Following the meme, here are the ten books that changed my life the most.
- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. This book de-Catholicized me, or at least it began the process. It set me on the path to libertarianism, after I’d read Atlas Shrugged. It offered a sense of life, and a lifelong obsession. I still live here a lot of the time.
- The Once and Future King by T. H. White. The most insightful book about government ever written for young people. It taught me that government is a nasty business, even at its best. I have never since been able to see government as noble in the way that I think most people do.
- Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. Sparked another lifelong interest — the French Revolution, which was also a nasty business, but an instructive one. After years of reading in French history, I have all kinds of complaints with this book, but it’s still a great read.
- Candide by Voltaire. I pick this one out of Voltaire’s many short stories both because it’s one of the longer ones — plausibly, it really is a book — and also because it’s familiar. Voltaire’s style, his absurdism, and his sense of justice have always appealed to me.
- The Book of Predictions by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Irving Wallace. Published in 1981. Obscure but fascinating; its influence would be hard for me to overstate. Every year on New Year’s Day I revisit this book to see what various people got right and wrong about the future, which I’ve been lucky enough to live to see. Patterns have emerged over time, and these patterns have deeply influenced how I think about society.
Lesson one: psychics are never worth your time. The most accurate forecaster in the book is F. M. Esfandiary, by a landslide (yes, that guy). He got many things wrong, but it’s clear that he was in another league from all the rest.
The biggest mistake made by nearly all forecasters (though not so much by Esfandiary) is to think that the future would be controlled by a central agency or authority. No one imagined how decentralized we would be in 2010. We were blindsided by a mostly libertarian, decentralizing technological revolution. This is a tremendously good thing. Most predictors were pessimists, and they were mostly wrong.
- Island by Aldous Huxley. It’s hard to read or understand this book without Brave New World, but Island is a positive statement of Huxley’s beliefs, not a negative one, so what he really thinks comes across more clearly. It’s also the only utopian society in fiction that I’d ever really want to live in. The others either leave me cold or make me want to run away as fast as I can. I’d have some problems with Huxley’s utopia, but I think I could live in it.
- Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. Sort of a stand-in for all of his other works. Didn’t dare cite The Order of Things because that one’s so hard to understand that I’m not sure whether it’s had an influence on me. Whenever I try self-consciously to “be” a libertarian in my writing, I often end up sounding like Foucault.
- Virtually Normal by Andrew Sullivan. Andrew would do better to blog less and to write more in print. He’s an extraordinary prose stylist, and maybe among the best of all time, when he slows down. When he blogs, he’s repetitive and formulaic. I learned to write by reading Virtually Normal. It was also the first book I ever read about gay politics, and it seemed just so clear, so right, and so wise.
- Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. This is the closest I’ve ever read to a convincing theory of everything. The book is too modestly titled, however, because while Darwin is certainly the key to the story, we also get Diderot, Hume, Leibniz, Popper, Gould, Penrose, and a host of others. It’s an intellectual tour de force, and especially remarkable for its linkage of biological evolution to a theory of mind.
- Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World by Jack Goldstone. This book nearly destroyed my faith in non-quantitative historical methods. I take it as a reminder that while philosophy may be a tyrant, she is a tyrant with short, pudgy little arms.