Ten Books

The “ten books” blogger game is pretty much ruined now that Austin Bramwell posted the crib notes on how to win it (Scoreborad: Yglesias is remarkably erudite. Douthat is an pseudo-intellectual wannabe who telegraphs that he’s trying too hard. But you knew that).

That said, since bloggers pretty much by definition are people who read a lot, there’s no reason why I can’t post ten books that have influenced me. I’ll list them more or less in chronological order.

* Lady With A Spear, Eugenie Clark. Misshelved with ‘shark’ books and therefore absorbed as I read the whole section from left to right, this long out-of-print autobiography by a marine scientist indelibly convinced an eleven-year-old me to study sharks one day. My first true experiment, for example, which I modeled after her work with Great Whites, tested the music preferences of goldfish (they like classical, hate rap). I didn’t make it to shark research, but I did earn a Master’s on toxic algae, which is pretty good for a life goal set in elementary school.
* Everything Stephen King wrote until around 1989. For better or worse King was my prime time-waster until sometime around Tommyknockers, when it became clear that King had killed his book editor and buried the poor guy in his backyard. The overstuffed, overindulgent later stuff didn’t appeal to me. Or maybe I grew up. Either way, I will always defend Different Seasons as epic fiction writing.
* Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems, Galileo Galilei. Assigned reading in a Galileo-centered elective class in high school, Galileo’s book gave me my second science hero after Clark. Properly summarizing Galileo’s impact would make an overlong blog post, but to name a few high points: he showed that science always has a political milieu that one has to negotiate. Galileo had a knack for hypothesis building that still knocks me over, in the sense that each experiment fit neatly and essentially into a much larger story. I can only think of a few scientists with a similar talent: Darwin, Newton, Einstein, the psychologist William James, the early neuroanatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal. In my opinion the modern concept of science began with this possibly apocryphal anecdote. Although some scientists will find this last point controversial, convincing a lay audience is more than a secondary job. It could be the most important thing that we do. Data is data, as they say, but it’s also largely meaningless if you publish it in Latin and bury the work in obscure libraries. We hardly blame Copernicus for working within his system and staying off the rack, and it’s enough for most of us scientists to get published in the usual journals at all. Nonetheless current events like the climate debate ought to show how important it is to get ideas off the page and into the minds of a lay audience. Two things stand out when you read Galileo’s Dialogue: it is incredibly easy to read and follow, and his arguments are really, really convincing. Most polemicists writing today, including and especially us bloggers, would have more of an impact if we anticipate significant counter-arguments, present them fairly and then disassemble them with authority*.

* Silent Spring, Rachel Carson. Speaking of writing convincingly for a popular audience, Carson wins the prize. Instead of telling you guys that environmentalists (and any kind of activist) should advocate from the perspective of things that most people already care about, just read the book.

* A History of God, Karen Armstrong. As a personal matter I never gave religion much thought. It always seemed kind of silly to make any definitive statement about topics that by definition fall outside of human understanding. As a historical phenomenon, however, religion is undeniably important, and this book provided exactly what I was looking for: a narrative history of monotheistic religion from an amythic social and historical perspective. The book, for example, gives useful context for events and myths that might seem strange today. Armstrong is a freakishly prolific writer, so I can’t give you a reason to read A History of God over her other writing except to say that I read this one.

* Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Without question the most important book for shaping my understanding of American government. Makes an excellent companion when reading the Federalist Papers. IMO the first volume is more essential than the second.

* Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein. Like most internetbloggers I went through a serious Heinlein phase, and this one sticks out more than, e.g., his self-indulgent later stuff (see King, Stephen). Gripping and tendentious-but-informative in the same way that Moby Dick must have been back when readers had the patience for ten-page digressions. Troopers has enough military theory squeezed in between zoom-bang-pow that the U.S. Air Force Academy required cadets to read it for a while. It’s also the only fiction book in which I ever took margin notes, for what that’s worth.

* No Nature, Gary Snyder. Jack Kerouac immortalized Snyder in Dharma Bums as a hyperliterate semi-reclusive Buddha, a part-time logger, mountaineer, fire lookout and zen monk with a bottomless appetite for drink and women. This collection of Snyder’s poems and essays covers material ranging from simple narratives about climbing a hill with John Muir to mythical/historical epics like Through the Smoke Hole. Snyder tends to ‘blog’ his break-ups a lot, but you could see that as another way that his work honestly reflects the (his) human experience. For me Bubbs Creek Haircut is like a koan in that I can read it any number of times and always pick up a new perspective.

* Ecofeminism, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, and The Monkeywrench Gang, by Edward Abbey. These books are an outlier on my list for a couple of reasons. First, I’m treating them as one book. Second, I didn’t finish one of them (Ecofeminism), and last, I don’t recommend reading them. Reading these in college crystallized, for me anyway, the wrong track taken by many in the environmental movement by the time I left activism in the late 90’s. Abbey’s take is cruder, destructive and nihilistic while Mies and Shiva present a philosophical tract, but both encourage environmentalists to elevate themselves (and nature itself) above the unenlightened rabble from whom it must be protected. The latter pointedly do not write for a lay audience. You can certainly claim that nature has some “inherent right” to exist that people should respect on first principles. I will agree with you! The problem is, creating a separate category for “nature”, abstracted from human interests and needs, sets up environmentalism to lose a fight with other concepts like “progress”, “electric power” and “cheap consumer goods” that most people want. IMO the corrosive influence of Abbey/ecofeminist environmental thinking explains the frustrating dichotomy that John talks about here.

* The Feeling of What Happens, Antonio Damasio. This one was a suggestion from my wife, a neuroscientist, that kicked off a serious reading binge about theories of mind. Damasio’s book argues persuasively that there are no separate spheres for emotion and logic. I could write an endless blog post about where I went from there. In fact I did, a long time ago, but the draft didn’t survive the transition to WordPress 2.0 and I don’t feel like re-writing it. People looking for an easier read might start with Read Montague’s Why Choose This Book?

