Posted by: CJ | July 29, 2010

Ten Books

A few months ago Tyler Cowen posted a list of 10 books he thought had influenced him the most, and asked other bloggers to do the same. It set off a craze of navel-gazing on the policy and economics blogospheres. Some people listed pretty standard canon for their interests, which was dull and boring. Others, like Kevin Drum, listed more interesting and obscure books. Ezra Klein said he’s been more influenced by people and experiences than books.

Overall, I’m with Ezra Klein. I read lots, but I haven’t read many books full of ideas for ages. And when I have, it was typically part of a class. This is also compounded by being a science major; the major ideas of science are rather book independent. Often, those ideas also have been substantially modified from how their original discoverers/creators enunciated them as well. (Which is different from many social sciences.)

So I’m going to try to list the 10 books(-ish) that influenced me most. But I’m going to be a little loose; some of them aren’t one book but a collection of very similar books. And my list would probably change, maybe a lot, maybe a little, if I made it tomorrow or in a month or in a year. So it’s certainly not a finished, stable product. But the books are, roughly, in chronological order.

  1. RPG (Roleplaying Game books), mostly D&D and White Wolf. They gave me a numbers-based framework for thinking about people, both where they start and how they evolve. This helped me get through a frustrating and difficult period in my life, though often in odd ways. I no long consciously think of people this way, though a lot of my current beliefs could be translated into RPG-speak.
  2. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen & A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I liked Lies My Teacher Told Me better, on the whole. But the lesson in both was clear. Winners write the history books, and they don’t write them to be fair to the losers. This ties in to the above comment on tradition. This isn’t to say the losers should have won, but it is to say that history, like religious convictions, is a simple litany of facts. It’s a deeply complex interwoven web of stories fraught with bias and uncertainty.
  3. A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. Communicated to me through my mom, but it gave me a way of understanding class differences as distinct from race, and to think about how they interact.
  4. Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, by Heinlein. The first showed me that it’s best to give people voting power only if they have skin in the game. Of course, that book was quite militaristic overall, and I’m really anti-war, anti-police actions, anti-major-combat-operations. Stranger in a Strange Land was one of the first books to really suggest to me that adhering to traditional relationship structures is a choice, and not one that works for everyone.
  5. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Conceits of being a superman are far easier than being one. The crimes taking that conceit too seriously can lead to are manifold and egregious.
  6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Gender and sexuality are far looser concepts than tradition suggests. It’s easier to see that in marginalized populations, where there’s less incentive to follow traditional rules. People can be whatever gender or sexuality makes them happy–they don’t have to be what “tradition” dictates. Especially since tradition is a whole hell of a lot fuzzier than its advocates admit.
  7. My epistemology course texts: Plato’s Five Dialogues, Selections from Aristotle, Discourse on Method by Descartes, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by Hume, and a John Dewey book whose name I can’t recall. What it means “to know” something is very complex. It depends a great deal on what one means by knowledge. This remains one of the most important single concepts I have ever learned. Unlike some other areas of study, I’m not sure how much depth this idea has. But I still believe it’s a crucial thing to learn somewhere along the way, once one’s learned enough other things to understand that there are different modes of knowing.
  8. Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein. This is one of the best examples of good, fun history I have. It is also a constant reminder to me that there has always been a segment of America convinced that if they aren’t in charge everything is about to come crashing down on our heads. And that I’m always happier when that segment isn’t in charge.
  9. Various Science textbooks. Naming specifics ones would be hard. Partially because I’ve learned from so many sources but mostly because a scientific idea often times is, once well understood, utterly independent of its originating context or famous expositors. Which is very different from the rest of the books on this list. Applying specific scientific formulas to get specific numbers for a specific phenomena is difficult and limited in general utility. Applying general scientific principles to understand the limits of knowledge or specific policies is very important to understand anything.
  10. Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakhov. Artists who forsake themselves and their art cannot know true paradise. Neither will judges that pervert the law and their duty. In both cases one of the major impediments is neither will be able to forgive themselves.

Of the above books, Master and Margarita is probably the most tenuously on the list. It’s one of my favorite books, and it is certainly quite deep. But its lessons have not sunk as deeply into me as the lessons from some of the other books. Crime and Punishment is probably the most poseur-ish. It’s truly a great book for getting the point across that conceited little Napoleon-wannabes should probably have a lot more humility and social connection to their community. But that’s a pretty obvious point to make. Dostoevsky is sorta overkill. Two other books that could have been on there are Guns, Germs, and Steel by John Diamond (except that I didn’t finish it and wasn’t quite sure what to make of it) and Harriet Lerner’s Dance of Anger/Intimacy books (they helped me understand a bad relationship dynamic in equilibrium is the fault of both parties).

What the above exercise gets at, as much as anything else, is just how socially liberal I am. Gender, sexuality, race, relationships, knowledge, “objective” & “textbook” history–I’m pretty “meh” on thinking they mean anything. I’m good saying they’re all just social constructs, a group delusion that I don’t particularly want to participate in. I view it as much more important to find whatever works for you and doesn’t hurt anyone. Well, at least doesn’t hurt anyone in ways they aren’t ok being hurt. (Like I said, I’m pretty “meh”.) The list also highlights my hyper-rational character. As my mom often points out, if something can’t be boiled down to numbers then I will have a very hard time understanding it. Most often, I come to understand such things better by finding a way to boil it down to numbers.


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