Ten Influential Books

by Kieran Healy on March 20, 2010

Influential upon myself, I mean. Everyone else is doing it, at least for “American/white/politics/economics/mostly libertarian type guys” values of “everyone”. I suck at lists like this. It’s hard to give an honest answer, in part because I’m not prone to conscious conversion experiences, but mostly because I’m good at repressing things and so really find it hard to remember things I read that really hooked me at the time.

In any event, and in roughly chronological order:

1. Clive James, Visions Before Midnight or The Crystal Bucket. His TV criticism. I think I read one or other these when I was twelve or thirteen, having bought them on holidays somewhere. Not exactly Leavis or Empson, I know. But it taught me a lot about how to write, encouraged me to pretend I knew about the literary stuff James habitually referred to in passing, and I’m pretty sure helped make me an insufferable teenaged shit.

2. Steven Vogel, Life’s Devices. Another random bookshop discovery. This is a book about biomechanics but also, and more importantly, a terrific introduction to what is means to do science. A lot of it went past me when I read it first, but it was still irresistible in part because (as I remember) it’s written with this quiet wit right the way through. Chock full of trivia that isn’t really trivia. Strangely enough, I think Vogel still teaches here at Duke. I should thank him personally for writing such a great book.

3. Bernd Heinrich, Ravens in Winter. Another book by a biologist. (Are you seeing my imagined career path here?) Another classic book on the practice of science. Heinrich follows ravens around in Vermont, trying to figure out why the hell they would share carrion they find. I’d recommend this book to anyone.

4. Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior. So clever, so unassuming, so it made me want to be an economist. Then I took some economics and it wasn’t much like Schelling at all.

5. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. I think this book made me want to do sociology. Bluntly creative. Briskly suggestive. Deeply frustrating.

6. David Warren Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany. I don’t know a damn thing about medieval German history, but I had to read this book very, slowly, carefully and repeatedly as part of a Sociology of Community course as a third year undergraduate. I learned a tremendous amount in the process. The cases are fascinating: a girl branded as a witch, a man who refused to say his prayers, the ritual burial of a bull at a crossroads. The analysis is subtle: Sabean is excellent on the fine grain of relations between the State and the peasantry, and how religion and cultural meaning generally express these relations. But for me it was the first academic monograph I really grasped and, in the process, came to understand how hard it must be to write a book that good.

7. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice. I had to read chunks of it as a postgrad in Ireland, and as my reaction was one of constant irritation at Bourdieu’s writing style coupled with the feeling that he was getting at something important. I reread the first few chapters recently and was struck by how direct (and properly documented) its engagement with the literature was in comparison with much of the rest of his work, so I guess professional socialization has had its effect on me. But I was also surprised that it was as compelling as I remembered.

8. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve. This came out the year before I moved to the U.S. for graduate school. The book and the ensuing controversy around it taught me a lot about American academia, the wider world of the chattering classes in the U.S., the institutional structure that supported them, and the American public sphere generally. It wasn’t a pleasant lesson. As a piece of social science the book was terribly executed and written in transparently bad faith; the social sciences in general and sociology in particular botched their response; the pressure of media narratives flattened people into parodies of themselves; and many people who I’d thought might have known better turned out to have a healthy appetite for eugenic tripe, as long as it was presented more in sorrow than in anger.

9. William S. Cleveland, Visualizing Data. “This book presents a set of graphical methods for displaying data”. Does it ever. Tufte gets the Presidential Commissions and the high media profile, and deserves all that, but Cleveland shows you how it’s done in practice and wrote the software that lets you code it yourself. For me it opened up the world of serious thinking on data and model visualization for quantitative data.

10. Richard Titmuss, The Gift Relationship. Reading this wasn’t a transformative experience in some existential sense, but it obviously left a mark seeing as I ended up writing a dissertation and a book that revisited its main questions.



Hidari 03.20.10 at 5:55 pm

I take it we are all to do this rather than merely congratulate you for your excellent taste? Well since you asked. For most of these the reasons should be obvious.

1: Clive James: From the Land of Shadows.

2: Orwell: 1984 (or possibly the Collected Essays).

3: Nietzsche: This Spake Zarathustra (not so much any more, but was directly responsible for making me such a twat when I was a teenager).

4: Chomsky: Year 501: Conquest continues (I wonder how many people picked this up thinking it was a SF novel?).

5: Pilger: Hidden Agendas.

6: Monk: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

7: Dreyfus: What Computers Still Can’t Do

And now the token weirdo ones that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone but which influenced me, possibly wrongly.

8: Harlan Ellison: the Glass Teat.

9: Henry Kuttner: Fury.

10: Charles Fort: the Book of the Damned (and other books of a similar ilk, like Dash’s Borderlands).

and 11 out of ten:

Seymour Smith: Guide to Modern World Literature.

I know these last four are rubbish really but I read them all at a far too early age, and they are now part of my DNA for better or for worse.


Kieran Healy 03.20.10 at 6:01 pm

I take it we are all to do this rather than merely congratulate you for your excellent taste?

That seems like the right reaction, yes. I mean, with taste as good as mine it’s not like I need anyone to tell me how good my taste is.


Hidari 03.20.10 at 6:02 pm

Actually thinking about it a bit more I think that John Davies’ The Myth of Addiction probably influenced me more than Charles Fort, if only because it opened up the world of modern social psychology, which, for better or for worse, is now really how I interpret the world.


bm 03.20.10 at 6:10 pm

Hey, good to see at least one non-American coloured sociologist getting in on the act!


Adam Henne 03.20.10 at 6:13 pm

The Bell Curve was pretty influential for me as well, in a similar fashion. I was a sophomore in college when it came out, and had just declared my major in “behavioral science,” i.e. psychology, sociology and anthropology. As a result that semester I was taking intro to psych, intro to soc, intro to cultural anth and intro to physical anth. When the book came out, all four professors dropped everything on their syllabi to devote our full attention to demolishing it premise by premise. So many of my first serious lessons about science, both the proper doing thereof and the easy distortion thereof, came in the context of that book. Nowadays teaching cultural anthro to college students, I still use that experience both to talk about race (our deadliest cultural construction) and science (our most wonderfully ambiguous).


Russell Arben Fox 03.20.10 at 6:18 pm

I’m learning a lot from these lists, actually, so thanks to Kieran and everyone else who is participating in the meme. I kind of wish I hadn’t arbitrarily decided to limit mine to books I read cover-to-cover while a college and graduate student…but then again, if I hadn’t, it would have been all J.R.R. Tolkien, Will and Ariel Durant, and George F. Will, so I guess I saved myself from some mockery there.


Lee A. Arnold 03.20.10 at 6:27 pm

Most books influenced me by elaborating a hunch that mathematics can’t describe the entire universe and so math is not necessary for all science. My basic bibliography is way down the left side of this page: http://www.youtube.com/leearnold

I couldn’t get it down to fewer than eleven here. The last three are narrative inventions which taught me to gather the nerve:

Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature — a textbook really, with new definitions of “information” and “mind” leading to a list and discussion of the elementary principles of mind, ecosystems, learning and evolution.

Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power, and Society — flow-charts applied to energy flows in ecological and social systems; print precursor to Ecolanguage.

Erich Jantsch and Conrad H. Waddington, editors, Evolution and Consciousness: Human Systems in Transition — a motley collection about self-transcending systems, hierarchy, dissipative structures, autopoiesis, spontaneous order, scientific method, global complexity and cultural change. Yet nothing remotely as interesting or inclusive has appeared since.

Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition — a new epistemology of self-construction by organisms. Crucially inverted all previous ideas of the constitution of “information.”

Anthony Wilden, System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange — overview of structuralism applied to ideas of self-consciousness in systems, circa 1970. A book that influenced me for what I was unable to conclude from it.

Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory — history of an ancient mental technique for orators, up to its graphical importance for pre-science in the early modern period.

Lewis S. Feuer, Einstein and the Generations of Science — Kuhnian history of the social roots of the physical theories of relativity and quantum theory. Gave me the distinct feeling that ideas are pattern-shapes with recurring internal dynamics.

Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Pathways Through to Space — greatest 20th-century U.S. mystic describes the personal process of the intellectual path.

Alfred Jarry, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician — short, profound, hilarious entertainment, and an astounding conception. Also it’s an anticipation of all the 20th century’s thematic and narrative developments, written in around 1895. (Origin of the fun-word “pataphysics,” the “science of imaginary solutions” or the “science of exceptions to the rule.” E.g. “John was quizzical, studied pataphysical science in the home” from the Beatles song, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” McCartney likes Jarry.)

Jean Cocteau, Opium — short and indelible diary of a cure in a clinic, with line drawings.

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake — greatest writer in English since Shakespeare and Milton, secured his position by creating something very rare in any artistic medium: a new audience effect.


Hidari 03.20.10 at 6:28 pm

‘That seems like the right reaction, yes. I mean, with taste as good as mine it’s not like I need anyone to tell me how good my taste is.’

Well it’s not an either/or (or should that be Either/Or?). We could all make up a list of our own and congratulate you for having such excellent taste.


