Sunday, March 21, 2010

My ten most influential books

I saw that Matt Yglesias had listed the ten books that had influenced his thinking the most, and I wanted to try the same thing.

This leaves out something that was really important for me in my youth: the political and cultural periodicals such as the Washington Monthly, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and the Atlantic Monthly. I started reading most of these in high school, some thirty years ago, and that reading was the key influence in shaping many of my concrete political views.

Most of these books are important because they became a constant touchpoint of reflection. In general, they changed and challenged the frame through which I looked at things more than they changed my mind on any specific thing.

  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-supported 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.

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