* The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand. A good read for anyone still hungry after Democracy in America. Metapysical Club spins a narrative history of influential American thinkers during the turn of the 20th century: Oliver Wendell Holmes, jr., Charles Pierce Peirce and William James, among others. Menand argues that the pragmatic philosophy of these thinkers and their scientific perspective (which Galileo would recognize and approve) catalyzed a change in America from pre-modern to recognizably modern thinking. The book closes with one of the most elegantly written summary arguments that I have ever read.

(*) IMO Glenn Greenwald and Roy Edroso do that notably well.


Oops, that’s eleven. Consider yourself lucky that I didn’t go to twenty.

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88 replies
  1. 1
    Butch says:

    Just to leave yourself marveling at the research and mastery of language, anything (with the possible exception of I’m a Stranger Here Myself) by Bill Bryson and Idiot America by Charles P. Pierce.

  2. 2
    flukebucket says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for this. I love book recommendations especially when they come from folks whose opinions I respect.

    Just as soon as I finish “Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack” I think I will try “No Nature”

  3. 3
    Punchy says:

    Call me a dork, but my list is largely textbooks. Martin’s Physcial Pharmacy, Atkins’ PhyChem, and anything and everything written by Dr. Michael Shermer. LOVE that man’s thinking.

  4. 4
    cleek says:

    Fugazi’s “Thirteen Books” was a classic. the opening paragraph of “Suggestion” is among the most memorable passages of all time.

  5. 5
    TrevorB says:

    I have always read Abbey as being a tongue in cheek environmentalist. While I think he is a strong proponent of environmental causes, Hayduke is such an over the top character, I can’t take him too seriously. For a real look at Abbey, you have to read Desert Solitaire, It might help to read Abbey while in the Southwest for greater perspective.

  6. 6
    Violet says:

    It goes to eleven!

  7. 7
    Randy P says:

    Re: Stephen King. I had to laugh at your comment because I said much the same thing after “Insomnia”, a 1000-pager that probably could have been half the length without sacrificing anything.

    However, he’s done some good stuff, and my wife (very much not a horror fan) has become a big-time fan of his current incarnation. Some of her favorites: The Green Mile, a non-fiction book called On Writing, and a 9/11 novella called The Things they Left Behind.

    I haven’t read his last couple of novels, but I haven’t had any complaints with everything else. And I must admit I liked the Dark Tower series a lot. Well, except for the end. And the part where he shows up as a character in the middle was just weird.

  8. 8
    Lee says:

    FYI, some of King’s works recently have been much better. ‘Under The Dome’ (his latest) is again a bloated piece of shit.

    It looks like you stopped reading during his major cocaine binge.

  9. 9
    Original Lee says:

    OMG, I can’t believe you and I did the same experiment with goldfish in elementary school. IIRC, my results duplicate yours. And further, my goldfish appeared to prefer 1) Bach; 2) Rachmaninoff; 3) Chopin.

  10. 10
    The Moar You Know says:

    Got to somewhat agree with TrevorB above regarding Abbey. Desert Solitaire is a great book.

    However, I did not find The Monkeywrench Gang to be funny, or humorous, or anything remotely like amusing. Abbey was not a stupid man, but publishing that book may have been one of the stupidest acts committed by any human being; it lead directly to the formation of an environmentalist movement that was as violent, hostile, arrogant and self-righteous as any right-wing Talivangelical you can think of. And talk about bad timing! Right when we, as a society, desperately needed environmentalism to “go mainstream”, this jerkoff wrote the manifesto that would ensure that it wouldn’t, instead becoming the purvey of smelly hippies, smug self-absorbed vegans, dope-smoking college kids, and holier-than-thou trust fund trekkers, alienating most of the rest of society from a message that they desperately needed to take to heart in the process.

    With friends like this, you don’t need enemies.

  11. 11
    toujoursdan says:

    Karen Armstrong’s “A Case for God” is also a must read. It doesn’t really make a case for any specific God but talks about how religion, myth and ritual are necessary to derive meaning in life.

  12. 12
    BR says:

    The best book I’ve read in the past decade was The Long Emergency. I guess it’s a modern Silent Spring, of sorts.

  13. 13
    RedKitten says:

    King’s recent short story collection was very good. He’s not really one for an economy of words when it comes to his novels, but the novellas and short stories tend to be perfectly written.

    I recently re-read the entire Dark Tower series. I had been really disappointed with the last book. But after a second read, I liked it a lot more. I do think that he could have managed without putting himself in there…but hey, it wasn’t my story to tell. It was his. And if that’s how the story was steering itself, who am I to quibble?

  14. 14
    aimai says:

    Ha! I’m reading my wy through Damasio’s three books (Descarte error, the feeling of what happens, and looking for spinoza) right now. Very thought provoking.


  15. 15
    Brent says:

    Major King fan. I picked up Different Seasons in a bookstore one rainy day in Seattle 1982 and my life was changed. Great psychological and cultural insight, altho his stuff veers into the sentimental at times. My demarcation line was It, and found him unreadable afterwards. After 15 yrs, I read through all his later work and choked on it’s drivel. On Writing was good, but wandering and nearly without structure. His publishers will print any tripe he writes. Basically, early King is the only readable King. He stopped being brilliant once he got off the drink and blow. He claims he doesn’t even remember writing Cujo, a minor work, but well worth reading. If you haven’t, also check out The Stand, The Shining and The Dead Zone. The density of his early work, despite the prolific output, is profoundly absorbing.

  16. 16
    monad says:

    Same basic reaction to Abbey as Tim F. and TMYK. I really loved the natural history part of Desert Solitaire — more than maybe anything else, that convinced me to make a career of conservation biology. But his smug, belligerent, self-rightous anger, and the complete lack of any willingness to engage with other people’s worldviews, is so infuriating, so obviously self-defeating.

  17. 17
    El Cid says:

    My reading of Shiva is quite different than that of raising environmentalism above ‘the rabble’. In my view, one could suggest she identified with real, identifiable ‘rabble’ in India and other nations (i.e., grassroots Indian peasant farmers) rather than a different or more generalized ‘rabble’ (i.e., her critiques of the ‘Green Revolution’ of fertilizers and pesticides and its effects on different sorts of communities, whereas often people exclusively focus on how it affected urban Indian working and middle classes, which of course is an important focus).

