Sunday, April 04, 2010

10 Most Influential Books

There's a meme floating around about listing the 10 most influential books on a personal level (rather than in a historical sense). Nobody asked me to, but i made my list anyway.

Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

Kind of a cliche, but like many people i found LotR very comforting during my high school years when i felt like a bit of a freak. I even had a "I'd rather be a hobbit" t-shirt.

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky

I read this the first time when i was 18 and i was spending the summer with my grandparents in Tucson. There's nowhere in the world less like St. Petersburg than the Sonoran desert, but for some reason the oppressive heat in my grandparent's double-wide mobile home seemed appropriate to the story. I read it again in college while studying Russian literature, after i had learned some Russian and i had visited St. Petersburg (Leningrad). I'm not sure i would have done either of those things had i not read the book.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb -Richard Rhodes

I probably could not name my favorite work of fiction, but this is easily my favorite work of non-fiction. It's an amazing story, amazingly told, of events that profoundly affected the course of events during my lifetime and history in general. This book had an interesting effect on my personal politics. On one hand there's an inspiring story of science and engineering and how the virtually impossible can be accomplished with will and money; and on the other hand is a great cautionary tale about how Pandora's box can be pried open with enough will and money.

The Moviegoer - Walker Percy

I read this book originally as part of a college English class. I don't think there is any other book that i have spent so much time thinking about. I still think occasionally in terms that i learned from the book (like "vertical search" vs. "horizontal search"). This book made me seek out (and become a fan of) The Third Man because of the "kitten and the carbine" section.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera

I also read this in college. Blew my freakin' mind. Completely changed my idea of what fiction can be. It's hard to say "this book is about such and such" since it's not just some thinly-veiled political allegory. It's not even really a narrative so much as a sort of exploration, like many impressions of the same place and time that build to a single effect.

1984 - George Orwell

I read this in high school and it quite literally scared me. At that time, people of my age and culture would equate Big Brother with the totalitarian Soviet Union. My thinking about that has grown more sophisticated over the years (i presume), but after visiting the Soviet Union, i still had that in the back of my mind. No book has had more influence on my political beliefs, or at least my attitude about privacy and personal freedom. I once read a criticism of 1984 by Isaac Asimov in which he stated that it was overrated because Orwell had so badly predicted the mileu of future times (in other words, it was bad science fiction). On the contrary, what scares me about this book is its plausibility. Today, 25 years after Orwell's setting, it feels more possible than ever.

The Republic - Plato

I think these lists are supposed to be filled with profound works of philosophy that change lives and minds. This is clearly one of the great works of history and it did definitely make me think differently about certain things. But the notable thing about this book is how readable it is, even in translation. With a few exceptions, the topics still seem relevant and it's possible to imagine having a serious conversation about them with a few smart friends. This book really drew me to read other classics and look for similar connections between my time and ancient times.

The Bible

This might seem odd here if you know my personal beliefs, but again this is about the books that had the most influence on my life. When i was growing up we'd go to church and there would be "Bible readings", passages from the Old and New Testament that would often form the basis of the day's sermon. Similarly, in my Lutheran school we'd have "devotions" built around a few verses. One summer I said to myself "you know, i should really read this thing", so i sat down with the revised standard version that my grandmother gave me for confirmation and i began to read from beginning to end. Soon i realized why we never did that in church and school. Wow. If you read the Bible in it's entirety, and you really absorb what it's saying, there are really only two possible outcomes: zealot or atheist. Still not quite sure which i'll become.

The Snow Leopard - Peter Matthiessen

I read Matthiessen's Wildlife In America not long before this (it would be 11 on this list), and it was so eye-opening that i read everything Matthiessen has published. The Snow Leopard is ostensibly a recapitulation of Matthiessen and George Schaller looking for snow leopards in the Himalayas. So it may seem strange for me to say that this is the best book i've ever read about Eastern philosophy. I don't know that a book can be spiritually enlightening in the way that personal experience is, but this about as close as any has come for me.

History of Western Philosophy - Bertrand Russel

It might sound glib to say that this is one of the funniest books i've ever read. I still remember laughing at Russel's description of Spinoza:
Spinoza (1634–77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness
Opinions vary radically on how good of a book this really is, but it made me seek out the full works of these philosophers, so it served a great purpose.

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