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)