Tuesday, March 23, 2010

influential books

There's been a "list of influential books" meme going around the blogosphere, started at MR. I wanna play.

First of all, though, two caveats. The books that linger in my memory are the ones that confirmed or expressed in a striking way thoughts I'd already toyed with. Those aren't really "influential" in the sense of changing your outlook on life, but I think of them that way anyway, and they go on the list. The ones that were truly transformative probably were in a subtle long-term manner, which I don't consciously remember.

Second of all, newspapers and magazines and articles and blogs and papers and lectures don't fit into this list but they all have a larger aggregate impact on my philosophy than full-fledged books. I don't want to exclude them, when it's possible to enumerate them, so I won't.

So, my list (in chronological order, not magnitude of influence).

1. Contact, by Carl Sagan - The scientific method, religion, math/logic, philosophy, and the [dis]provability of all of the above. In a context of astronomy. This book was basically written just for me... Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan also belongs in this category of influence, along with many essays and statements by Albert Einstein.

2. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand - Take responsibility for your life, work hard, don't hurt anyone else. The moral justification for libertarianism (or how I wanted the world to be.) I want to clarify the differences between this interpretation and the stereotypical interpretation, but I don't see that happening effectively, so fill in the blanks yourself.

3. Locke / Hobbes / Rousseau / Milton Friedman - As much as I hate to admit that I got anything valuable from high school humanities classes, these various essays in Western Civ caused me to think hard about the social contract.

4. Economics 101 - This is when my philosophy got concrete instead of moralistic and idealistic and completely changed my way of thinking about the world (so that I can't remember how to think about it non-economically anymore.) Basic economics should be standard high school curriculum. People are extremely opinionated yet flat out ignorant about economic issues in a stunning way.

5. Vamps and Tramps, by Camille Paglia - Gender roles, [anti]feminism, modern social constructions and culture and their implications. Realistic, pragmatic, yes-thats-so-true! hilarious.

6. Handbook of Experimental Economics Results, Ed. Charles Plott and Vernon Smith - By this I really mean the readings and lectures in the experimental economics class I took from Charlie Plott. Thinking about economics in terms of experiments really connects the individual actions with the theory and really clarifies the muddled mess of causation arrows and unobserved variables in empirical economics.

7. Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter - Math and beauty. Intangible unprovable truth. This is the most mind-boggling and amazing book I've read.

8. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig - My favorite book overall. I still am at a loss to explain exactly why and how it influenced me though. Quality, care, thoughtfulness. Beauty and goodness is everywhere. The satisfaction of a job well done. Don't compromise with mediocrity. Independent thought. Exploration. Self-evident truths. Just read it and you'll see... (One concrete impact it had though is that I am quite patient and enjoy motorcycle maintenance, despite the fact that it never goes as planned, is incredibly frustrating, involves tools and parts I never happen to have or don't fit together like they should, and takes 6 times longer than you generously estimate. When I'm about to rip out my hair and kick the engine, I just think of Robert Pirsig. The book isn't really about motorcycle maintenance though, that's just a recurring example.)

9. A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold - After swinging from idealism and moralism to complete pragmatism, this reminded me that there is a middle ground sometimes, or at least that pragmatism can cause you to miss some important things that are still reconcilable with pragmatism when you do take them into account, and that morality and self-evident truths are a good way to find them. The beauty and value of nature. Details worth paying attention to. Simplicity over consumerism.