  18. 18
    LarsThorwald says:

    I have to agree 100% about King.

    Long has been the time when writers and readers of lit’ry fiction looked down their long, patrician noses at King’s work, but in my 30+ years I have yet to come across a writer who was so imminently readable.

    The collection of novellas Different Seasons is perhaps my favorite of his collections, and if you stop for a moment to consider the four books contained in that collection — The Shawshank Redemption (one of King’s best works, in my opinion), Apt Pupil (one of King’s more disturbingly frightening works), The Body (which was made into the movie Stand By Me, and which is King’s most genuine and effective attempts at what can be best described as “nostalgia,” a tone he aimed for again, but missed a bit, in It), and The Breathing Method (one of King’s most overlooked efforts, and which ranks as a great and creepy ghost story in the best Peter Straub tradition) — it’s a stunning achievement. Any one of those stories beats most other fiction, and none of them is a traditional “horror” story King is known for.

    King is a better novella and short story writer than most writers are at anything, and when he hits — truly stellar examples are The Man in the Black Suit (about a young boy’s encounter with the Devil) The Woman in the Room (a simple yet powerful story about euthanasia) — he really, really hits.

    Any of these stories is enough to put King at a higher echelon than most writers.

    Add to that the fact that King also happened to have written Carrie, The Shining, Salem’s Lot (the single best vampire novel since Dracula, in my humble opinion), and The Stand (the gold standard for apocalypse fiction), and you have to admire the quality of his work. Yes, there is a lot of chaff among the wheat (and much of his later writing can be discounted as such, but not all of it — my God, consider Misery and The Green Mile), but man oh man is it really excellent wheat.

  19. 19
    RedKitten says:

    Not all of his later works are bloated, though. I really liked Cell. And while The Dome could have used some merciless editing, overall it was a good story about how totalitarianism CAN happen here, given the right set of circumstances.

  20. 20
    Persia says:

    If you haven’t read On Writing, you must. Best book on the topic ever, in my opinion, and that’s from someone who also thinks his later work’s for the most part nowhere near as good as the younger stuff. And the bits about his accident are just enthralling.

  21. 21
    LarsThorwald says:

    Goddamn it. Eminently readable. Not imminently readable.


  22. 22
    Tim F. says:

    @Original Lee: That is incredibly funny. One more repeat and we’ll call it dogma.

    FWIW, the rap was Nightmare on My Street. Classical was one of Beethoven’s; maybe the Ninth.

    Medium reactions: Satisfaction (Stones), Mister Brownstone (Guns ‘N Roses), Spirits in the Material World (The Police).

  23. 23
    Violet says:

    Agree about On Writing. It’s an excellent book. I couldn’t put it down.

    Edward Abbey pisses me off. I had to read one of his books – I think it was Desert Solitaire – for a class. Threw the book across the room, I was so irate. The man is a horrible misogynist and I could hardly get through some sections of that book without wanting to throttle him.

  24. 24
    John PM says:

    I had the same experience with Stephen King, although I did not start reading any of his stuff until probably 1989 because I was too scared of it. However, once I read The Eyes of the Dragon, I was hooked. And I think The Stand is one of the best books I have ever read. I think the original was better than the subsequent unedited version. Like others have said, you can take a couple hundred pages out of a King novel and not miss anything.

    Two authors I have been reading a lot of lately are Robert J. Sawyer (for all the BJ Canadians) and Neal Stephenson. I read Flashforward because of the ABC Series. The book is an amazing exploration of consciousness and predestination versus free will, so of course ABC has made a hash out of it. I also like the fact that the two main protagonists are Canadian and Greek physicists. I have read Stephenson’s Anathem 3 times and am continually blown away. I am laboring my way through book one of his Baroque Cycle, Quicksilver, which is not for the faint of heart.

    Other books that have deeply influenced me are Nixonland, The Guns of August, The Compass (about the forerunners to The Second City) and That Noble Dream, a book by one of my professors about the attempts by American historians in the 20th century to achieve historical objectivity (I can only imagine what he is saying about current teabagger attempts to reinvent history).

  25. 25
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    All those politically oriented bloggers, many of them on the right, and not a single one of them mentioned The Gulag Archipelago? Is this because of a generational divide?

    As I recall TGA was hugely influential back in the late 1970s/early 80s when the US was still reeling from the concluding years of the Vietnam War and a lot of people saw the US and the Soviet Union as morally equivalent to each other – TGA played a key role in rebuilding the American sense of moral superiority vs. the Soviets (without which it is hard to imagine the Reagan administration) not so much because it made us look good (it didn’t, and Solzhenitsyn had some rather cutting things to say about the West after he was exiled) as because it rubbed a lot of people’s noses in just how godawful the Soviet system was, and did so for folks who’d never heard of Arthur Koestler or read the works of earlier Soviet exiles regarding the purges, the show trials, etc.

  26. 26
    El Tiburon says:


    Everything Stephen King wrote until around 1989. For better or worse King was my prime time-waster until sometime around Tommyknockers

  27. 27
    superking says:

    Metaphysical Club is on my top 5 all time, and it has definitely influenced me in a lot of ways, good and bad. that book is at least part of the reason I went to law school, and I think everyone will agree what a horrible mistake that is.

    Book is still good, though.

  28. 28
    Ben JB says:

    I’ll add my voice to the growing chorus that says that King may have spells of better and worse (read: longer, self-indulgent) writing, but that even in those spells, there are outliers.

    But I also have to point out (contra to your implication) that Moby Dick wasn’t written during a period “when readers had the patience for ten-page digressions”; after his sea adventure novels were big hits (Typee and Omoo), critical opinion on Melville dropped off precipitously. I always find it useful to remember that MB was 1851 but that Melville died in 1891, long after he stopped being a marketable / publishable writer.

    Also, about Heinlein: you say how the other books influenced you (e.g., scientist biography makes you consider the role and function of science), and you say that Heinlein’s book has a lot of military theory–ok, fine, but how did that theory influence you?

  29. 29
    SGEW says:


    I always knew there was some other reason I liked you, besides your commentary.

