A few books that have made me
This is more for my own satisfaction than the edification of our readers, but I can’t let a great meme go to waste. I tried for the ‘gut instinct’ approach, but that left me with about 30-odd books that say more about my interests than what really influenced my worldview. The final list is a pretty hodgepodge distillation of personal interests and political/philosophical influences, and many of them led me to other books that said much the same thing more convincingly or more eloquently. That said, I tried to stay true to what moved me originally.
Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, Joseph Conrad – Culture, corruption, and state-building, packaged into one easily-digestible adventure story. I’m not sure if a book can make you cynical before your time, but Nostromo came awfully close. No other text does a better job of hammering home the lessons of human fallibility.
A History of the Crusades, Vol. I-III, Steven Runciman – A bit dated even when I plucked it off my dad’s bookshelf, this was the first “serious” historical work I slogged through. “Slogged” is a bit unfair, however, because I kept going back to Runciman long after I’d read his three volume opus cover to cover. There is much to take away from this magisterial survey of the Crusades, but two things stand out: First, Runciman’s humane treatment of Arab and Muslim culture is an incredible example of fair-minded historical scholarship (made all the more remarkable by the fact that these were published in the 1950s). Second, Runciman effortlessly marries a gripping historical narrative with serious, sober-minded analysis. Where else can you get your fill of Frankish chivalry and the legal customs of medieval Palestine?
By the way, Runciman permanently spoiled “low” fantasy for me. Tolkien knock-offs pale in comparison to the Crusaders’ desperate venture across Europe, Asia Minor, and the Holy Land, and what fictional hero holds a candle to Richard Coeur de Lion? I know we have more than a few fantasy aficionados among the League’s readership, and I urge all of them to give Runciman a chance. Deus le volt!
Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler – Many people have written about finding a book at just the write time. A few years ago, I was a college student visiting my parents in Riga over summer break. I picked up a battered copy of Koestler at the embassy’s public affairs section. At the time, we were living within walking distance of the Latvian Museum of Occupation, a black slab of a building commemorating the Soviet Union’s unwelcome stay. This passage always stuck with me:
“I don’t approve of mixing ideologies,” Ivanov continued. “There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and human, declares the individual to be sacrosanct. and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community – which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible.”
I’m not particularly religious, but this pretty much sums up my ideas about human dignity.
Dispatches, Michael Herr – I read this in high school, and at the time, Herr represented the kind of counter-culture icon conspicuously absent from the early 2000s: an anti-war journalist who went to Vietnam, smoked dope, got shot at, and lived to tell the whole crazy tale. I later read that Herr made half the book up, and I can’t say I’d be totally surprised if this turns out to be true. To an impressionable high schooler, however, Herr was the first person to make writing – and more importantly, journalism – seem cool and relevant and powerful. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test narrowly missed the cut for many of the same reasons.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Paul Kennedy – Another book I pulled off dad’s shelf. A few lists have mentioned Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as a formative influence, and I think this book had a similar effect on me. Kennedy convincingly explained how economic, social and political factors contributed to the rise and decline of every hegemonic power from Imperial Spain to the United States. It’s a great – if overly-deterministic – narrative, and it was the first book to really drive home the predictive power of political, economic and social trends. To me, Paul Kennedy was the real-life equivalent of Hari Seldon, which made economics, history, and political science seem awfully cool.
Of course, his predictions about Japan’s impending rise turned out to be totally wrong (though I heard he threw those in at the behest of an over-eager publisher). There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.
The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Benjamin Friedman; In Defense of Global Capitalism, Johan Norberg – As a committed teenage leftist, I was determined to remain unmoved by The Fountainhead. At that age, I think it’s impossible to find Rand’s romantic individualism totally unappealing, but I was able to convince myself that Rand’s writing was hackneyed, her characters two-dimensional, and her ideology heartless. I’d like to say this was the result of keen judgment, but the reality is that I knew what I thought of Rand before I began reading, which is a bad way to approach any text.
Why do I mention this? Many on the Right cite Rand’s books as a formative influence, but I came to appreciate capitalism in a less heroic, more consequential light. Friedman and Norberg’s books had a lot to do with this, because it’s remarkably easy to glide through modern, consumer-driven society without considering the immense prosperity and innovation created by free enterprise (a cynic might say this obliviousness is a byproduct of consumer capitalism, but that’s another story). Friedman’s book was particularly influential – while there are undoubtedly many downsides to unrestrained economic growth, the moral implications of broadly-shared prosperity are hard to understate.
I’d finish the list, but I’ve got to get going. Before I do, however, here’s one last influence I should note: I would not have developed real analytical skills, an appreciation for philosophy and economics, or much of a work ethic if I hadn’t debated policy in college. I mention this mainly as an excuse to congratulate two friends from my school, who just reached the semifinals of the National Debate Tournament, a pretty incredibly feat for a small college with little to its name beyond incredible coaches and hard-working debaters. They went out to the eventual champions from Michigan State, a great run to end an incredible season. Go Mary Washington!