October 28, 2003

Influential Books

When one of my nieces or nephews graduates from high school (none from college, yet), in addition to the check they really want, I like to give them several books that I think might interest or help them. So I was interested when John Hawkins offered the opportunity to contribute to what the right side of the blogosphere considers to be influential books.

Mind you, this wasn't necessarily what I consider the most important, or the best books, but merely the ones that were most influential to me. Mr. Hawkins didn't specify, but to be considered by me to have been influential to me, I had to have read them before I graduated from college or shortly thereafter. Here was my off-the-top-of-my-head submission with some explanation (needed in some cases), in no particular order:

Atlas Shrugged -- Ayn Rand: Every teenager has to start somewhere when it comes to figuring out how the world works, and this is usually the place for those fortunate enough not to fall into the hands of Karl Marx first. I still find it useful, and dismiss most of the criticism as missing the point entirely. Anyway, this tome, and a strange hermit at the University of Illinois, got me reading all of her non-fiction as well, but that's another story.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- Robert Pirsig: A book whose impact is as hard for me to overestimate as it is to quantify.
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid -- Douglas R. Hofstadter: It probably helped that I was studying real analysis and mathematical logic in grad school from someone who had actually worked with Kurt Gödel. We spent six weeks getting to 1+1=2. Most math majors ran away from this stuff, but I loved it.
Hamlet -- William Shakespeare: It gets better with every reading. Remembering how we read it in high school with the parts handed out to the students is really kind of funny now.
Macbeth -- William Shakespeare: How anyone can not understand that William Shakespeare is the greatest writer to have ever lived is beyond me.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues -- Tom Robbins: Not an important book, but an influential one for me. At the tender, young, sheltered age of seventeen, this book made me aware that there was another world out there I knew nothing about. And it has one of the best catchphrases ever -- the Chink saying in response to anything and everything, "The world situation is desperate, as usual."
The Name of The Rose -- Umberto Eco: Multi-lingual, clever, intelligent, learned, historical and Catholic. What's not to like?
Foucault's Pendulum -- Umberto Eco: Multi-lingual, wickedly clever, intelligent, historical in a paranoid masters of the universe kind of way, and lots of fun. If anyone should ever bother, you'll find lots of casual references to it throughout this blog -- though they've got to be hard to find. I haven't read The Da Vinci Code, but from the reviews, it seems to me like a large portion of it might have been cribbed from here. Oh, and this led to a lot of wasted time screwing around with the Knights Templar.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy -- J. R. R. Tolkein: I re-read these every few years. As to Peter Jackson's version, all I can say is, "We're not worthy!"
The Foundation Trilogy -- Isaac Asimov: Everyone knows that this is structured around Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, right?
The Federalist Papers -- Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay: Civics 101, 201, 301, and 401
History of the Peloponessian War -- Thucydides: Everything old is new again.
The Guns of August -- Barbara Tuchman: At the age of seventeen or eighteen, this seemed like a great book. I'm not sure I still think of it that way, but it certainly helped spur me towards a love of history.
Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century -- Barbara Tuchman: Again, it helped cement my love of history. Oh, and if I remember correctly it had the Knights Templar in it as well.
Plato (Everything): The original Bruce.
Aristotle (Everything): So that's where my tendancy to pedantry comes from! Let's face it, Aristotle is a damn hard slog.
The Canterbury Tales -- Geoffrey Chaucer: I feel really fortunate that in an otherwise dismal blue collar high school experience, I had a few teachers that gave a damn.
The Divine Comedy -- Dante Alighieri: When first exposed to this, I think I liked it for a lot of wrong reasons. Now, it is merely sublime.
Civilisation -- Lord Kenneth Clarke: Yea, I'm an anglophile, but I still love this book and the tapes. What a remarkable man.
Civil War (8 volumes) -- Allan Nevins: I have about a hundred books on the American Civil War and I had to pick something. Did I mention that I think Abraham Lincoln is probably the most worthy human being that has ever lived?

After seeing the final compiled list, if I took more time, I'd probably change about a third of this list. I'll also note that I've still got a lot of reading to do to round out my basic education.

Posted by Charles Austin at October 28, 2003 09:43 PM

Gödel, Escher, Bach and Schroedinger's Cat are perhaps the only good things I brought away from my ex. For some reason, it still astounds me that anyone else has ever heard of either of them.

Posted by: tanya at 09:20 PM