Some books that have influenced me -

Some books that have influenced me


A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen challenged bloggers to list the books that have influenced them the most. It’s become a hot little blogospheric meme, but like a few others, I’m skeptical of these sorts of exercises as true measures of intellectual influence. One reason is that, like one theory of quantum mechanics I remember reading about once, the very act of consciously trying to make the list has a distorting effect. There’s also a lot of post-facto rationalization going on, interpreting past reading interests in light of current beliefs and dispositions.

But for me, the main obstacle to a decent list is that the “book” category isn’t necessarily the best unit of influence on my intellectual makeup. Sure, I’ve read a lot of great books, but what has shaped my views on most topics are specific arguments, from conversations, a couple of lines in a book, a journal article, etc.  For even the best books I’ve read, the ultimate take-away can usually be summed up in a paragraph or two.

So what I’ll try to do here is list some of the positions I’ve been arrived at, and their book-length sources when appropriate. If I had made this list yesterday it would probably have been quite different; if I were to do the exercise again Monday it would be more different still. Anyway:

Semantic holism and ontological relativism: Quine’s Word and Object; Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, Solidarity

Evolution through natural selection: Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (basically, just one paragraph in the entire book makes the entire argument)

All intentionality is derived intentionality: Dennett, The Intentional Stance

Political Liberalism: Kant, filtered largely through Rawls, but even him largely through Arthur Ripstein’s Equality, Responsibility, and the Law.

The state as the insurance agent of last resort: Joe Heath’s The Efficient Society changed my views forever; an excellent book is David Moss’s When All Else Fails.

Political Eustonianism: Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism and Power and the Idealists.

The centrality of status-seeking to human culture: The Theory of the Leisure Class by Veblen is a must-read, as is everything by Tom Wolfe. Also Paul Fussell’s Class; Fukuyama’s The End of History

The priority of institutions to culture: I’m not sure where I got this conviction from; mostly from talking to Joe Heath and Daniel Weinstock I guess.

The primacy of Cabinet over Parliament (i.e. anti Bagehotism): Ned Franks, The Parliament of Canada.

Humour as literature: Amis, Lucky Jim; Amis II, Money; Nabokov, Pnin

The possibilities of journalism: All of Orwell, but especially The Road to Wigan Pier.

The meaning of life: The writings of Chuang Tzu; Raymond Smullyan, The Tao is Silent; Catch and Release by Mark Kingwell (he doesn’t agree, but it is his best book)

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Some books that have influenced me

  1. Blimey! You have quite a different list than what I was thinking of after I read "A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen challenged bloggers to list the books that have influenced them the most …. ".

    I have three books.

    1) PJ O'Rourke – Parliament Of Whores. Read it in second year university and it changed my life. My family is mostly Trudeau Liberals, Dippers and a few socialists. As teenager, I was left wing but not really satisfied with my beliefs, they did not seem have anything to do with reality and then wham! Read P o W and it all made sense.

    2) John Irving – Prayer for Owen Meany – taught me that doing right thing is its own reward.

    3) Hernando De Soto – Mystery Of Capital – read it last summer and thought it was very persuasive. Property rights are wildly important in getting poor out of slums/poverty. De Soto argues that Western capitalism improved immeasurably in twentieth century because of property rights. Prior to 1900, capitalism was great for 5% of population and dire for rest because of weak property rights/ownership laws. People can use their homes in many different ways to generate income/money so more people get access to wealth.

    De Soto also shows how weak property rights create civil disorder because strong property rights also make communities of like minded people to come together. Everyone desires quiet/calm/peaceful neighbourhoods and people work together to achieve it when they have a stake in neighbourhood.

  2. I read Margaret Lawrence’s Diviners when I was still a child. And Jerzy Kosinki’s Painted Bird before that. Those two books influenced me by scaring the Hell out of me then putting it back.

  3. Interesting exercise. Off the top of my head:

    Political theory: Hobbes, Leviathan and Oakeshott, Rationalism

    Political Economy: Heath, Efficient Society and Filthy Lucre

    International relations: Morgethau, Politics Among Nations

    Warfare: Clausewitz, On War and stuff by Van Creveld

    Canadian Politics: Anything by David E. Smith

    Living well: How to be Idle

    Living not so well but lovin it: Bukowski

    The joys of youth: A Sport and a Pastime

  4. The Rebel Sell (shameless ass kissery on my part? No. This book shook me out of the counterculture haze)

    The Idea of Decline in American History, Arthur Herman. Added the very useful adjective 'declinist' to my lexicon; very useful in the present age. Plus ca change.

    anthing by Paul Berman. Send advance copies of "The Flight of the Intellectuals" to the University of Regina, stat.

    The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg. Don't knock it 'til you've read it. Go ahead, check his sources. Pesky facts.

    Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudo-science. David Theodoropolous. Invasive species hysteria is nothing new: think Germany, 1940's…

    Biogenetic Structuralism, Charles Laughlin..Brain, symbol and Experience. Tired of vague Taoist accounts of consciousness? Here's what's really going on.

    Ask the Enlightened, Fingers Pointing at the Moon. Wei-wu-wei. Clearest accounts of 'eastern' esoteric concepts rendered clear, by an Irishman who made up a chinese name for himself, literally translated as 'nothing writing nothing'.

    Filthy Lucre, Joseph Heath. Ahhh…NOW I get it.

  5. Forgot "The Fall of Public Man", Richard Sennett. Adios civic life…hail narcissism.

  6. What, no books about the Monkey Uprising???

  7. Dog Tricks & Agility For Dummies

  8. The primacy of Cabinet over Parliament (i.e. anti Bagehotism): Ned Franks, The Parliament of Canada.

    Hi Andrew, any chance you are willing/interested in expounding on that one? do you hold that as a normative conviction or as an assessment of actual practice? if the former, I would love to hear more (well I would either way, but more intrigued if you are taking a normative position to that dynamic in the relationship between Cabinet and Parliament).

    • It's a normative conviction. I've written on this a fair amount (largely in columns at the Ottawa Citizen, and a few academic places). It's an area in which Andrew Coyne and I have diametrically opposing views: generally, I don't have much time for the idea that the "free vote" is the essence of parliamentary democracy, or that Cabinet is in some sense the executive committee of the House of Commons, and that party discipline is a bastardization of what Bagehot calls the disguised republican character of parliament. In my view, party discipline is merely the logical extension of the principle of cabinet solidarity.

  9. You forgot about Dr Spock, Andrew. Huge affect on you.