Jacob T. Levy 03.20.10 at 7:15 pm

I’m now officially surprised at how many of these lists The Bell Curve has shown up on. I understand that Kieran is far from saying “this book taught me valuable and true facts,” but by the time it came out everything about the phenomenon seemed tired to me already, and I was just a wee tot: the bad faith pseudo-science, the feigned bravery of the politically incorrect, the successfully-baited predictable outrage (feigned and otherwise), the “teach the controversy and sell some magazines” New Republic response, and so on. It all felt like a well-oiled machine with every part working at a particularly high state of perfection.

The only thing I remember learning from the whole experience was that I needed to be much more skeptical of Murray’s pop-theory book, _In Pursuit_, than I had previously been.


Kieran Healy 03.20.10 at 7:18 pm

It all felt like a well-oiled machine with every part working at a particularly high state of perfection.

Like I say, in 1995 I was fresh off the boat in this respect (and many others).


SusanC 03.20.10 at 7:31 pm

1. Ursula K. Le Guin. The Tombs of Atuan. I was quite young when I read this. I still think Tenar is one of the great characters of fantasy fiction.

2. Mathematics in the modern world; readings from Scientific American. The fun bits of mathematics, with all the hard work taken out.

3. Richard Feynman. The Feynman Lectures of Physics. Physics made pallatable, even quatum physics (in vol III).

4. Robert Anton Wilson. The Illuminatus Trilogy. A very funny satire on many things, including conspiracy theories.

5. Luce Irigaray. This Sex that is not one. I think this was the book that convinced me (some of) the postmodernists were worth reading. Arguably a bit wrong or methodologically suspect in places, but it’s not totally nonsense–enough to suggest they’re on to something.

6. Friedrich Nietzsche. The Genealogy of Morals. This was possibly a bad influence on me, especially on my writing style.

7. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Another “bad influence” :-)

8. Mary Douglas. Purity and Danger. I look at risk–and how people make appeals to it–completely differently after reading this.

9. William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg. The Yage Letters. Travel writing, humour, and maybe even a touch of serious religious experience, albeit not of the conventional Christian kind.


Bill Gardner 03.20.10 at 7:47 pm

In personal historical order. Some of these are ‘sectarian’ — please understand that I don’t belong to any of the relevant sects. My graduate degrees are in statistics and psychology, which are article-based cultures, so this is a list of what else has influenced me.

1. Malraux, Man’s Hope.
2. Marx, The 1844 Manuscripts.
3. Samuelson, Economics.
4. Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness.
5. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals.
6. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
7. Wilson, Sociobiology.
8. Rudin, Principles of Mathematical Analysis.
9. Lodish et al., Molecular Cell Biology.
10. Becker & Chambers, S: An Interactive Environment for Data Analysis and Graphics.
11. Sen, Inequality Re-examined; Parfit, Reasons and Persons.

1, 2, 4: Does anyone read these anymore?
3: A class from the same year I read #2.
5: Had the pleasure recently of many conversations with my daughter, as she read it.
6: I have lost count of the number of re-readings.
7: Was completely unimpressed with the discussion of human beings in the end. The rest was a revelation.
8: The best textbook I have ever read.
9: Or maybe this one is the best.
10: A placeholder, representing a FORTRAN IV manual, SPSS (you start somewhere!), Programming Perl, LaTeX: A document preparation system: User’s guide and reference, Programming Ruby, etc.
11: What’s influencing me now.


Maurice Meilleur 03.20.10 at 7:56 pm

Also in roughly chronological order:

Harry Kullman, The Battle Horse
(Fiction; my first book about social class, translated from the Swedish, recommended to me by an amazing middle-school librarian (I was in seventh grade) whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten. I would never have guessed a book about kids growing up in Stockholm immediately after the end of WWII would be so engrossing.)
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem
Norman Jacobson, Pride and Solace
Albert Camus, The Plague
Leszek Kołakowski, The Key to Heaven and Conversations with the Devil
(I hear Kołakowski wrote some history of Marxism that a few people really liked, as well.)
Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy
Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices
Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind
Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit

Runners-up for these slots are George Harris’s Reason’s Grief and David Runciman’s Political Hypocrisy.


Doctor Science 03.20.10 at 8:02 pm

I’m honestly astounded by how few works of fiction you-all are mentioning. Are you thinking of the lists in a “we’re really talking about non-fiction” sort of way, or is the use of “influential” making you think of non-fiction instead of fiction, or are you thinking mostly of books you read after you were 20, or are you just not fiction readers much?

I’m not in a listing mood at the moment, but in general — non-fiction books influenced how I think about certain topics, fiction influenced what kind of person I wanted to be. The latter seems to me a much more influential sort of influence.

Though perhaps the book that influenced me most was “Microbe Hunters”, by Paul de Kruif — which is only non-fiction by courtesy.


Jacob T. Levy 03.20.10 at 8:38 pm

I explicitly restricted my list to non-fiction books I’d read for the first time before graduating from college; it seemed to be that kind of conversation, mostly, and that allowed for a different list from the one I generated the last time the “books that stuck with you” thing came around on facebook.


Chris Bertram 03.20.10 at 8:58 pm

1. Rousseau, Du Contrat Social.

A bit of an obvious one for me, but I first read it as a teenager, didn’t understand it, and have been working it out ever since.

2. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto … ditto really.

3. H. Stuart Hughes, Conciousness and Society.

Really exciting history of ideas …. I remember being fascinated by the discussion of Peguy as an undergrad.

4. G.A. Cohen, KMTH

So you can be a radical and be crisp and rigourous.

5. Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn

Woke me from some dogmatic slumbers.

6. J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg

Which side are you on? Made my mind up.

7. Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Again, ditto.

8. Stendhal, Le rouge et le noir

No explanation needed.

9. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

I’d rather not, but I can’t escape this one.

10. Rousseau (again), 2nd Discourse.

So rich: layer after layer.


Russell Arben Fox 03.20.10 at 9:20 pm

Chris, I knew we had something in common. #1, #2, and #10 made my list as well.

I seriously thought about putting some Orwell on my list, but as I compiled it, I fell into a very specific “this is the stuff that made me think while I was turning into a scholar” groove, and Orwell didn’t fit into that. If I were to go back and try to think, the way Jacob alluded to above, about the books that have “stuck with me,” some Orwell would very likely be there. Probably not Homage to Catalonia; more likely The Road to Wigan Pier or, even better (just because the writing is so damn fantastic), Down and Out in Paris and London.


PHB 03.20.10 at 10:15 pm

I am surprised nobody has mentioned ‘My Pet Goat’ as yet. I am told that some people can end up staring at it for hours.


John Quiggin 03.20.10 at 10:17 pm

What strikes me is that I’ve read only a few of these, and there’s quite a few I haven’t heard of. On Kieran’s list, only The Bell Curve, and here I agree entirely with Jacob – it was a book that had been refuted well before it was published. I’ll think about my own list later, but in the meantime, a lot of stuff I should read.


tomslee 03.20.10 at 10:31 pm

It ‘s not easy to separate books that have influenced me from “my favourite books” or “best books evah” or “books I would most like people to see me as the kind of person to be influenced by”. But here is my short list anyway, trying to focus on books that affected my outlook on life or my choices in life.

1. Top of my list by some way is Chomsky and Hermann’s “Washington Connection and Third World Fascism”, which I read as a graduate student and which turned the way I saw the world upside down. It almost made me walk away from graduate studies, which seemed pointless and trivial when the world was going to hell in a handbasket.

2. From when I was about ten: Henry Treece’s Viking trilogy. Not widely read now, but while Narnia was the series I read the most, these were probably the books that made me a reader. I just thought the adventures were wonderful and Harald Sigurdson was a great protagonist.

3. Down and Out in Paris and London. When I was about fourteen or fifteen I read through a bunch of Orwell, and this is the one that opened my eyes to poverty, about which I hadn’t a clue before then.

4. Albert Camus, The Fall. At my most pretentious (17 or 18) this was the book I wanted to understand most. It seems to be a common feature of these lists that books that you did not quite grasp, at least at first reading, are the most influential – and this was one for me. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I was sure it meant something.

5. The Conservation of Orbital Symmetry, by Woodward and Hoffman. Actually this is a symbol for a collection of books that made me think that theoretical chemistry is a beautiful subject. Which it is, in case you are wondering.

6. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Still my favourite novel and the one I return to most. Maybe this is actually a favourite as opposed to a most influential, but too bad.

7. Protest and Survive by EP Thompson. Not on anyone else’s list? Really?

8. No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart, by me. Well, it certainly influenced me for a few years, even if not by the reading of it.

I’ll leave the list at eight because it’s neater that way – rounded off to a power of two and anyway I suspect scientists are less influenced by individual books than those of you in the humanities so my list should be shorter.


noen 03.20.10 at 10:47 pm

Walter Kaufmann – Faith of a Heretic

Richard Rorty – The Consequences of Pragmatism.

Thomas Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Jorge Luis Borges – Labyrinths

Douglas Hofstadter – Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid

Jiddu Krishnamurti – The Awakening of Intelligence

R. D. Laing – Knots

Sigmund Freud – Civilization and Its Discontents

William Glasser – Choice Theory

John Searle – The Construction of Social Reality

The first two are hugely influential for me, the last, John Searle, is becoming so.