    Also, re: Tim’s choices: Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, eh? Yikes. Points for the “I admit that I was pretty silly at age 18” category, tho’. I guess.

  30. 30

    Wishing I was a blogger so I could do this :D

    NOBODY’s read Godel, Escher, Bach?
    Disney Animation, The Illusion of Life. Expensive but awesome…
    Confucius, ‘The Analects’. It’s in this Great Books collection I inherited from my grandmother. Seriously hip stuff.
    Steven Levy- ‘Artificial Life’ but more than that, ‘Hackers’. I was too old for college when I read this. It was a glimpse into a counterfactual world where I wasn’t an outcast. Amazing.
    The Traveller Book. Obscure DnD game system- the interesting thing about it is the emptiness, it’s a sci-fi universe with all the spaceships and systems and no stories or people. Strangely inspiring…
    Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy. So fascinatingly horrible in every respect. I keep it to throw up on when I’m sick :D such an EVIL book!

  31. 31
    xian says:

    +1 for the The Feeling of What Happens

  32. 32
    Butch says:

    I also keep picking up Carl Hiaasen, even though there’s definitely a repeated pattern to his stories.

  33. 33
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    @Chris Johnson #30:

    NOBODY’s read Godel, Escher, Bach?

    I used to eat strange fruitloops for breakfast every morning. It was my achilles heel.

  34. 34
    wonkie says:

    I read Desert Solitaire when it was first published and loved it. I was in my twenties then so maybe smug self righteousness didn’t bother me. I never liked any of his other books.

    I am glad to see Karen Armsttong mentioned. All of her books are worth reading.

    I don’t know what happened to John McPhee. He used to produce a book a year, all of them interesting studies of the intersection of geology and human life. My fav was Coming into the Country, a book that inpsired me to head north, as far as I could get, over and over and over.

    I’m not much of a fiction reader. To me fiction is like music; it either hits the spot hard or misses me completely. I like fiction that is fantasy in the sense of not being at all like current socio-political realities: Golden Age English mysteries, Georgette Heyer romances, the Sookie Stackhouse books (TrueBlood–and the TV show is better than the books). Pure escapism. I don’t know why I never got into Steven King. I will give him a try.

  35. 35
    SGEW says:

    By the way, I feel that these “lists of books that I want my audience to think have influenced me” things are incredibly embarrassing for everyone involved.

    ‘Cept for Yglesias, natch, but I think he kind of lives for this sort of stuff.

  36. 36
    Tim F. says:

    @Chris Johnson: I read Goedel, Escher Bach, or at least part of it. Fortunately for me Hofstaedter’s I Am A Strange Loop had just come out so I read that instead. If the list went to twenty I definitely would have put it in there.

    @SGEW: You should know by now that I don’t take any writer as gospel. Heinlein’s book impressed me for a couple of reasons. First, he thought through the physical implications of interplanetary war better than most writers (Heinlein and wife were known to work out orbital equations on long stretches of butcher paper in order to check passages that he planned to write). The digressions taught me quite a bit about, e.g., logistics and how and why command hierarchies work the way they do. One digression about the Russian Navy during the Bonaparte wars, about how penalties for the same infraction scale (or should scale) with authority sticks with me today for some reason.

    To be honest I thought that the fascist stuff was a pretty obvious thought exercise and didn’t take it very seriously.

  37. 37
    Colin Laney says:

    The word fascism has been so used and abused in American political discourse that it doesn’t have much left in the way of useful meaning. That said, it’s hard to read Starship Troopers any other way than as an extended argument that democracy is flawed in principle and should be replaced by the rule of a military elite.

  38. 38
    cleek says:

    NOBODY’s read Godel, Escher, Bach?

    i read it. it was that book which made me realize that i would never become a mathematician.

  39. 39
    Jules says:

    A list without a Pratchett is no list at all….

    and why does it seem like only dudes feel the need to make lists of books they’ve read?

  40. 40
    Tim F. says:

    @Jules: Yeah, the last time I was at a book club it was all dudes.

  41. 41
    J.W. Hamner says:

    If I made a list like this… honestly… it would probably be at least 75% D&D rulebooks and comic books.

  42. 42
    Lee says:

    I am laboring my way through book one of his Baroque Cycle, Quicksilver, which is not for the faint of heart.

    Just finished that book.

    Still not sure it was worth the read or not. I think it would have been much better with a bit more editing.

    I agree The Cell by King is one of his better later works. I was blown away until he sort of went off the deep end towards the end of the book.

    I have read The Stand probably 20 times.

  43. 43
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    No love here for Edward Thorp’s Beat the Dealer, huh? Pity. That was a fun geek book.

  44. 44

    I am laboring my way through book one of his Baroque Cycle, Quicksilver, which is not for the faint of heart.

    The best use for a Neal Stephenson book is to loan it to a friend to see if they like it. If they do, make sure to never let that person choose what movie to go see, because they clearly are incapable of recognizing bad stories when they see it.

    I have read The Stand probably 20 times.

    I read The Stand once. I thought it was good but not great, until I got to the ending, which was one of the dumbest ways to conclude a story I’ve ever run across.

    Edit: The ending to The English Patient was, if anything, even dumber than that to The Stand. Oddly enough, they both involve a nuclear bomb going off.

  45. 45
    PRD says:

    Everything Stephen King wrote until around 1989.

    Consider checking out ‘Under the Dome’ then: its a story he started writing before this time period, told in a different style then his more recent overly-dramatic experiments.

    Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein.

    Movie was better. Even the third one.

    OH SNAP!

    This one always struck me more as a political diatribe dolled up to look like a serious novel. Orson Card tried the same thing with Empire, and it sucked.

    A better book in a similar vein is Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War.” (http://www.scalzi.com/books/omwpreview.html) Better action, _much_ more plausible-yet-fantastic tech, and the politics of the setting are just grey enough to appeal to everyone.

