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.