Books that shaped my life

Prominent bloggers from around the English-speaking blogosphere over the last few days have been sharing lists of the books which most influenced them. Tyler Cowen kicked it off; since then writers such as Matthew YglesiasPeter Suderman and Ross Douthat have made their contributions.

In no particular order, here’s what I came up with today. These aren’t necessarily the BEST books I’ve read, but they’re the ones that have affected me and my thinking the most. Also, in a couple places I combined multiple books into one entry, where I read all the entries around the same time and their effect on me was cumulative.

I’d encourage others to share your own lists (which don’t have to be 10 long).

The list:

• J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit

I can’t say for certain what books first got me started reading fantasy, but it’s entirely possible it was Tolkien’s masterworks. In any case, any analysis of my would be remiss without accounting for my period basically from about third grade through my senior year of high school when I devoured just about any work of fantasy I could get my hands on (the good and the bad), so obsessively it was a running battle with my teachers to get me to stop reading in class. Any time I didn’t spend reading I spent making up my own adventures in self-created worlds.

• Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus

In high school, I read Camus’ most famous work, the novel “The Stranger,” and I wasn’t a big fan. The whole point of the novel seemed to be to drive home the point that the world was meaningless by exploring the behavior of a man who behaved as if it was. Meursault’s nihilism was not only repugnant but seemed alien to me. Fast forward a few years to college, when I read Camus’ extended essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” As a friend of mine once described it, in “Sisyphus” Camus isn’t trying to prove that the world lacks any underlying meaning – he assumes it, and proceeds from that point to ask whether the only rational reaction is to behave like Meursault. The final section of the essay, which deals with Sisyphus himself, is transcendently glorious. Even if our efforts to get through life are ultimately as meaningless as Sisyphus’ eternal punishment to push a boulder up a hill over and over again, that doesn’t mean that life is not worth living, Camus argues. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” he writes. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” As Gandalf the Grey (see above) said, “That is a comforting thought.” Although Gandalf was talking about the comfort Frodo Baggins could feel in knowing that a higher power meant for him to have the One Ring and Camus is arguing precisely the opposite, that there is no higher power we can draw comfort from.

• Immanuel Kant, “The Metaphysic of Morality”

Utilitarianism has some merit, but ethically, I’m a Kant man all the way. As much as I can, I try to follow the categorical imperative – “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” That is, only do something if you would prefer that everyone make that same choice. Murder, for example, is immoral because a world in which everyone murders on a whim would be clearly unworkable. If something isn’t moral in all circumstances, it’s not moral in particulars. It’s the clearest and most sensible philosophical code of ethics I’ve ever stumbled across, despite my failure to always live up to it.

• Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “All the President’s Men

They didn’t do the whole job, but the two reporters’ account of the Watergate investigation played a key part in that period at the end of high school when I decided I wanted to become a reporter instead of a lawyer.

• Orson Scott Card, “Ender’s Game

Card’s science fiction tale of child geniuses forced to train for battle against the alien menace has an instant appeal to any child who fancies him- or herself as clever, and I was no exception. Ender’s combination of fundamental decency and determined ruthlessness is striking, Valentine and Peter’s rise as internet commentators is gleefully fun (if possibly unrealistic), and the concept of the Battle Room is so stupendous it’s amazing that the Hollywood movie of the book is still in pre-production limbo. Taking the book even more over the top is the final twist and one of the greatest nerd-catchphrases ever: “Remember, the enemy’s gate is down.”

• Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene

Dawkins’ later works have grown increasingly polemical (and less to my liking) as he has shifted from explaining science to attacking religion, but this, his first book, transformed how I think about the natural world (of which we are a part). Dawkins’ thesis that genes, not individuals or groups, are the primary actors of evolution, is fascinating in and of itself. But this book also introduced me to game theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma and also to ideas about how we as humans are both the same as and different from other living things. Even the final section, where Dawkins’ coins the concept of the meme – which is useful to a point but about which I’m not sure how much I believe – is fascinating.

• John Locke, “Second Treatise of Civil Government

I read Locke relatively late, my first year of college. My reaction was one similar to what I understand many people get the first time they read Ayn Rand as brainy teenagers – an instant connection, that these ideas mesh with what the reader has always believed. I’ve since read many other works in the field of classical liberal philosophy and don’t agree with Locke’s sometimes-dated arguments in many areas, but as a foundational thinker his ideas are still relevant today.

• Amartya Sen, “Development as Freedom”; William Easterly, “The Elusive Quest for Growth”; Hernando de Soto, “The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else

Three works I read as part of college classes dealing with economic and political development in impoverished countries. Sen argues that a broader conception of development encompassing political and social freedom provides a more stable blueprint for growth. Easterly looks at why so many countries have failed to develop despite extensive aid. De Soto argues that the real problem for many countries isn’t economic but legal – the poor are unable to capitalize on the assets they actually have (such as land or houses) because legal systems don’t recognize that as property ownership. As a result, prospective entrepreneurs aren’t able to get credit to build businesses. All three works provide valuable insight on capitalism and the economy, and not just in the international arena their ostensibly deal with. All three also shed light on situations here in America, both in terms of how we got to our developed state – de Soto takes an extensive look at the evolution of property rights in 19th-century America – and why some parts of developed nations continue to be impoverished.

• Alvin Toffler, “The Third Wave” (1980)

It’s odd that as a political science major with a focus (see above) on international democratization I picked Toffler’s book and not Samuel Huntington’s book by the same name, but I read Toffler in high school and didn’t actually pick up Huntington until college, by which time I’d picked up all of Huntington’s theses in bits and pieces from other authors. Toffler’s thesis is that the technological, economic and societal changes of the “information revolution” are on par with humanity’s two great previous periods of change – the Neolithic Revolution (First Wave) which turned humans from wandering hunter-gatherers into sedentary farmers, and the Industrial Revolution (Second Wave) which turned those farmers into laborers toiling in factories and factory-like bureaucracies. The Third Wave includes a shift from factory labor to service jobs and other shifts in society away from industrial-era institutions such as the nation-state and the nuclear family. Just as many military and cultural conflicts, from labor struggles to the American Civil War, were echoes of the struggle between adherents of the agricultural and industrial ways of life, Toffler theorized that our world would see conflicts between people in a Second Wave, standardized, industrial, bureaucratic mindset and people with a Third Wave perspective. Despite the inevitable wrong predictions for a book written in 1980 – BEFORE the adoption of the Internet, not to mention my own birth – Toffler seems remarkably prescient in many areas.

• Bill Watterson, “Calvin and Hobbes

What does it say about me and today’s culture that one of my most influential works is a comic strip? Nonetheless, growing up, Calvin & Hobbes shaped and echoed my sense of being a lonely and misunderstood but smart and imaginative kid who loved dinosaurs. It’s still every bit as funny and moving when I reread it as an adult.

Other particularly interesting books: “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by Jared Diamond; “A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy,” by James Macdonald; “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World,” by Walter Russell Mead; “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” by Thomas Friedman; “Terror and Liberalism,” by Paul Berman; “Moneyball,” by Michael Lewis; “Freakonomics,” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner; “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley; “Modernization, Culture Change and Democracy,” by Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel; “Castle” and “The Way Things Work” and other works by David Macaulay , “The Elegant Universe,” by Brian Greene; “John Adams,” by David McCullough