  46. 46
    Captain Goto says:


    I had the delightful fortune to contract food poisoning on the night before Easter, and I’m only feeling about 50% here at the moment. However, thinking back on those reading experiences that seemed revelatory at the time:

    “The Best And The Brightest” — ca. 1981, I picked up a copy that someone had left in the ‘library’ of my frat house (basically a closet with some bookshelves and a dumb terminal). When I read “March of Folly” some 10 years later, I felt the same resonances.

    “Wealth and Democracy in America” – I probably haven’t got the title right–I believe he wrote several books with a similar theme in the period 1986-1994. Talk about having the scales fall from your eyes. My greatest frustration is that I could never get more people to read it.

    Harlan Ellison–I fell hard for this putz when I was in high school. The last collection of his that I read was “Angry Candy”, ca. 1990. I picked it up again a couple years ago, and found it infuriatingly self-indulgent.

    Heinlein — Future History collection — I’m remembering this as a library copy. I was completely politically unaware at the time, so I simply took his assertions about the structure of society at face value, or as applying to some SF otherworld that I didn’t have to worry about. Absorbing to the last.

    Robert B. Parker — I kept up with Spenser religiously for about ten straight years, after the TV show came out. I remember starting to feel disappointed when [it seemed to me] that he wasn’t even *trying* to hide that he was phoning it in.

    “Heat,” Bill Buford — the immersion in kitchen culture was like an amusement-park ride. I suppose that Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” (which I haven’t read yet) may have made this one possible

    Samuel Delany–he just swept me along with whereever he wanted to go. I was utterly entranced with “The Star Pit”; looking back, it occurs to me that that story embodied a kind of optimism in the face of great sadness that shows up in a lot of his stuff.

  47. 47
    Captain Goto says:

    FYWP…won’t let me edit.

    “Wealth and Democracy” was by Kevin Phillips.

  48. 48

    I can’t really identify many non-fiction books that have really influenced my life. I read lots of them that influence me in little ways, but very few that changed me in huge ways. Just a few of the books that have seriously influenced me:

    The Lord of the Rings: Duh. Started my love of SF/Fantasy.

    Seeking Victory on the Western Front: Albert Palazzo’s book on British use of poison gas is an exception on the non-fiction thing. It was my first exposure to the idea that the British Army of WWI wasn’t lions led by donkeys, and that the British officer corps actually did adapt tactically, didn’t just do the same thing over and over, and really did learn how to win trench warfare. Since then, I’ve read better books on the topic (I highly recommend Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson), but this was the first.

    End of the World Blues: Unlike the first two, I can’t really identify how this has influenced me, but I just love it to death. I’ve become a big Jon Courtenay Grimwood fan (he’s working on a second Arabesk trilogy, which I have mixed feelings about), but this is my favorite of his.

    Some thing by Heinlein, maybe Time Enough for Love. Like a lot of us, Heinlein was the catalyst for my Idiot Libertarian phase. I got over it.

    Defeat into Victory: The memoirs of Viscount Field Marshal William Slim are the source of much of my beliefs about interpersonal ethics. Among other things, it managed to be the purest expression of my hatred of self-promotion, and the idea that success is the product of us and you, while failure is the product of us and me. Anyone who can criticize the pre-war British Army for the fact that there were only three battalions in the whole force with any jungle training without mentioning that one of those three got its training because its commander, one Lt. Colonel William Slim, took it out there on his own initiative is a borderline saint.

  49. 49
    cyd says:

    Galileo’s Discorsi (Discourses Relating to Two New Sciences) is head and shoulders over his Dialogue. It’s not just the fact that the final third of the Dialogue was devoted to a bogus explanation of the tides, either. The Discorsi was the work that really laid the groundwork for people to think about the physical world around them in an empirical, “modern” scientific way.

  50. 50
    Svensker says:

    Early Heinlein stuff is just lots of fun, even when you want to punch him (all the slapping gals on the butt stuff and strapping knives to hairy thighs…aaargh). Teabagger scifi but with verve.

    Dune and LOTR filled my teens and 20s and LOTR I re-read periodically for fun and to get the movie out of my head.

    David Copperfield — best novel ever. Still makes me laugh and cry.

    P.G.Wodehouse pre-1950s. Really annoying bedtime reading for the other person, unless you enjoy hearing your partner chortle continuously.

    Both my husband and son LOVED Eugenie Clark and I sat through a Nat Geo vid of her a hundred times when the kid was little. Also one of my hub’s favorite books.

    Anything by Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers.

    George R.R. Martin’s series Song of Ice and Fire is absolutely gripping and if he doesn’t hurry up and finish the next book….

    My Family & Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (and everything else by him, too).

  51. 51
    Randy P says:

    @Captain Goto:

    Had the same experience with Parker, except in our house we’ve been loyal fans right up to the end, even when he started adding lots of white space, making it look like a high-schooler desperately using triple-spacing to make the page count in an essay assignment.

    As far as I know I’ve read every single one of Parker’s novels and enjoyed all but a couple. Exceptions: Poodle Springs (he finished an unfinished Raymond Chandler manuscript) and a recent Spenser book I can’t recall the title of, which was a blatant Of Mice and Men ripoff.

    I saw a film adaptation starring Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone, and I understand Selleck has done several of those. You might enjoy those.

  52. 52
    Tim F. says:

    @cyd: You are clearly right about that, but the rules only let me list books that I’ve read and have influenced me. I only know Discorsi by reputation.

  53. 53

    George R.R. Martin’s series Song of Ice and Fire is absolutely gripping and if he doesn’t hurry up and finish the next book….

    I’ve pretty much given up all hope. It’s been three years since he finished A Feast for Crows, at which time, he said the next one was almost done, since they were originally intended to be one volume. No dice. It’s as blatant a lack of professionalism as I’ve ever seen from a writer.

    Steven Erikson’s Malazan: Book of the Fallen isn’t as good as A Song of Ice and Fire, but he at least gets the damned things out on an annual basis.

  54. 54
    Svensker says:

    I saw a film adaptation starring Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone, and I understand Selleck has done several of those. You might enjoy those

    They are excellent, except the one which just came out which fell pretty flat. But the others are really good — Netflix has ’em.