Rudy 03.20.10 at 11:37 pm

The alarming thing about lists like this, is that you always find out that the book that only YOU knew about, is actually a book everyone else read too. Oh well. At least it shows my good taste.
I’ve read the Vogel, the Schelling, and the Cleveland. I had a very nice conversation with Steve Vogel once. He has written several other books on biomechanics in the same vein; you might like Life in Moving Fluids.
Has anyone mentioned Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language? That had a huge influence on the way I looked at the world, especially the section “Sleeping in Public”!


Matt 03.21.10 at 12:07 am

Limiting to books that were very influential and read while an undergrad:

1. Epictetus: The Handbook – obviously not the best as a full guide to life, but one of the most influential on me, and still (along with Seneca) one of the things that might be best for many people.

2. Camus- They Myth of Sisyphus and other essays– more for the essay “Summer in Algiers”, which I thought showed a very excellent way to approach life, than for the main essay, but all of it to some degree.

3. Hans Reichenbach- The Philosophy of Space and Time- when I picked this up on my own I’d read only a tiny bit of philosophy and didn’t know Reichenbach was an important logical positivist, or even what that was. I just wanted something philosophical on relativity and Dover had a cheapish edition out. It’s great on relativity, still, but I found myself unwittingly turned into something of a positivist for a while by it. It was very useful, though, for teaching me what an operative definition was, and how to notice when people are using them (usually without being explicit or perhaps even knowing that they are. Economists do this a lot in particular.)

4. Wittgenstein- Philosophical Investigations. I think most intentionally Wittgensteinian philosophy is terrible, and think he was right to think his main direct influence would be to inspire a line of people who would mostly ape his jargon. (When you hear people talking about “language games”, unless this is for a clear and specific reason you should run.) But the general outlook, a sort of socialized naturalism and deflationism, set in deep, and I still think it’s right.

5. Hilary Putnam- The Many Faces of Realism- the pragmatic realism was highly appealing to me, and while I’ve moved away from some of it I still think there’s something importantly right in it.

6. Peter Brown- The Body and Society- for the way it showed how ideas of the body and sexuality changed over time and were different. Inspired in part by Foucault, but more careful for historical detail.

I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting, but these are the ones that come to mind quickly.


novakant 03.21.10 at 1:02 am

1.) Henry James: Portrait of a Lady / The Ambassadors

2.) Alasdair Gray: 1982 Janine

3.) Rorty: Art and the Mirror of Nature / Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

4.) Hegel: Phenomenology of Spirit

5.) de Man: Aesthetic Ideology

6.) Updike: Rabbit Run

7.) Max Frisch: Stiller

8.) Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks

9.) Musil: Man without Qualities

10.) Hawthorne: Short Stories


novakant 03.21.10 at 1:06 am

oops, make that “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”, lol


Thomas 03.21.10 at 1:42 am

1. Lewis Thomas – Lives of a Cell. The first book of science essays I encountered

2. Isaac Asimov’s non-fiction books (not any one in particular).

3. Heinlein – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I know, I know, but it made me think about why I disagreed.

4. Tufte – Visual Display of Quantitative Information I agree with Kieran about William Cleveland’s importance to the field, and I recommend his books to students and colleagues, but in fact I learned about his work more from his software, than his books (same with John Chambers and S, mentioned by Bill Gardner above).

5. Douglas Hofstadter Godel, Escher, Bach

6. Davis & Hersh The Mathematical Experience

7. Imre Lakatos Proofs and Refutations

8. Dennett Consciousness Explained

9. Jane Grigson Good Things. yes, a cookery book.

10. Dawkins The Selfish Gene. As with Tufte, his earlier books are more interesting.

I was tempted to put in Chalmers et al Effective Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth but this would be cheating a bit, since I haven’t actually read all of it, and the influence was more due to my mother’s involvement in the project. ECPC, and the Oxford Database of Perinatal Trials, was the first systematic attempt to collect all the randomized trials in a particular field of medicine.


bob mcmanus 03.21.10 at 2:06 am

Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle and To the Finland Station were early enough to provide direction for decades.

Otherwise, I don’t understand the question. I have favorites, but BG & E didn’t change the way I liked my eggs.


mcd 03.21.10 at 2:39 am

1) Bertrand Russell’s Best

2) Book of the Damned- Charles Fort

3) Mathematics- Life Science Library (1967)

4) Number the Lamguage of Science- Tobias Dantzig

5) Island- Aldous Huxley

6) Gutenberg Galaxy- McLuhan

7) Blaming the Victim- William Ryan

8) Philosophical Investigations- Wittgenstein

9) Design for the Real World- Victor Papanek

10) Life on Man- Theodore Rosebury

11) Socialism- Michael Harrington

1): A teacher gave this in 7th grade and said she thought I’d like it. Don’t know what led her to do that, but it was my intro to critical thinking.


LFC 03.21.10 at 3:55 am

I found this not that easy — have gone one over ten — and have interpreted “influential” to mean “influential on me, for whatever reason, at the time of reading (often a long time ago), but not necessarily continuing to be so.”

Geyl, Debates with Historians
Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers
Harrington, Socialism
Eliot, Middlemarch
Marx, The 18th Brumaire
Rawls, A Theory of Justice
Haq, The Poverty Curtain
Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century
Wallerstein, The Modern World-System vol.1
Herz, International Politics in the Atomic Age
Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals plus several of her novels


shah8 03.21.10 at 3:56 am

Man, all you guys make me feel like a doofus!

I mean, I can’t even remember the original book about economic deflation I read in the 90s, and that was a pretty big influence on how I thought of events later on…

To be truly honest, the most influential books were probably science fiction novels. I read nonfiction, like Searle, for example, but I came at it after I’ve read and aborbed good science fiction that had plenty of what he had to say. So I didn’t do much but agree to it, and snicker at how much happier Searle would be with the Internet and internet porn.

Adam Tooze’s book on the Nazi economy is pretty important to how I judge current events.

Barbara Tuchman March of Folly was reread all the time.

Evolution in 4 dimension by Jablonksy and Lamb was deeply satisfying

The Great Divergence by Pomeranz gave me a real perspective on world economy.

I did a lot of worthwhile arguing with books I disagree with vehemently:
Collaspe of Complex Societies by Tainter

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests by Gintis Bowles et al

Deconstructing 48 Laws of Power by Greene was an interesting project

However, by and large, books formed the backbone of my knowlege, the fill-in. More truly, good fiction and internet have constructed most of my inclinations, so…uh, Wikipedia is the most influential actor on my mind. *Small*, *Digestible*, *Chunks*, are what works, because I usually forget much of what I read a short while after I finish.


Grim 03.21.10 at 4:20 am

Well, books are many and long, and life is short, I think.

Come on John Quiggin, even if you read 24 hours a day from now for the rest of your life (which I trust will be long and happy as such things go for homo sapiens), you would not be able to read a statistically significant percentage of the books published in the next ten years, much less in the preceding 2000 or so. But you could give the second book that William Caxton printed (after “the Bible” apparently), “The Game and Playe of Chess” a read. It isn’t much about chess as such, but about how the moves of the chess pieces represent morality (for instance, the bishops move diagonally – oh dear).

So rather than go for 10, since a lot of mine – eg Eric Blair’s 1984, Animal Farm, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in London and Paris – have already been mentioned, I’ll just add two that were big for me in my teens:

1. Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert Thouless – oh to begin to understand just how bad people, including me, were at ‘formal reasoning’.

2. The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell – his total demolitions of Socrates and Plato were so enlightening and illuminating.

And if anyone wants one small addition to their scifi collection, how about Hal Clement’s ‘Mission of Gravity’ ?


Miranda 03.21.10 at 5:51 am

Wow. It amazes me that there is so little fiction represented here. I recognize that this is not a list of 10 favorites, but still . . . Here’s a perspective from the humanities

1. Eliot, Middlemarch
2. Eliot, Felix Holt
3. Mrs. Gaskell, Mary Barton
4. Mrs. Oliphant, Miss Marjoriebanks
5. All of Austen
6. D.H Miller, the Novel and the Police–not because I agreed with it so much as it represented a way of arguing about things that challenged what I thought and I cut my teeth against it.
7. Bronte, Jane Eyre
8. The Collected Works of W.H. Auden
9. Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers
10. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction

Ok, you can see from this that I am a Victorianist, but these works do more than shape my thinking about my professional work. Most of them helped me understand how to be an ethical person, how to live my life, and how to think about certain problems and issues. I would even go so far as to say that these books shaped more than my thinking; they shaped _me_.


bad Jim 03.21.10 at 7:41 am

Wow! Somebody else read “Life on Man”! It’s a great book, but probably pretty hard to find now.

I think I was more influenced by people I’ve known than anything I’ve read. During my professional career, the book I read most often was the Intel Microcontroller Handbook. Much of it was fine, but there was better writing in the National Semiconductor Linear Manual. What could surpass “Damn fast op amp”?

