Books That Have Influenced Me

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Tyler Cowen recently answered a reader’s question of which books have influenced his world view the most. Some of the works I don’t recognize, others I haven’t read, others I’ve read about in great detail, and a couple I have in fact read. In that last category, Plato certainly held my interest, but I can’t point to any lasting influence. (Camille Paglia neither held my interest nor had any lasting influence.)

Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan produced their own lists, and Tyler has since compiled a list of lists.

Naturally I got to thinking that perhaps I should produce my own list. An e-mail prod from Aretae pushed me over the edge — and just before I unleashed my oh-so-clever idea, he went and beat me to it. Anyway, here’s my list

  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual – If I’m going to be honest, I need to admit that I was profoundly influenced by D&D and many other related games, which introduced me at a very young age to the entire notion of simulation — of using more-or-less mathematical models to explore how things might play out — and thus to many of the flaws in such models. Sometimes a more detailed model is less realistic, and sometimes a human’s judgment is invaluable.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas – I don’t mean to imply that Dumas’s novel furnished me with an unquenchable desire for vengeance. Rather, reading The Count of Monte Cristo in 11th grade clarified just how derivative most of the entertainment we consume really is — everything has been done better by Dumas, and he did it over a century ago — and it got me wondering why we don’t regularly enjoy the pop classics. We read new books, listen to new music, watch new TV shows, and wait in long lines to watch new movies, when most of the best works produced — best for our own middle-brow tastes — are still new to us. (It also reminded me that our public-school curriculum goes out of its way to avoid books that kids, especially boys, might enjoy, under the pretense that teenagers with no life experience will learn literary analysis by parroting back what the teacher said about The Scarlet Letter, or some other work that does not speak to them at all.)
  • “The Man Who Came Early”, by Poul Anderson – I suppose I could pick any number of science fiction novels or short stories here, but Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” really stuck with me. If you’re not familiar, it’s the story of an American MP pseudo-scientifically transported back in time to Viking-era Iceland, where his knowledge of modern technology enables him to do… very little. Anderson’s story does an excellent job of conveying just how little modern specialized technical knowledge is worth without adequate infrastructure and just how foreign modern society would seem to anarchic medieval Icelanders.
  • Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand – There seems to be an unwritten rule that anyone who cites Rand as an influence should cite Atlas Shrugged, but I came to her work first through her short collections of essays. This regrettably stripped her enormous novels of most of their novelty; I already knew what she was trying to say. Anyway, the experience of reading Rand as a teenager is one of looking up to where God isn’t and asking, Why isn’t anyone else saying these things?
  • Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt – When I bought my college textbooks a few weeks before the start of my sophomore year, I wasn’t sure what to make of Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, because I’d already been through one year of indoctrination, and I was terrified that my econ professor was going to refute this wonderful book that seemed too good to be true. I felt quite fortunate that school year.
  • The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins – I had found evolution fascinating from long before I found Dawkins’ book, but his work took my understanding to another level and introduced so many fascinating concepts — or explained them in a much broader context, like his discussion of tit for tat and the natural balance of defectors in a lax population of cooperators.
  • The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray – The chief lesson of The Bell Curve is that if you put one small chapter on racial differences in your book, no one will talk about anything else. Far more interesting to me was the story of the shift in society from the old order, in which elite schools were filled with the social elite, to the modern meritocratic order, in which elite schools are filled with the academic elite — which has unintended consequences.
  • Law’s Order, by David Friedman – Aretae mentioned Friedman’s anarcho-capitalist Machinery of Freedom, which I enjoyed but didn’t find especially influential. I much preferred Law’s Order, which explores the nature of property rights and brings Coase’s theorem to life.
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond – I don’t know to what degree his grand theory is true, but I certainly found it thought-provoking. So much of our “technology” is agricultural — domesticated plants and animals — and it’s far too easy to neglect something so vital.
  • The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, by Bernal Diaz del Castillo – I picked up this first-hand account of the Spanish expedition that toppled the Aztec empire because Diamond had mentioned it in Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I was not disappointed. My primary take-away was this: Why didn’t we read this in school? Real history is nothing like school history. Oddly, real history is more like a swords-and-sorcery novel: evil priests, hair matted with blood, commit human sacrifices atop pyramids amidst a city built on a lake inside a volcanic crater; frenzied fighting ensues.
  • Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Ironically, the chief lesson of Taleb’s book, and its sequel, is humility. Things that were “obviously” inevitable after the fact, like World War II, were not obvious at the time. The Lebanese “knew” that any fighting around Beirut would soon blow over; theirs was a country where Jews, Christians, and Muslims had lived in harmony for centuries.
  • A Farewell to Alms, by Gregory Clark – I was familiar with Malthus from high school biology, and I was familiar with the standard refutation by Simon vs. Ehrlich, et al. What Clark did was to explore the conditions under which the Malthusian Trap would hold, the conditions under which it would not, and how policies ideal for one situation would backfire in the other. In an agricultural society with little human capital, the plague can raise living standards. In a modern society? Not so much.

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