Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ten Books That Have Influenced Me


A meme traveling around the blogosphere (started, as far as I can tell, by Tyler Cowen) asks you to list ten books that influenced the way you think.

So here is my list. There are no law books on the list, not because there are no influences but because there are too many. I thought I would focus instead on older, deeper, influences and themes.

In roughly chronological order (of reading):

1. The Passover Haggadah. I have read it every year since I was a child. The story, the rhetoric, the Talmudic counting of plagues, the psalms, the songs. They are etched into my brain. That is the whole point of the book-- the transference of a constitutive story of a people from one generation to the next: "In every generation one is obligated to regard himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt, as it is written `You shall tell your child on that day, because of what the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt.'" If you want to understand how narratives work and how they shape people's understanding, read the Haggadah.

2. Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy. I also read this as a child. It gave me the dream of using science-- and especially mathematics--to try to predict and influence the future, the hope that patterns of history might make sense when viewed at the broadest levels, and the lesson that the vagaries and contingencies of history always confound our efforts to predict and control.

3. The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot). The most popular tractate (i.e., book or treatise) of the Talmud, a compilation of Rabbinical sayings that for me has always encapsulated Jewish thought.

4. Plato, Dialogues. I read these when I was young and impressionable. They were the first works that got me interested in philosophy. They are well written, which, I later discovered, most philosophy is not.

5. David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature. I could just have easily substituted the rest of Hume's philosophical writings. A skeptical vision of the world by a powerfully clear thinker; astonishingly, written when Hume was only in his 20s. Like Plato, a great stylist who knows how to write philosophy. If only all philosophers could write as well as Plato and Hume.

6. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. I could have listed any of the major novels. This final novel seems to sum up Dostoevsky's ideas. Faith and doubt, suffering, redemption, it's all there.

7. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Lao Zi, Dao De Jing). It has been translated more often than the Bible. A short book designed first to puzzle you, then to infuriate you, and then to make you see that you agreed with it all along.

8. The I Ching (Yijing). The Chinese sages say that everything is contained in the Book of Changes. That is only a slight exaggeration. A book about the transformation of opposites into each other over time, about the unexpected interrelation and interdependence of things, about perseverance in the face of adversity, and about how to maintain personal integrity in a world of change. A book so important that I celebrated my mid-life crisis by doing my own translation and commentary.

9. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge. I could have listed several other works of Foucault, but this book of short essays and interviews is perhaps as good an introduction as any.

(Runner up for the 9 spot: Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice. Like Foucault, an important influence on how I think about culture.)

10. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia. For me, still the key work in the sociology of knowledge.

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