As an adolescent I gobbled up the works of Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe and Sigmund Freud; I still reuse jokes from “Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious” ( At a dinner party a man dips his fingers into the bernaise sauce and runs them through his hair. Noticing his neighbors’ horror he apologizes: “I thought it was mayonnaise”). Hamlet, Faust, Peer Gynt, No Exit; I’m hooked on stories whose heroes are clueless.

Steinbeck’s “The Log of the Sea of Cortez“, but that’s only because I’d already been introduced to ecology and marine biology. Beyond Good and Evil, if only because it was philosophy and actually entertaining and didn’t require the mental reservations generally entailed by metaphysical musings. War and Peace and The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle. Anatol Rapoport, “Fights, Games and Debates” and Tit-for-Tat. Donald Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things”.


Luther Blissett 03.21.10 at 9:37 am

These are all works I read from about 8th grade to 12th grade. They pretty much put me on the course I’m on now. I’m not sure I’ll ever again feel the excitement I felt when first reading them.

1. Carl Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, and others, *Man & His Symbols* — read this in high school, and while Jung, like Freud, gets everything wrong, he gets it wrong in a consistently thought-provoking way. This book opened up a world of myth, religion, and literature to me.

2. Joseph Campbell, *The Power of Myth* — essentially the same as the Jung.

3. Albert Camus, *The Stranger* — read it in 8th grade, and subsequently read Camus’s essays, Sartre’s philosophy, fiction, and drama, etc. Again, a world-opener, this time, the world of philosophy

4. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, *A Coney Island of the Mind* — my 9th grade English teacher had us read some of the poems from this collection. I started writing poetry. And reading it. A ton of it. And reading the Beats. And the Black Mountain Poets.

5. Charles Olson, *Selected Works* — “Projective Verse” defined the way I look at art. To this day. And “The Maximus Poems” remain brilliant.

6. Suzanne Langer, *Philosophy in a New Key* — the first work of aesthetics I ever read. She made me a formalist.

7. Norman O. Brown, *Love’s Body* — the best part of reading Norman Brown in high school was that he made Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and others seem so lame when I came across them in college.

8. Roberto Calasso, *The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony* — I can’t even verbalize how much I loved this book. I just re-read it (and read his work on Kafka), and I was stunned again by the style, wit, and beauty of the writing.

9. Christa Wolf, *Cassandra* — my 12th grade English teacher recommended this to me, given my obsession with mythology. My first real taste of anything like feminism.

10. A. Poulin, *Contemporary American Poetry* — my high school used old editions of this book as the Creative Writing class textbook. Thank God. Poulin made it less and less interesting with each new edition. But this one had Robert Duncan, Amiri Baraka, Charles Olson, John Berryman, Kenneth Koch, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Anne Sexton: a real education in the diverse strains of contemporary poetry.


Robert 03.21.10 at 9:39 am

I guess the Lord of the Rings is the book I’ve read the most times.

I read the Bible from cover to cover once at an early age.

One friend in college had a couple of serious books of physics. So, if I was going to spout off on politics, I ought to read some serious books on economics. The two I found in a used book store were Keynes’ General Theory (which I reread several times) and Von Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games. Part of the influence of these is to show me I can read original research, whether I understand it or not. I’ve read a number of books others have listed, but one can say that that’s a consequence of this lesson.

Somewhere I came across a reference to Joan Robinson as “the english Galbraith”. I had liked Galbraith, so I read her. I read a lot of her collections and then Sraffa’s Production of Commodities, as well as secondary literature such as Geoff Harcourt’s book, Some Cambridge Controversies. The lesson here is that almost everything economics professors were teaching me as an undergraduate had been shown to be mostly nonsense decades before.

Somewhere in here I read Schumpeter’s History and Hayek’s Individualism and Economic Order. Basically, I read Hayek before I found out right-wingers cite him without reading him. Why wouldn’t a leftist who has also read Orwell accept that Stalinist central planning couldn’t be expected to work well?

I had read a lot of commentary – I particularly like Harrington’s The Twilight of Capitalism – before reading Marx with understanding. I actually read Theories of Surplus Value before the first volume of Capital.

I found some works of economic history eye-opening – maybe Braudel’s Capitalism and Material Life, Hobsbawn’s The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, or Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.

I’m not sure about what were the earliest works in philosophy that I think I might have understood somewhat – probably some Russell, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, or Popper’s The Open Society and It’s Enemies. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is on my list of books I’ve read multiple times.


Deliasmith 03.21.10 at 1:06 pm

1 Catch-22
Explains about work: particularly good on the people who hold jobs in Human Resources.

2 Lucky Jim
See above. Also very helpful as a guide to content, form and tone of professors’ and managers’ lying.

3 Mathematical problems in the biological sciences
Amazon says published in 1987. I mastered a book of similar or identical title in 1968, thereby acquiring a reputation as a guy to go to if your work needed a veneer of rigour.

4 Collected essays and journalism of George Orwell (4 volumes)
It’s all there – boys’ comics, benefit of clergy, ‘now for a header into the cess-pool’: say what you see.

5 Cat’s cradle
Clever. Cleverer than me.

6 The world we have lost
I read read this book at the wrong time. If I’d read it when I was 15 I’d have tried to be a historian. Instead I read it when I was 25 and became a dissatisfied biochemist.

7 The invention of tradition
Good scholars operating at 90 per cent on topics they have always had an itch to give a good kicking to. A cure for, i.a., Scottish nationalism, and proof that 90 per cent of capacity and a long-felt antagonism are two key factors in producing entertaining writing (see the ‘As I Please’ columns in no. 4 above).

8 Emma
Scholarship and close reading pays. A book that was merely brilliant on first reading made irreplaceable by intelligent critics.

9 Money: Whence it came and where it went
Never surprised by financial events again. Another 90 per cent / good kicking book.


Hoagy27 03.21.10 at 2:05 pm

Well, I could not resist you siren’s call. Needless to say it took all morning to winnow the list down to 10. The rest can be seen over at my account on librarything.com. Here they are in no particular order:

Ploetz’ Manual of Universal History: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Outbreak of the Great War of 1914
Tillinghast (Trans.), William H.

Kwaidan; stories and studies of strange things
Hearn, Lafcadio

Millions of Cats
Gag, Wanda

The Recognitions
Gaddis, William

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Patchen
Patchen, Kenneth

Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages
Cohn, Norman

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition

Last and First Men, & Star Maker; two science-fiction novels
Stapledon, Olaf

Ravens in Winter
Heinrich, Bernd

The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History
McEvedy, Colin


BenSix 03.21.10 at 2:54 pm

Well, John Gray figures. Bertrand Russell’s played his part. Reading Camus was an eye-opener, but, really, I couldn’t have hoped for a better influence than The Indispensible Calvin And Hobbes.


andrew cooke 03.21.10 at 3:03 pm

On the Bell Curve – I remember it being influential not in showing me how science worked, or didn’t (I was already a postdoc), but in seeing someone who supported it hounded from their academic position. So much for free thought.

I also find it difficult to list 10 books (being self educated in computer science, much of what I would cite is on the net), but appropriately enough Raz’s The Authority of Law would be the first. His explanation of rights was/is brilliant. “At first blush it may be thought surprising that one should have a right to do that which one ought not….”


Matt 03.21.10 at 3:38 pm

in seeing someone who supported it hounded from their academic position. So much for free thought.

At the risk of taking things off course, who supported the book and then was “hounded” from his or her academic position for this reason?


Brian 03.21.10 at 4:50 pm

Kieran, no Ayn Rand?!? How can you expect to be taken seriously in the blogosphere?


KFB 03.21.10 at 4:58 pm

In no particular order:

1. Carl L. Becker–”The Heavenly City of the 18th Century Philosophers”
2. Hegel–”The Phenomenology of the Spirit”, the Introduction.
3. Kuhn–”The Structure of Scientific Revolution”
4. Walter Kaufmann–”Nietzsche”, his discussion on Nietzsche’s Morality. Include much of Nietsche’s work under influential
5. Christopher Alexander–” A Pattern Language”
6. Cooper–”The Leatherstocking Tales”.
7. Herman Hesse–”Steppenwolf”
8. Eduard Meyer–”Geschichte des Altertums”
9. Arthur Lovejoy–”The Great Chain of Being”
10. Gottfried Leibnitz–”The Monadology”


bianca steele 03.21.10 at 5:00 pm

Books that put me on the path I was on when I graduated from college:

Robert Heinlein, “The Menace from Earth” – I wanted to study physics so I could invent the starship drive and then design starships so I could have a boyfriend to design them with and then travel in space :)

Rucker, Geometry, Relativity, and the Fourth Dimension

Ted Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines

Steven Levy, Hackers

Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine – I think I read this before I graduated

A promotional magazine for The Empire Strikes Back that said George Lucas had studied world myths and “sociology”

John Haugeland, Mind Design

B.F. Skinner, Walden Two – negatively, I didn’t manage to finish it until years later

Lewis & Papadimitriou – Elements of the Theory of Computation

Elaine Rich, Artificial Intelligence – the only two CS textbooks worth mentioning

Coursework: Plato, Republic & Euthyphro; Aristotle, Politics, Ethics, Categories, Physics; Freud, Intro. Lectures, The Ego and the Id; Kaufman’s intro. to Nietzsche’s Genealogy; Anselm(?)’s collection of proofs of God’s existence, individually demolished by the prof; probably Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions – what was most “influential”? hard to say; Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

Academic critiques of Ayn Rand: probably Rasmussen and Van Den Uyl

Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson

A paperback collection of essays by George Orwell

An anthology edited by W. Somerset Maugham and some verse anthologies I no longer have, various drama anthologies

The Bacchae, and Inferno

A book of essays on history, the author of which I would REALLY like to find: the last two chapters were sharp criticisms of Toynbee

I was an undergraduate back in the days before course packets, so there are lots of assigned readings I no longer have a record of, and not too much that’s especially memorable. This is partly drawn from what’s still on my shelf. Malinowski should be in there. There surely must be some books on history, and fiction beyond the vast amounts of chaste SF and back issues of Omni my great-uncle gave me. If my grandfather had left any English-language leftist literature, other than Four Anti-Fascist One-Act Plays, I don’t remember it being around.