  55. 55
    DPirate says:

    creating a separate category for “nature”, abstracted from human interests and needs

    is why we do not respect nature or care for it. There is no “creating” of this dichotomy; it is the default state and the paradigm(s) you ascribe to these people are, while perhaps better than we’ve held in the past, still just a continuation.

    I had a friend that really loved dogs, but he knows they cannot love him back, because they are just dogs, and not another of god’s creatures.

  56. 56
    Will says:

    Speaking of King’s novellas, any fan has to read The Bachman Books. The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man–these are truly amazing stories. I think they’re making a film of The Long Walk. It will be either amazing, or horrible, of course.

  57. 57
    eponymous says:

    Coming up with 10 would be difficult for me as I’ve read so many books. But those that have had a lasting impression on me:

    Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. Read these during the difficult junior high years. Made me appreciate Vonnegut as a writer and his take on life.

    To Kill A Mockingbird – read in high school. Doing the right thing as an important credo to live by – even though its difficult and there is no guarantee that it will work out in the end – has remained with me ever since.

    Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon
    Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

    These three (all read shortly after high school) have likely contributed the most to making an impression on my life. One, it provided the insipiration for my later travels (such as like-minded road trips across the US); and two, they helped inspire me to follow my dreams and my interests (I now teach geography at the college level and have an abiding interest in Buddhism).

  58. 58
    Comrade Kevin says:


    I don’t know what happened to John McPhee. He used to produce a book a year, all of them interesting studies of the intersection of geology and human life. My fav was Coming into the Country, a book that inpsired me to head north, as far as I could get, over and over and over.

    He has a new book out, published about a month ago, called “Silk Parachute”. I’ve only really read one of his books, “Assembling California”, and it was fascinating.

  59. 59
    J.W. Hamner says:

    Of the “serious” books I’ve read that actually changed my thinking:

    The Ape and the Sushi Master by Frans De Waal – Cured me of humanist/human centric views of the world, cemented my love of primates, and provided a name for my blog.

    Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond – Yet another demolition of an assumption. Helped me to realize that dominance of a culture on the world stage isn’t because it’s “better” but mainly due to geography and happenstance.

    Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller – Before reading this I was one of those who thought religion and science were incompatible… that you had to pick a side. Afterwards, I realized that, while Creationists are completely misguided and wrong, someone can believe in an active Hand of God in everyday life and still be consistent with everything we know about science and a nature. It’s not my view, but it’s one I completely respect now.

    Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire – For any liberal hawkishness that I still possess, this book is mainly the reason.

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – In retrospect, not a fair treatment of Western philosophy… and not something I’d ever reread… but I was an engineering student, not a philosophy major… and I came across it at a time when I was having trouble reconciling the appeal of hard core rationality with a love of art and visceral experience. From where I’m standing now, it’s hard to see the conflict as anything other than trivial… but at the time it was tremendously important to me. Helped keep me from turning into a libertarian, so that’s a big plus.

    After that the rest is, like I said, D&D, comics, and cheesy sci-fi/fantasy.

  60. 60
    morzer says:

    1) Eleven is the new ten

    2) Under the Dome was pretty turgid. It’s a bad sign when your style begins to resemble that of SM Stirling.

  61. 61
    Spelling Police says:

    C. S. Peirce (pronounced “purse”), not Pierce. That is all.

  62. 62
    morzer says:

    Apologies by the way to those who missed the SM Stirling fantasygeek reference. He is of course a fantasy writer whose style resembles that of the late-period Stephen King. Just clarifyin’.

  63. 63

    Everything Stephen King wrote until around 1989.

    Au contraire, mon ami! “Bag of Bones” was worthy. But King can write until 2112, he’ll never top “Night Shift” and “The Shining.” His best days are definitely past, and I can’t swim in ponds anymore since “The Raft”.

    “Stranger in a Strange Land” was a far better Heinlein than “Troopers” – that shit still echoes today, perhaps even more so.

    Nice list, though you are in dire need of some Harlan Ellison.

  64. 64

    @Capn Goto:

    Harlan Ellison—I fell hard for this putz when I was in high school. The last collection of his that I read was “Angry Candy”, ca. 1990. I picked it up again a couple years ago, and found it infuriatingly self-indulgent.

    LOL! That’s what makes it Ellison! Same with Heinlein, and thank you for mentioning Future History.

  65. 65
    daryljfontaine says:

    I’m going to jump in on the King bandwagon and recommend some of the in-between stuff that was quite good (bearing in mind that I largely agree with the pre-1989 thesis):

    • The pair of Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game are both unusual in how ordinary their subject matter is and in how readable they both are. I think King actually does a halfway decent job with a female protagonist, which is why I also recommend:

    Lisey’s Story, which expands on some themes from earlier King short stories. It continues King’s conceit of writer/protagonist (by proxy), if you get annoyed by that kind of thing.

    Duma Key. Lovecraftian, which is territory King is exploring in other ways (see the short story “N.”). Suspenseful and compelling. Literally could not put it down; ended up staying up into the wee hours of the night (4:30 or so in the morning) to finish reading, which is reminiscent of my best overall experiences reading King’s stories. Does not degenerate into complete nonsense in the way that several of his books do.


  66. 66
    satby says:

    I’m old, so I read Eric Hoffer’s the True Believer when it was still required reading in a lot of high schools. It’s affected my political views ever since, I made my kids and their friends read it too, though it seems a bit dated in terminology for the current generation.

    To Kill a Mockingbird, seconded; such a good book it was one of the first picked for the Chicago Reads program (and how funny it was to see all sorts of people reading that on public transportation that year.

    Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo; read that at the height of the Viet Nam war.

    Elie Wiesel’s Night.

    And another vote for Silent Spring.

    PD James, Dorothy L Sayers, John D MacDonald all influenced how impatient I get with wirters who can’t tell a story as well as they could.

    Edit: and Stranger in a Strange Land also, too. I forgot that one, but at the time I liked it so much I named my black cat “Grok”.

  67. 67

    […] If everybody’s doing it, I feel […]

  68. 68

    Starship Fucking Troopers is officially the worst book I’ve ever finished. I found the whole thing very dull, especially all the “theory” stuff that comes across as revenge-wish-fulfillment spanking fetish fantasy shit. That anyone ever took it seriously blows my fucking mind.

