fulfilling life by investigating it. Taken together, these two books really put curiosity at the center of my emerging identity as a kid.
  • Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game: This one’s a classic for ambitious, smart kids, and I’m almost embarrassed to include it, but I think I have to if I’m being honest with myself. I must have read it some time around 4th to 6th grade. The book really made the archetype of the heroic individual — who uses smarts, hard work, and the help of good friends to do good and important things– attractive to me. That’s ironic, since in the end it turns out that Ender was a pawn of large, amorphous, adult powers beyond his control, his individual greatness wasn’t absolutely essential to victory (see the Bean prequels), and his supposedly heroic work was actually morally dubious. But there you have it.
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: I must have been about 12 when this book came out, and it really had a profound effect on me. The process of understanding why things are they way they are always seemed like a straightforward process, when it came to the physical world. But I had never really been exposed to a rigorous attempt at explaining why things are the way they are in the human world of societies, culture, and so on. Diamond’s work helped set me on a path of thinking a lot more about causes in the human world than I ever had before.
  • Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: These books are really as much about politics as they are about science fiction. As the best sci-fi does, Heinlein’s classics used the sciency part (space travel, future tech, etc) to put humans into new and interesting social contexts in order to investigate how the wide variety of human characters would respond. I learned to imagine a new set of social norms that would be normal in their own societies, and confronted issues I’d never seriously grappled with, like sexual politics and imagining alternative structures to human society: plural marriage, temporary sexual liaisons, age differentials in inter-personal relationships. But beyond this low and local politics, the books also deal with ‘high’ politics in a compelling way that makes it seem much more immediately important and interesting than the newspaper ever does. Heinlein put things like the structure and function of government, self-determination, colonialism, authoritarianism, violence, revolution, and liberty into new literary context.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morality: A fascinating combination of epistemological modesty (there is no privileged, objective vantage point or absolute and eternal truth or first principle) and the absolute necessity of making decisions and evaluations, and forging an authentic personal existence. Nietzsche was the first to really get modern angst, and his books (particularly this one) really made me think about and deal with these concepts in a serious way. It’s an interesting addition to the optimism and joy I got from Hawking and Feynman, though not actually all that incompatible. It also lines up nicely with the Ender-inspired image of the heroic individual, I guess.
  • John Irving, The World According to Garp: I think what was so influential about this book (and many other Irving books) for me was its focus on the personal and the quotidian.  Family, friends, and neighbors become the main setting for failure, success, tragedy, and normalcy. The majesty of the universe, the heroic individual, the big questions of life — those are all great (see influential books listed above), but a huge part of what makes life awesome is just the interactions between characters. People talking to people. It’s enough to drive great stories (see Irving, John), and it’s enough to drive real life, too.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude: I think Marquez (along with many others, but Marquez stands out to me right now), gave me a needed sense of perspective on the role of the individual and the ambitious life. One thing that makes this book so great is the rolling sense of repetition, stylistically and within the plot itself, in which character traits are transmitted between the generations, and the same ambitions are partially satisfied and partially thwarted time and again. The Buendia family rises to riches and falls and rises again. Illicit passions persist for entire generations, spawn tragedy, suddenly die, and then spring up again in the next. Nothing is new under the sun, and yet places and people continuously change. It’s a story of triumph and tragedy within the context of infinite recursion. I guess one lesson is the power of history (both grand and personal), and the ultimate smallness of any single person, action, or desire. The other big lesson is the appreciation of dark humor.

1 Response to “Top 8 influential books”

  1. 1 corinthian March 25, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Sometimes I feel sad about my own country, because both China and Latin American have so many stories to tell in these 300 years, but China lost its own words, while One Hundred Years of Solitude stands out so much.

    I think I will read this book throughout my whole life because we don’t have such a book narrating the stories so completely until now.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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