Of latterly influential stuff I would have to include Grady Booch, Object Solutions: Managing the Object-Oriented Project, and the first chapter of Doug Fowler’s UML Distilled, which is a great ten-page guide to planning and managing any kind of project, from one phase to the next


annie 03.21.10 at 5:08 pm

in order of reading:
lawrence, sons and lovers
lawrence, studies in classic american literature
joyce, dubliners
faulkner, as i lay dying
dostoevsky, the idiot
goffman, stigma
levi, survival in auschwitz
a.r. luria, man with a shattered world
levi, the periodic table
stendhal, the life of henry brulard
milosz, roadside dog and milosz’s abc


Dan Simon 03.21.10 at 5:33 pm

Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Most profound work I’ve ever read on the question of free will.

Henry Kissinger, White House Years. I don’t care what you think of him–in his prime, he was simply several degrees deeper and sharper than anyone else in the (generally pretty sorry) field of international relations.

Erich von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods. Scared the crap out of me when I was a little kid. Gradually recognizing it as nonsense was my first and probably most valuable lesson in skepticism.

Jane Goodall, The Chimpanzees of Gombe. If you really want to understand people…

Robert Edgerton, Sick Societies. Will cure you of the naturalistic fallacy, no matter how severe your case.

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, After the Cataclysm: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume II. In grad school, I got into an argument with a colleague about Chomsky and Cambodia which eventually led to my reading everything the man ever wrote on the subject, as well as most of his sources and numerous other background works. Taught me about the value of chasing down sources, as well as the intellectual vanity that lies behind his brand of partisan politics.

Zahavi and Zahavi, The Handicap Principle. It’s amazing how often this simple idea crops up.

Marcel Proust, Swann’s way. After plowing through it on a dare, I never again feared being thought a philistine just because I thought some famous book or writer was utter garbage.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After that, any further reading of science fiction became utterly redundant.


Fr. 03.21.10 at 5:43 pm

Albert Camus, Emil Cioran, Émile Zola, Jean Anouilh and John Rawls are at the top of my list. A lot of the science that has left a mark on me has then appeared in article rather than book form (stuff by Przeworski, for instance).


gatherdust 03.21.10 at 6:06 pm

I don’t know which lists are more revealing, those whose books are classics in the lister’s discipline or those where the list is a collection of books that you might find on a shelf way in the back, next to old shoes, vacuum cleaner parts, and coffee pots at the Salvation Army. This is exactly where I found Martindale’s classic on sociological theory. Here’s a list, though why I’m expressing it anon to a bunch of strangers, I dunno. The internet ego, I guess.

1. Back to the Front. No better way travelogue through Belgium and France than a still angry and wry account of The Great War and and its inscription into the landscape. Hard to believe that this is out of print. I guess we like our Great War all poppies and war porn.

2. Road to Wigan Pier. My life is still divided by Part One and Part Two, weekly. I still can’t believe how such a swine as Hitchens came to travel in Orwell’s trade. Orwell was all contradiction. Hitchens and many who read Orwell are all straight lines (see learning curve below).

3. Mother Night. Never could grasp what it was about but the line about corpse carriers is the only German I can remember. And that was after a year of high school German. Makes Catch 22 read like a sociological monograph.

4. Love in the Ruins. An operational definition of alienation but with more pizazz. I wish my Catholic childhood had a Walker Percy or two. Would have made it the religion and the suburbs a lot less boring and more memorable.

5. The Power Elite. Bestest sociology ever. Didn’t realize that Mills bought into mass society theory. Too bad he was right. Some clown out there is accusing Mills of ressentiment because Mills had a love-hate relationship with ambition. Domhoff should sue this sucker for sociological slander.

6. The Forgotten Soldier. The only book that could capture the horror and suffering of a someone – a German soldier on the Eastern Front during WWII – who probably deserved worse. Read alongside Babi Yar and you’ll agree that humanity has a flat learning curve. Human potentialities my ass.

7. Mating. A middle aged white guy channels his inner young white woman graduate student. Set in Botswana. Last novel I’ll pretty ever read. Though I’d leave the art form on a positive note.

8. Louis Sheaffer’s biography of Eugene O’Neill. Reads better than the plays. More intense and miserable than any of O’Neill’s characters. Tho Moon for the Misbegotten was a sight to behold with Jason Robards. Brought me to New London. Never yet been to the cottage.

9. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Read it in the navy. Only remember that I remember it to be important. That and Pirsig’s dig at graduate school and their faculty.

10. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Mamdani probably has a better theoretical take on how it happened, but Gourevitch is stronger on what happened. Kind of like Catch 22: in response to all the genocide what does the world do? Rescue the killers.

Thanks for prompting me to take a trip down memory lane.


Bill Gardner 03.21.10 at 6:23 pm

As others have noted, it is so interesting what is not listed.
- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, On Liberty, Word and Object. These ideas, or their descendants, are still very much alive. No one’s life was changed by reading the original source?
- Similarly, To the Lighthouse, The Second Sex?
- Only one reference to Foucault. No reference to any other French critical theorist, no one from the Frankfurt Schule, nor any of the classical sociological theorists.
- Most surprisingly — and happily! — no one has mentioned Freud.


bianca steele 03.21.10 at 6:28 pm

Yes, “On Liberty.” As for The Second Sex, I was assured, in college, before reading it, that it was horrible, and didn’t attempt it until years later.


SamChevre 03.21.10 at 8:32 pm

All but one of these I read before starting college (at age 23).

1) Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism: from de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse Found it in a dumpster when I was 15; still seems to me the best and clearest book on political thinking that I’ve read.

2) A 1929 Encyclopedia Brittanica, the gift of friends of my mother. I particularly remember the explanation of why jet propulsion was physically impossible. Read this while I was in grade school, and a lot of my historical knowledge comes from it.

3) A collection of Animal Nutrition and Health magazines, given me by our vet when I was 16; the anti-”natural” editorials by Dick Beeler taught me to think through arguments.

4-7) A quartet of books: Milton Friedman Free to Choose and J K Galbraith The Theory of Countervailing Power, The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State; reading them together taught me to look for the hidden assumptions in arguments.

8) A history, name forgotten, of the American Quarter Horse Association; it helped me see that power and political analysis could be applied to organizations, and that my church could be looked at that way.

9) Willa Cather, <The Bohemian Girl; I read this while deciding to leave home and community and go to college.

10) N T Wright, Simply Christian; it helped me articulate what I value and what drew me back to Christianity.


LFC 03.21.10 at 9:05 pm

B. Gardner: “no one has mentioned Freud.” In fact, at least two people have mentioned Freud — see # 21 and 33.

B. Steele: Re the essays criticizing Toynbee — you may have in mind Pieter Geyl’s Debates with Historians (on my list, above).


Questioner 03.21.10 at 9:16 pm

1. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and 2. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason–Both of these I read many times for my academic work.

3. Mere Christianity and 4. The Screwtape Letters–Both of these are what moved me to take Christianity seriously.

5. God, Knowledge, and Mystery–This book allowed me to continue taking Christianity seriously.

6. That Hideous Strength–This was hugely entertaining to me–I loved how it combined Christian apologetics with science fiction.

7. Metaphysics by Peter van Inwagen–I don’t do metaphysics professionally, but I tend to do philosophy like van Inwagen does (although not as well): literal-mindedly and defensively, and this book is what got me started on that ignoble path. It also showed that you could be a materialist about philosophy of mind while still believing in an afterlife.

8. It’s not a book, but Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” affected me as much as any bit of philosophy I’ve read has.

9. The Sources of Normativity–taught me how to do metaethics, or at least got me interested in it.

10. Meditations on First Philosophy–the foundationalism, the indirect realism, and the substance dualism seemed utterly natural to me, and I’ve been gradually extricating myself from them ever since.