    And that, friends, is what happens when you wait until you’re 30 years old to read Starship Troopers.

  69. 69
    tatertot says:

    ‘Leviathan’, Philip Hoare – non-fic., cos whales is cool

    ‘The Poisonwood Bible’, Barbara Kingsolver – fiction, mainly set in Congo of Eisenhower time, but so descriptive of culture bewilderment, coming of age, American Christianity, beautifully written

    ‘American Holocaust’, David Stannard – non-fic., everything you learned reading ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ was a picnic compared to what really happened and is told here.

    ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, Philip Pullman – the trilogy I wish was around when I was a child, rather than Lord of the Rings. I LOVED LotR, in fact still do, but wish that I’d had as a role model Lyra, who is a lying, cheating, clever, adventurous, (com)passionate young girl. Didn’t have too many of those as role models growing up in the 1960s.

    (Though there was: ‘Harriet the Spy’ and ‘From the Mixed Up File of Mrs Basil E. Frankenweiler’ and the beautifully illustrated ‘The Giving Tree’ and anything illustrated by Maurice Sendak.)

    ‘After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC’, Stephen Mithen – you’d be amazed what we got up to then. Ditto ‘The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art’, David Lewis-Williams.

    ‘Beloved’, Toni Morrison, to be read alongside ‘Moby Dick’, Hermann Melville.

    ‘The Secret History’, Donna Tartt, because it’s fun to read fiction intelligently written about going to college out in the boondocks.

    ‘The Great War for Civilisation’, Robert Fisk – big, brilliant, totally biased, background on the Middle East.

    ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, William Blake – just to start with …

    Help! it’s hard to stop!!

  70. 70
    Brent says:

    I have to admit I dug Bag of Bones and Desperation, tho my appreciation was certainly culled from a residual love. Most fans on the intertubes are very forgiving of the Kingmeister, but if you have suffered through Dreamcatcher, then it can be said, you’ve paid your dues, the man prints his stool samples. However, let not the dim evening tarnish the genius of his early efforts which are peerless in pop culture psycho-thriller revenge fantasy. And magical realism. Even the crappy movies based on his works are so intricately woven into our collective consciousness, ads are still being made which mine that trove. His books do not translate well into movies, because he is the master of inner dialouge, description and allusion. About the only worthy effort was Shawshank, and that still falls short. And yes to his short story prowess, even to this day. Night Shift and Skeleton Crew contain timeless gems.

  71. 71
    Sarcastro says:

    The Traveller Book. Obscure DnD game system- the interesting thing about it is the emptiness, it’s a sci-fi universe with all the spaceships and systems and no stories or people.

    The original 1977 version of Traveller was purely generic, but so was D&D at the time. By 1980 though the ‘Third Imperium’ setting had become the official setting for the game. More so even than Greyhawk or, later, Forgotten Realms became so for D&D.

    As for RPGs having a formative influence, I’ll go with Paranoia.

  72. 72
    Mac from Oregon says:

    I read all of Heinlein when I was a kid (on the original clay tablets) Loved Troopers, the movie not so much, did have to laugh at ST3. Did you ever read Forever War by Joe Haldeman
    No love for Stranger in a strange land? I Grok that, I guess.

  73. 73
    Linkmeister says:

    Are any of you readers adherents to Library Thing? It’s the best cataloging tool on the Internet. Once you’ve added your books (which you can do with a CueCat scanner for all books with ISBN bar codes) it’s extraordinarily valuable when you’re in a bookstore and can’t remember whether you own something already or not.

    The only thing that really impressed me about Starship Troopers was the reveal at the end of the book which showed the main character’s nationality. Not subtle, but effective.

  74. 74
    The Bobs says:


    Lotta love for Stranger in a Strange Land here. Definitely his best book. Heinlein thought so himself, though he grew weary of people asking him to explain it.

    Starship Troopers was just the last of his juvenile series, and not the best either. That was probably Citizen of the Galaxy.

    What I like the best is almost anything by Jack Vance. That guy is a writer.

  75. 75
    henqiguai says:

    Hippy Killer @68

    Starship Fucking Troopers is officially the worst book I’ve ever finished. I found the whole thing very dull, especially all the “theory” stuff that comes across as revenge-wish-fulfillment spanking fetish fantasy shit. That anyone ever took it seriously blows my fucking mind.

    Interesting, Mr. Killer, ’cause I still find the book entertaining and worth a few minutes of occasional idle speculation. Similarly, the political environment more hinted at than articulated in his “Tunnel in the Sky”. But apparently I can also routinely run scenarios in my head without conflating them with the sordid mundaness of the real world. Not sure if that’s a skill worth having or a pain-in-the-ass curse.

  76. 76
    John PM says:

    It’s a bad sign when your style begins to resemble that of SM Stirling.

    I would not compare my worst enemy to SM Stirling. I tried to read the Draca trilogy many years ago and could not get more than a few pages in. A few years ago I picked up the Dies the Fire Trilogy and thought it was OK. I have been reading his current series (a LOTR ripoff that takes place in post-apocalyptic America) because I want to see what happens, but they are not enjoyable. Sterling seems to take interesting premises, leave out the actual interesting parts and put in mainly drivel and overlong exposition. He also tends to use the same four scenes over and over. Stephen King could never be as bad as him.

    And whoever said PD James, I wholeheartedly agree. My English teacher senioir year of high school (a PhD. from England) had us read Devises and Desires, and I ended up reading everything she wrote. Children of Men is one of my favorite books (and I hate the movie, which has almost nothing in common with the book other than the title; FY Clive Owen).

  77. 77
    RedKitten says:

    @J.W. Hamner:

    Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire – For any liberal hawkishness that I still possess, this book is mainly the reason.

    Did you also see the documentary? I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read the book, as I found it to be a very difficult read, what with all the military lingo. The documentary, however, was excellent. It’s funny — even after everything, Dallaire still says that Rwanda remains one of the most beautiful places in the world to him.

    I can’t think of 10 books that necessarily changed my life, but here are some that really stick out in my memory:

    To Kill a Mockingbird: for the reasons that the others mentioned.

