Not too late!
My belated entry in the influential books game:
Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language – There are people for whom this book is a Bible. Alexander’s “patterns” — normative statements about how we should build our houses, neighborhoods and world — vary between beguiling simplicity and baffling radicalism. The book is a reminder that along with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the sixties and seventies produced a brand of moralism that was fresh, liberating and utterly serious. If you join one cult, let this be it.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice – This is my favorite work of political theory. It’s contractarian simplicity and clear thinking make it seem more American than baseball. Ultimately, though, it’s the expression of a profoundly misguided “neutrality” that excludes all kinds of important and necessary public reasons.
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or – I don’t think I understood a thing in this book when I read it at age seventeen. However, I did manage to misunderstand it violently enough to absorb several false ideas, including the notion that I should try to copy Kierkegaard’s unique prose style. Might have been good to stay away from this one.
John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress – An illustrated abridgment of Bunyan’s masterpiece was my first favorite book. While I would eventually leave the evangelical tradition Bunyan represented to become Catholic (a faith he no doubt thought idolatrous), I still love this book. Its influence over generations of Americans and Englishmen was vast and, I think, well-deserved.
N.T. Wright, Christian Origins and the Question of God – This series by the eminent Anglican bishop and Bible scholar supported my faith as I was coming to doubt Biblical literalism. Wright’s argument that “Narrative is the most characteristic expression of worldview, going deeper than the isolated observation or fragmented remark” also changed the way I understand culture and stories.
John J. Pullen, The Transcendental Boiled Dinner – This detailed description of the preparation of a single New England boiled dinner is also a speculative and quaintly reactionary meditation on life. There’s nothing “important” about this book, and it didn’t budge my worldview an inch, but it did rather pleasantly confirm my belief in the urgent necessity of frivolous things. I could not recommend it more highly.
Ralph Adams Cram, Walled Towns – At first glance Cram’s radical call for cities animated by a common culture and supported by craft seems like a Disneyland fantasy. But many of his ideas — like restrictions on public advertising, closer connections between shop and home, and the abolition of art in favor of culture — merit a serious look. Cram’s vision of medieval glory isn’t so different from the colonial New England where he had his roots and that, in turn, suggests that his vision may be more truly American then even Cram knew.
William Wycherly, The Country Wife – An English professor’s discussion of this ribald Restoration comedy showed me that any realist drama must be meta-theatrical for the simple reason that real life is theatrical. The constant repeating of “all the world’s a stage” has perhaps made this truth only harder to absorb. I needed Wycherly to see the truth that Shakespeare’s eloquence somehow obscured.
St. Augustine, Confessions – This is the first book I read of serious Catholic writing. Its earnestness and eloquence allowed me to see the truth in a faith that I grew up believing was so much hokum and misdirection.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov – Another person whose writing has had a large influence on me is the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. I was fortunate enough to meet him during his last year, and one of the things we talked about was Brothers Karamazov. I told him this book was my own apocrypha, a work so personally significant that it had near-scriptural status. As it turned out, he agreed.