Jacob T. Levy 03.21.10 at 9:28 pm

On Liberty is on my list.


magistra 03.21.10 at 9:56 pm

I spent large amounts of time reading as a child and adolescent, and yet my list of influential books (read up to around 20) looks pathetic compared to others. I think the combination of growing up in a rural area and the early specialism of UK education really hampered me. Without refighting the whole pre-internet ignorance thread, without ready access to bookshops or a decent sized-library, it’s really hard to get much of a broad education when you don’t even know what you might find interesting. In rough order of reading:

Stuart Campbell, Stories of King Arthur

The Illiad (Penguin Classics translation)

Book of Job

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

Much Ado About Nothing

Thomas Malory, Morte d’Arthur

Dorothy Parker anthology

Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars

CS Lewis – The Four Loves

Richard Foster, Money, Sex and Power


Russell Arben Fox 03.21.10 at 10:46 pm

Comments by SamChevre, Questioner, and Magistra are making me think about those books which explicitly influenced my religious, moral, and ethical thinking, as opposed to my more professional/intellectual concerns. Some possibilities: C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion, a couple of novels by John Irving (The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany), Richard Neuhaus’s Death on a Friday Afternoon, and various collected essays by George Orwell and Wendell Berry.


jacob 03.21.10 at 10:47 pm

My list is a mix of things I read in college, in grad school, and as a child.

Jim Scott, Seeing Like a State – this has certainly influenced my politics and my scholarship more than any other book, though to be fair I mostly got Scott’s ideas from taking a course with him, not from reading him.
Dolores Hayden, Power of Place – about a historic preservation/neighborhood organizing project she worked on in LA. It’s an excellent vision of how to practice history and be a historian.
Karen Sawislak, Smoldering City – about the aftermath of the Chicago Fire. It shows the way questions of citizenship were debated on the streets in the late 19th c. US, and perhaps more importantly, it shows how as a historian to use disasters as tool for social history.
George Chauncey, Gay New York – this is the kind of brilliant use of archives and reading of sources that I want to do. This spot on the list might also go to Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, which is similarly a book I read and thought “I want to do this.”
It’s not an article, but Pierre Bourdieu had an article on language that I was twice assigned as an undergrad that was both my lasting impression of Bourdieu and deeply influenced my thinking about language. Alas, I no longer remember the title of the article.
A British children’s book I read in 1990? ’91? about a kid who gets caught up in the Tiennamen Square massacre. I can’t for the life of me remember it’s name, though I have a picture in my mind of the cover.
Janusz Korczak, King Matt the First – I read this in third grade and it inspired my life as a student troublemaker. I’m so glad it’s now back in print so I can give it to all the children in my life as they come to the correct age.
Robert MacNeil, Right Place at the Right Time – a memoir by the Canadian/American journalist, read in 6th or 7th grade, I think. Made me want to be a reporter for a very long time.
Another book the name of which I can’t remember, but it was a biography of FDR for children, mostly about his childhood. I must have read it for the first time in elementary school, but I reread it several times.
John Dos Passos, USA Trilogy, especially Big Money – shaped my aesthetic taste in novels and my image of the 1920s. Though perhaps this one is just on the list because it’s one of my favorites.


dsquared 03.21.10 at 11:17 pm

probably “Principles of Corporate Finance” and nine Biggles books.


Luther Blissett 03.21.10 at 11:32 pm

Bill Gardner:

Personally, I was going for the ten books that basically led me to be a reader. Thus, I read Jung before Freud. But Freud is certainly a key figure in my intellectual life.

Likewise, I think it was through Joseph Campbell that I first read Joyce, Stein, Pound, Eliot, etc., and from there I discovered the Pragmatists, especially Dewey and James. I think it was Jung and Campbell that led me to Lewis Hyde as well.

Through Charles Olson, I discovered Octavio Paz, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida.


Kieran Healy 03.21.10 at 11:54 pm

probably “Principles of Corporate Finance” and nine Biggles books.

Biggles Flies in the Face of Ergodicity is a neglected classic, all right.


TheSophist 03.22.10 at 12:58 am

In the order of the extent that I think about them today:

Infinite Jest – Do I get to list it 3 times, because so much is revealed on each reading? I must admit to being a wee bit sad that nobody else has mentioned it. The pain, comedy, and grace revealed in the (incredibly accurate) parts about AA are heart-rending.

LOTR – “Proust for 11-year olds” as Louis Menand aptly described it. I was recently delighted to be shown by a student that sporcle (you do all know about sporcle, don’t you?) has a quiz on Mordor – in the geography section.

Zen and… (Pirsig) – The important thing, for me was getting connections between psychology and philosophy….not completely accurate, but that’s the way I’d have phrased it at 17.

GG and S (Diamond) – New ways to think about so many things…

Bill James Baseball Abstract (1983) – I discovered Bill James in a public library in Oklahoma in 1983, and i have never thought about baseball the same way again. Truly a conversion experience. Speaking of which…

Honest to God (John Robinson) probably allowed me to hang on to the last vestiges of my childhood Xtianity for a couple of years longer than I would have otherwise. (I think that was a good thing.

Beyond Good and Evil- The entr’actes in the middle …the history of western thought in a few hundred pithy sentences (or so I thought…)

Postmodern Theory (Best and Kellner) – I came late to postmodern thought, after having taken a couple of decades far from the academy (the whole earning a living thing…) and this helped immensely when i started to grapple with Foucault, Baudrillard, et al.

Gender Trouble – Not just the arguments in the book, but the way in which Butler strives so hard to say exactly what she means to say (thus producing her fairly lampooned but grievously misunderstood infelicity of style) blew my tiny mind.

Trainspotting – I was a small child when I lived in Edinburgh (and I’m approximately the same age as Renton and his mates). To discover what was happening outside the shelter of a Merchant Company school…

200 Open Games (David Bronstein) – playing the King’s Gambit with White and defending the Spanish with the Schliemann as Black got me to 2300. I couldda been a contender…


Grim 03.22.10 at 2:37 am

bianca steele,

The Second Sex was, and is, horrible – very turgid and indigestible.

You’d have done better reading:

1. The Book of the City of Women – published in 1405 by Christine de Pizan, Europe’s first female professional writer (since antiquity, anyway) and active feminist. Both no mean feats for her day.

2. A Vindication of the Rights of Women – published in 1792 by Mary Wollstonecraft. Christine’s logical successor.

3. The Feminine Mystique – published in 1963 by Betty Friedan, the modern successor to both Christine and Mary.

You’d have had a much better time reading those instead.


Bill Gardner 03.22.10 at 3:54 am

LFC @51: Sorry for the errors. Wishful thinking.


Margaret Krpan 03.22.10 at 5:36 am

1. The Arrogance of Power – J. William Fulbright
2. In Our Time – Ernest Hemingway
3. The Well-Wrought Urn – Cleanth Brooks
4. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
5. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
6. Lolita – V. Nabokov
7. Candide – Voltaire
8. Yeats – Lapis Lazuli & The Wild Swans at Coole
9. The Ebony Tower – John Fowles
10. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn
11. The plays of Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Euripides


derrida derider 03.22.10 at 5:48 am

Enough of the self-congratulation, what about “the ten books I fell guiltiest about not having yet read”? Or even better, “the ten most important books that I read but didn’t understand”.

I’m thinking about my list here, but unfortunately I’m having a lot of trouble getting the list down to ten …


Myles SG 03.22.10 at 6:23 am

“Henry Kissinger, White House Years. I don’t care what you think of him—in his prime, he was simply several degrees deeper and sharper than anyone else in the (generally pretty sorry) field of international relations.”

It was a fun read, finding out how idiotic the State Department really was. This was the government agency that was supposed to be doing a good chunk of fighting the Cold War, but probably couldn’t even manage not to screw up (as some Congressman must have said) a two-car parade. Made me realize what sort of hopeless idiots really run foreign policy among Western countries.

I’m still amused that the Pakistani junta was more reliable than an arm of the U.S. government. And that almost nobody in government had the mental vision to even think about the long-term defeat of the USSR and what that entailed, and the ELECTED POLITICIANS were better versed in the geopolitical game than professionals, and that the CIA was running a more competent foreign policy than the actual foreign policy agency. Elected politicians. And CIA. The irony.

“When the book came out, all four professors dropped everything on their syllabi to devote our full attention to demolishing it premise by premise. “

As much as the Bell Curve was a piece of garbage scientifically (and it really was noxious), this was probably an overreaction, in fact of the sort that made the book really successfully. Why did people want to read the book? Partially because of existing prejudices, but also the sheer screw-you value of seeing a bunch of liberal academics all getting red in the face and screaming at the top of their lungs, together, over it (imagine the reactions of the parents of the people the prof was teaching, whether warranted or not; the benefits gained from analyzing such a current book probably outweighed the change in curricula). Once it’s become the bete noire of liberal academics, it’s bound to sell.


Grim 03.22.10 at 6:48 am

Most excellent suggestions, derrida derider. To round out the four quadrants, I’d add “the ten books I’m happiest never to have read, or even tried.” For example: ‘The Road Less Travelled’, anything by Teilhard de Chardin etc.

But here’s a naive, if genuine, question: does anybody have an estimate – intelligent/knowledgeable/gut feel, or even, heaven forfend, informed – as to how many separate individual titles have been published in Europe (just Europe, but you can add the USA if you want) ever since Gutenberg figured out the Chinese instruction manual that came with his Chinese self-assembly printing press ?