    The Colour Purple: it helped me realize that how we look at life often determines whether we are a victim or a survivor.

    Archie comics: they’re what my sister used to teach me how to read in the first place, so they really did change my life.

    Anne of Green Gables: I cannot think of my childhood without thinking of Anne.

    Salem’s Lot: my first (but definitely not last) Stephen King book.

    Lord of the Flies: made me realize how thin the veneer of civilization can be.

    The Gate to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper): made me look at sci-fi in a whole new way, and raised a lot of interesting ethical questions about eugenics and the “greater good”.

    Braided Lives (Marge Piercy): cemented my conviction to never presume to tell another woman what to do with her body.

    The Harry Potter Series: reminded me that a good story is a good story, and I should never be ashamed to read something “juvenile” or “mainstream”, as long as it’s a damn fine yarn.

  78. 78
    licensed to kill time says:

    I really enjoy these book threads, and I’ve read a lot of these books already. Just wanted to add a small anecdote about Stephen King (I was a total snob about him until I broke down and read The Stand):

    I once was talking to a very jaded and cynical pubescent non-reader who thought books were boring, and I said “hey, they can be pretty cool, actually” . I described the scene in Desperation where the cop picks up the stranded couple in the desert and in the middle of their small talk he wheels his head around and says “I’m going to kill you, you know”…..this kid’s eyes lit up and he then sat down and read a 700 page book for the first time, and is a dedicated reader now.

    Hook ’em in with King, why not?

  79. 79
    fucen tarmal says:

    oy vey, show me someone who has the ovaries, or the sack to say they got something profound out of a danielle steele novel, and can say what that something is….even if its sort of, or mostly a joke…

    really, when you are clubbed by, or exposed to a great idea, or a set of great ideas, or a way of looking at the world, or even just a broadening perspective…like, what do people get out of this shit,and it challenges, informs, or reconfirms your world view, does it matter how heavy the club is?

  80. 80
    Jenn says:

    Hmmm, so many books to think of. A few of my faves have already been mentioned, like Guns, Germs & Steel, pretty much anything by John McPhee, Silent Spring, Anne of Green Gables. Let’s see:

    Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. Written starting in the 1930s, based on his youth; the kids have highly imaginative adventures primarily in the Lake District — one of the things that makes them readable even now is that the best sailor of the bunch is a girl.

    Paddle Whispers, Douglas Wood. (Short book; sometimes trying too hard, but still love it.)

    Prairy Erth, William Least Heat-Moon

    Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner

    several of Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy novels, whose names I can’t remember off the top of my head

    Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea “trilogy”

    Pride and Prejudice, Jane

    A Book of Hours, Donald Culross Peattie (it’s a bit pretentious when read all at once, but certain passages I keep going back to, year after year).

    Pretty much anything by Ivan Doig, but most especially English Creek

    Pyle’s Wintergreen

    Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and The Distant Mirror, in particular

    I have a stack of FDR biographies, too, a couple of which I love, but that I cannot for the life of me remember the titles.

  81. 81
    PRD says:


    Under the Dome was pretty turgid. It’s a bad sign when your style begins to resemble that of SM Stirling.

    Either you are using the wrong word, or you are referring to the wrong novel.

  82. 82
    JabbaTheHutaree says:


    Alternatively, you have failed to read either Under the Dome, or SM Stirling. Possibly you are fortunate enough to have missed both. If so, keep it that way. Cordially yours. M

  83. 83
    Jrod says:

    Uh-oh. Having admitted to liking Starship Troopers, you are now and forever a horrible fascist who hates democracy, goodness, and puppies. Go back to the Republican party where you belong, you evil, worthless bastard! /pandagon

  84. 84
    BruceJ says:

    Oy. “Starship Troopers” is to SF as “Atlas Shrugged” is to political fiction. Heinlein was several orders of magnitude the better writer, so it’s eminently readable, but like “Atlas” if you’re no longer a 14yo male, it’s not a ‘must read’. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” or “Stranger in a Strange Land” are much better. “Glory Road”, typically derided as a ‘juvenile’ is actually one of his most entertaining books, imo.

    As for “Monkeywrench Gang”, well, I’ll add my voice to the chorus about “Desert Solitaire”, but if you had ever seen Glen Canyon before they fucking killed it to water Las Vegas and Phoenix, you would understand the deep, abiding hatred Ed had for that damned dam. “MWG” was his catharsis.

  85. 85
    jake the snake says:

    No one has mentioned “The Space Merchants”. Pohl and Kornbluth have influenced my outlook on class, capitalism and
    consumerism more than any non-fiction could.
    Mark Twain’s “Letters From the Earth”.
    Cordwainer Smith’s short fiction cemented my belief that
    Justice trumps order.

  86. 86

    Sheee-yite, y’all are some well-rounded well-reads. Fracking-aye awesome!

    RedKitten: amen to the Potter books. I snubbed ’em all the way through while the rest of the inhabitants devoured them. It was one day in midwinter when my youngest threw the first one at me and said, just go READ IT. It was some three weeks later I crossed the finish line at the end of the seventh and knew that Rowling really made something special. Its been ages since that happened to me, and I look forward to it again with many of the titles here.

  87. 87
    Mac from Oregon says:

    My daughter absolutely refuses to read Harry Potter, too juvenile and mainstream she sniffs. She is now pregnant with her first, guess what the baby is getting for an upcoming birthday for Mom to read to him… I am an evil old man.

    Love Jack Vance and Larry Niven. The “Known Space” series of books is really excellent as far as aliens and future tech. If you have read these you will know that I think all of our politicians are Puppeteers, leading from the rear and the Bush administration were a bunch of Kzinti, always attacking before they are ready.

  88. 88
    Ben Mays says:

    The Glory and the Dream – William Manchester – really explains what we’re still fighting for (and against)

    Churchill’s History of the Second World War

    Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy

    Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer

    Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series

    Advise and Consent – Allen Drury

    Solzhenitsyn – Both August 1914 and The First Circle

    Two Movies: Reds and Julia

    Damn, its more didactic than I would have liked, but there I am….

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