Walt 03.22.10 at 8:17 am

The fact that the organizing principle of modern conservativism is anti-liberalism is pretty funny, I have to admit.


Kieran Healy 03.22.10 at 10:26 am

Enough of the self-congratulation, what about “the ten books I fell guiltiest about not having yet read”?

Here you go.


Hidari 03.22.10 at 10:59 am

‘Gutenberg figured out the Chinese instruction manual that came with his Chinese self-assembly printing press .’

Ha! Yeah. Although movable type was actually a Korean invention.



bianca steele 03.22.10 at 2:09 pm

For better or worse, the first feminist text I read was probably Woolf’s essay on Mary Wollstonecraft, in that Maugham collection. It probably did less harm than running across a copy of Generation of Vipers.


Strether 03.22.10 at 2:39 pm

@48 — Also interesting in this thread: No Tolstoy, lots of Dostoyevsky. Lots of Marx, Nietzsche, Camus, Nabokov; little Sartre; no Fanon, Genet, Pynchon. An Iliad but no Odyssey.


aretino 03.22.10 at 6:03 pm

1. Alisdair Macintyre, After Virtue. Macintyre was such a revelation for me because he demonstrated the necessity of thinking about the social and institutional contexts of ethics, but in the long run the work was most influential for the way I think about art and aesthetics.

2. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. Granted that the the historical divisions Foucault draws are a little too neat and crisp (an issue I was aware of even when I first read the book in college), the pointed questions he raises about knowledge, power, and institutions still shape the way that I think about policy questions.

3. Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land. This is really cheating, since I had long before read the original articles in the Atlantic which grew into this book. In any case, it really did drive home to me the significance for social policy of the stickiness of social and cultural influences across generations.

4. Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity. Despite the title, it is not religion which made this book important to me, but it’s explanation of the ways that community matters for ethics.

5. Johns Lachs, Intermediate Man. This short, overlooked work has kept me thinking about the costs of mediated action in modern society ever since I read it in college.

6. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters. In addition to how it helped to form my appreciation of the central place of race and civil rights in recent American history, this book also gave me plenty else to chew on. Branch’s mordant illustrations of journalists’ captivity to conservative spin on civil rights informed my understanding of media long before there were blogs.

7. Christoper Alexander, et al, The Oregon Experiment. This fortuitously discovered book first introduced me to Alexander’s work, which has been the key influence in my thinking about architecture and urban design. The key insights for me are an anthropological approach to assessing the success of buildings and an incrementalist approach to design.

8. Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. I only read this in the last year, but it has been a huge influence in how I think about the how to deal with imperfect progressive party and interest group institutions over the last year.

9. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Although I never read the whole book until a year ago, I had read bits and pieces of it for two decades before that. The answers Blumenberg gives about the nature of modernity actually matter less for my development than his explicit methodological reliance on philosophical anthropology. This work was the entry way for me to learning something about the German tradition in this field, and if anything the introduction by Robert Wallace was nearly as influential as Blumenberg’s text.

10. V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River. I read this for the first time when I was just fifteen, after seeing a review in Time, and something of its vision and its anger has haunted me since.

11. Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America. Sowell’s well-evidenced argument for the persistence of social and cultural disparities across generation has shaped my support for social policies to reduce inequality (although Sowell inexplicably fails to draw this natural conclusion to his argument).

All right, so my list goes to eleven. Cue the Spinal tap jokes.


novakant 03.22.10 at 7:57 pm

Although I never read the whole book until a year ago, I had read bits and pieces of it for two decades before that.

Good to hear I’m not alone in struggling with Blumenberg, I still intend to read the whole book someday, since I find the whole approach fascinating. Other big ones I have skimmed but not read in toto:

Andre-Leroi Gourhan: Le Geste et la Parole

Cassirer: Philosophie der symbolischen Formen

Hayde White: Metahistory


novakant 03.22.10 at 7:58 pm

Hayden White


Bill Benzon 03.22.10 at 9:20 pm

Hey, I’m white and American but not “/politics/economics/mostly libertarian type.” So here’s my list:


Purity and Danger might have made the list if I’d read it way back then. Alas, I did not. Nor did I read von Neumann’s slender book on the brain, for that matter, but it still holds up over 50 years later. The man was the Einstein of the 20th century.


JoB 03.22.10 at 9:28 pm

Whilst we’re wallowing in our own erudition, let me make a point of thanking a commenter on this blog for pointing me to: “Anarchism, by George Woodcock, Broadview’. I’m loving every minute of it.

The remaining 9 positions can be, with a lot of effort, be deduced from the page my pseudonym is linking to; nothing of value comes easily ;-)


aretino 03.22.10 at 10:24 pm


I’m surprised (in a good way) to see Brand’s How Buildings Learn on a list. I had felt like a solitary admirer. It almost made my ten (er, that is, eleven). I encountered Alexander first, though, and so I had already been introduced to incrementalist ideas about design, and that just pushed it off.


aretino 03.22.10 at 10:48 pm


That’s a great idea for a list: books that have most influenced me even though I’ve only skimmed/partly read/dipped into them


aretino 03.22.10 at 10:55 pm


Wow, Rudin, that is a great one. Another classic text, Churchill’s Complex Variables and Applications, is the one I remember most fondly — I recall it as math that let me do five impossible things before breakfast.


Dan Simon 03.22.10 at 11:31 pm

As much as the Bell Curve was a piece of garbage scientifically (and it really was noxious), this was probably an overreaction, in fact of the sort that made the book really successfully. Why did people want to read the book?

I think a lot of people who dismissed it out of hand failed to notice how skillfully it was written. I know that I never bothered to read it when it came out, assuming that it was garbage, but that when I saw an article by Murray on the subject years later, I glanced at it, and was disturbed at how serious, thoughtful and persuasive it sounded. It was only after I took the next step of looking through the references for the sources of the empirical claims–the names “Jensen” and “Rushton” kept coming up, over and over–that I figured out what was afoot. (And even then, I happened to be lucky enough to be familiar with those names–anybody else would have had to do some research to understand what was going on.)

I had a similar experience with the “aquatic ape” theory, which also intrigued quite a few people–including, interestingly enough, the late Douglas Adams. Proponents of the theory were able to construct a very plausible sounding case for it, with fascinating little factual clues interpreted and assembled into a remarkably convincing argument. And when one reads such a case, one can easily be impressed by the structure of the argument–and never think to ask whether the little factual clues are in fact factual. (And indeed, it turns out that in the case of the aquatic ape theory, they’re mostly either wildly distorted or invented out of whole cloth.)


Dave Maier 03.23.10 at 12:45 am

I spent more of my college years in the radio station record library than in the book library, but I got ten or so for you, in chronological order:

Walt Kelly, Ten Ever-lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo

My moral compass.

Frank Herbert, Dune

Whoa — social-science fiction.

Dostoyevky, Crime and Punishment

Mann, The Magic Mountain

Whoa — literature.

Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas

Less precious than GEB, or at least broken down into bite-size pieces.

Richard Rorty, everything I could find of his at the time

So close, and yet so far.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Only I have read this book properly [ducks] …

John McDowell, Meaning, Knowledge, and Reality

Donald Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation and Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective

Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason

… okay, except maybe these guys.


LFC 03.23.10 at 4:49 am

I drafted a longer comment a couple of times, remarking on who had not been listed (mostly various social scientists, broadly construing that label, whom one might have expected to show up), but both times I hit the wrong button and lost it by mistake (grrr). So I’ll limit myself to mentioning that I’m glad Hirschman showed up on someone’s list – @72. Exit, Voice and Loyalty is good, and The Passions and the Interests is equally good. (I don’t know his other books, on economic development etc).


Hidari 03.23.10 at 8:11 am

The thing about these lists is that you print ‘Submit’ and then suddenly realise another ten books you should actually have picked. So I’m now going to up my list to 12 because, well, who’s going to stop me?

Hobson: The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation.


Grim 03.23.10 at 10:52 am

bianca steele,

Until your post, Generation of Vipers was completely unknown to me, and I think I’ll just do my best to pretend that’s still the case.

I read The Second Sex in my early twenties – around about the time that Feminine Mystique was being published actually, though I didn’t read it until several years later. At the time it never even dawned on me that Second Sex was supposed to be ‘feminist’. Feminine Mystique though, was the first time I could see that feminism was real, tangible, serious and necessary. It wasn’t until nearly 30 years later that I first heard of Christine de Pizan and her remarkable life and works.

Otherwise, I loved some of your other choices – Kidders’ Soul and the Object books. If I’d been thinking along similar lines, I’d have added:

Fred Brooks: Mythical Man-Month (2nd edition with the essay on ‘No Silver Bullets’ included as a chapter).
Andreas Faludi: Planning Theory – totally lucid.


Questioner 03.23.10 at 6:32 pm

I wish I had remembered The Four Loves, The Passions and the Interests, and Exit, Voice, and Loyalty when I wrote my list. Anyway, The Four Loves and Exit, Voice, and Loyalty would be 11 and 12, though I think The Passions and the Interests was better than Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

As for books I feel guilty for not having read, In Search of Lost Time, A Theory of Justice, and War and Peace all come immediately to mind.


Doug K 03.24.10 at 3:48 am

Anything by Bernd Heinrich is worth reading. I liked ‘Running with the Antelope’, now re-issued as ‘Why we Run’. If it had been available when I was a teenage runner, it would have been on my list ;-)

Lots of Camus in the comments I see. For me it was the Myth of Sisyphus, seemed quite reasonable at the age of 17 and continues so. Absurd ? well, absurd. That however is Heart of Darkness which helped account for what was observable in the South Africa of the 70s.

The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carre. The villain Drake Ko sobbing on the beach for his brother’s death, was the first time it occurred to me that people were perhaps not one thing right through, evil or good – an end to Manichean approaches and cartoon morality. I’ve never re-read the book though.

Borges, Collected Poems. An introduction to philosophy and a new landscape.

Russel Hoban, Turtle Diary. I could relate to the Department of Giving Up.

Fly Fishing, Edward Gray. A kind of restrained zen approach, “I am ready now to yield the palm for skill to whoever chooses to claim it, but I do cherish a belief that I am entitled to rank high among those whose reputation as anglers is measured, not by skill, but by their devotion to angling, and by the delight which they have in it.”

To my distress I can’t think of a single book that informed my working life. Donald Knuth’s Art of Programming perhaps, but it was more a validation of what I had been attempting, “the possibility of writing beautiful programs”, than a formative influence.


lemuel pitkin 03.24.10 at 4:53 am


Manufacturing Consent, by Chomsky and Herman
A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander and others
Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, by Immanuel Kant
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeter
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
Labor and Monopoly Capital, by Harry Braverman
A Zone of Engagement, by Perry Anderson
Capitalism Since 1945, by Andrew Glyn and others
The Soul of Man under Socialism, by Oscar Wilde*
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by Keynes

(* This perhaps a bit less, but something needs to get the list to 10. Could just as well be Arendt’s On Revolution, or Doug Henwood’s Wall Street, or James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, or Braudel’s The Wheels of Commerce, or Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest, or the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, or Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.)


Alex Burgess 03.24.10 at 9:46 am

I first read the Communist Manifesto at sixteen while doing my History A-levels. I wanted to know what was the drive behind the Russian Revolution. It was immediately apparent to me upon reading this most famous and influential piece of propaganda that the Soviet Union was in reality a gross distortion of the actual views and intentions of Karl Marx. I haven’t looked back since.

It was at the time – sixteen, sixth-form college – I embarked on my great reading odyssey that would shape me for the rest of my life. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four helped me to cement my longstanding conviction that one can be a radical socialist and also disavow totalitarianism. Socialism for me has always been democratic, socialism-from-below. My views almost perfectly coincided with those of Orwell upon reading Homage to Catalonia.

I found a natural home in the history-from-below school of British Marxist history. Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down remains the single best history book I have ever read, not merely for its subject matter, the radical tendency in the English Revolution, but also for its approach to history, the worm’s-eye view, as Hill put it.

The radical English tradition has touched me in other ways. I remain entranced by the simple beauty and honest, terrible realism of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Gerrard Winstanley’s direct action manifesto True Levellers’ Standard Advanced and William Morris’s pastoral socialist idyll, News from Nowhere.

Like many others, I had a youthful fling with existentialism. It is now an influence on me only insofar as I disavow it. Albert Camus’s The Rebel, with its final affirmation of working class solidarity and revolutionary syndicalism, is an exception. Perhaps Camus as a whole can be excepted.

And lastly, back to Marx. I have been wrestling with Capital for years, and hopefully many more too.


Dan Hardie 03.24.10 at 8:20 pm

1) Orwell: ‘Homage to Catalonia’. I read it when I was thirteen, drawn in by the fact that it was about war. It was the old Penguin edition which had, as an appendix, ‘Looking back on the Spanish war’-maybe his best ever short piece, which drew me straight into reading his essays.

2) Clive James: ‘Visions before Midnight’. That led to the rest of the TV criticism, and then to the excellent early literary essays (start with ‘From the land of shadows’). I’m so glad Kieran mentioned this, because some of James’s rather silly political pronouncements have made him a bit of a joke figure to some people. But some of his essays are splendid: they make you think about how prose should be written, they make you realise how rich both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture are, they fire you up with a desire to read, and see, and listen to as many great works as you can.

3) A.J.P. Taylor, ‘English History 1914-1945′. Probably still the best single history of the most critical period in modern Britain. It also shows you how erudition, scepticism, political radicalism and lively writing can and should go together.

4) Evelyn Waugh, ‘Sword of Honour’ and then the rest of the novels, especially ‘Vile Bodies’. Perhaps a bad influence, in some ways: I read Waugh in my early teens, again initially attracted by the military subject, and then by how funny he was. The trouble with him is that he writes so clearly that I became impatient with any novelist who was less easy to read- which is most of them. And he simply isn’t as profound as Dickens or Austen, let alone Dostoyevsky. But he wrote beautiful prose, and there’s a real challenge in the way he despises so much about the modern world.

5) Joseph Conrad: ‘The Secret Agent’. Still the best single book on political violence I have read. You simply can’t be too cynical about some subjects.

6) Phillip Larkin, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. Made me feel that profound literature, dealing with loss and despair and beauty, could be written in the language I grew up hearing: careful, late-twentieth century middle-class English. Yeats was so clearly magnificent that he was somehow beyond me, particularly when I was in my teens. Larkin was much closer to home.

7) Fyodor Dostoyevsky, ‘Crime and Punishment’. I read this realised most other novels were just scratching the surface. Extraordinary experience, like a sick nightmare.


Phil 03.25.10 at 11:09 am

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia – I fell from there headlong into the Collected Essays and have been trying to escape Orwell’s influence ever since. But I’ll never be sorry to have read HtoC.

Tom Phillips, A Humument – a “treated” Victorian novel, but much wittier and funnier and more beautiful than that sounds.

John Berger, The foot of Clive – a wonderful novel about real people and real politics. Takes a while to get going, mind.

Victor Serge, Midnight in the century

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Keith Waterhouse, Billy Liar

Guy Debord, Preface to the fourth Italian edition of The Society of the Spectacle (TSotS is pretty good too – and not marred by the half-assed conspiracy theorising which Debord gets into in the Preface – but it was the Preface that turned my head round)

Karl Marx, Capital volume 1 (and not all of volume 1 if I’m honest – the chapter on money is fantastic, though)

Evgeny Pashukanis, Theory of law and Marxism

Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni, L’orda d’oro : 1968-1977 : la grande ondata rivoluzionaria e creativa, politica ed esistenziale Worth learning Italian for.


Coach H 03.25.10 at 7:03 pm

I see a lot of Marx on here. Am I the only one who thinks Marx was a lazy and poor loser who tried to figure out the best way to get receive all the power, control, money, possessions, and pleasures of the world (who at that time were possessed by monarchs, Jews, and the general aristocracy) by doing the little or no work. He wished he had been born a monarch, but knew he would never attain that status. With this in mind he developed his theories around manipulating the poor to fight the battles for him while he would enjoy the riches. In the end, Marx’s ideal world would have him in control of everything with complete power while the rest were given enough to keep them happy and quiet.

Also, I enjoy Nietsche but don’t believe in any of his ideas, and I think of him (like almost all of the 19th century philosophers) as another depressed loser who envied everyone else’s happiness. With so many names being recurrent on the Comments section, I wonder if most of you really believe the junk that these “philosophers” churned out without thinking about their motivations at the time they were initially published. They all wanted to sound smarter than their colleagues, wanted to come up with an original idea (no matter how silly, radical, or nonsensical), and wanted their works to make them important in the world’s view (apparently successful according to some of you).

On a side note, I could care less about Ayn Rand’s works either.


Coach H 03.25.10 at 7:12 pm

Sorry for the rant. I wasn’t trying to attack anyone, just wanted to vent.

Here are a couple of books that hit me in the face when I read them:

The Siege of Leningrad
(or you could substitute Slaughterhouse in there but it can be a dry read)


LFC 03.26.10 at 3:14 am

@91: If you knew any of the basic facts about Marx’s life (or had a rudimentary grasp of his ideas), you could not and would not have written this. “Lazy” and “wished he had been born a monarch” have no connection whatsoever to reality. In fact these descriptions are just bizarre, and one need not be an uncritical admirer of Marx to recognize that.


lemuel pitkin 03.26.10 at 6:15 am

Am I the only one who thinks Marx was a lazy and poor loser

Yes. Next question?


lemuel pitkin 03.26.10 at 6:19 am

Tom Phillips, A Humument

Ha! I was surprised (but delighted) to see how many other people had Christopher Alexander on their lists, since I don’t know anyone offline who cares about him at all. But this one is really a treat. Did you learn about it through Douglas Hofstadter like me, or discover it on your own?


aretino 03.26.10 at 4:13 pm

Good to hear I’m not alone in struggling with Blumenberg, I still intend to read the whole book someday, since I find the whole approach fascinating.

I should add that I am looking forward to the release of the English translation of Paradigms for a Metaphorology this year. I expect that will give me better insight into what Blumenberg is doing.

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