Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books Which Have Influenced Me Most

Originally from Marginal Revolution, but since migrated to other places, it's a list of ten books that influenced me.

I originally didn't plan to partake in this exercise since, oddly for someone who is a fairly prolific reader (about 90 books a year the last 5 years and more than that growing up), I had a difficult time thinking of 10 books that I felt had strongly influenced me. Rather than follow the directions precisely, I will instead list 10 books that are in some way important to me.

1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Only the finest novel ever written. I read this at the end of my senior year in high school. Perhaps part of it was the time of transition, but when I first thought about this little exercise, Bros K occupied spots 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10, and #9 was "every other book I've ever read put together." A particularly perceptive friend even noted the change in me while I was reading it. To re-read it has been on my to-do list for a about a dozen years, but is a task I continually shy away from. If I do ever get round to doing that, I've considered starting a blog expressly for that.

2. Delivered from Evil by Robert Leckie. I know, how timely, what with Leckie's memoir about his time on Guadalcanal being a basis for the new HBO series "The Pacific." Read in seventh grade, though. In some sense, the first real adult book I ever read-including index and bibliography, 998 pages of small type, but readable enough I've seen it cataloged in libraries in the Young Adult section. I've since acquired John Keegan's single volume World War II history, but every time I try to pick it up, I end up putting it down and reading Leckie for the dozenth time instead. I read others of Leckie's books later (though not his memoir), but they don't measure up in my adult eyes.

3. The First World War by Martin Gilbert. Read fall semester, senior year of high school. I read a lot that year. Technically, perhaps not quite as good as Keegan's later single volume WWI history, but Gilbert gets more right in my view the complete and utter nonsense that World War I was. The scenario that should have been in What If? but wasn't was what the world would have looked like if the 1914 Christmas truce had held. Also the book that taught me the joy of reading the footnotes, thanks to Gilbert noting in a note about German soldiers getting lost in Belgium that Soviet troops sent to put down the Hungarian uprising in 1956 thought the Danube was the Suez Canal and they would be battling the Brits, French, and Israelis.

4. The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. Read freshman year of college, I believe. A more prominent example of something I'd already learned, the power of in-group thinking to crowd out intelligence and diversity of thought. There's a reason I name-checked "The Exclusive Country Club" in my latest links post. See also this defense.

5. The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson. Read in 2001 (while working between college and law school). For those unfamiliar with his work, Johnson is a skilled polemicist with definite views of the world. I've read most of his works, including the brief tract he did as a young leftist firebrand inveighing against Eden for Suez (yes, really). In some respects, Intellectuals was the more influential book on me, but it's an extended rant more than a book. Birth of the Modern makes the 15 years after the end of the Napoleonic era seems like the most exciting time in world history, while still providing Johnson enough of a platform for his polemics. Not for everyone, but I'm a fan. His A History of the American People is also great fun, though he'll lose half the audience with almost everything he writes about stuff that happened after 1960.

6. The Price of Admission by Daniel Golden. Or, "How the Exclusive Country Club Plans to Stay the Exclusive Country Club Forever." The quotes from the back of the book are from a bunch of people I normally disagree with, which gives it bonus points. Again, see Zenpundit. Read in 2007.

7. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Unfortunately it now seems to have been scrubbed from the web, but quite possibly my favorite newspaper article of all time was Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley's review in 2002 of the past 125 years of the American literature. Not because my tastes coincided with Yardley's to any great degree, but because he quite properly condemned most all literary fiction as parochial and jejune. Gaiman writes in the decidedly declasse science fiction-type genre, so literary fiction he will never be, but with American Gods he steps into American mythos in an astounding way. In a way, the book David Gelertner's Americanism would like to have been. This is probably the only time those two books have ever been mentioned together. Best read in conjunction with Gordon Wood's The American Revolution, which is what every "short book" aspires to be.

8. The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football by Paul Zimmerman. Hey, I finally got around to remembering I was writing a football blog. Read over a decade ago, shortly after I finished college. In some ways, this is how I got from where I was to writing football. There's more football knowledge in here than pretty much every other book on the sidebar; Dr. Z was an iconic writer for many of us football people for a reason, though it's difficult for me to separate out just how much of his influence came from his online columns and how much came from this book.

9. America's Game by Michael MacCambridge. One of the very few books about pro football that people who don't like pro football could read profitably. Those who think When Pride Still Mattered falls into that category should go read First in His Class and then try to make the argument with a straight face that WPSM is about football. That rant aside, to heck with Jacques Barzun, baseball hasn't been the national pastime since JFK was President. That America's Game tells that story and is a popular history, rather than a more straightforwardly philosophical work like Paolantonio's How Football Explains America or Giamatti's claptrap can be understood by reading American Gods.

10. More than a Game by Brian Billick. It's been long enough since I finished this book that to do the quality of review it deserves I need to re-read it, so this is not that review. Rather, I will simply note that as a guy writing a lowly-trafficked blog sitting on his couch thinking about football, I sometimes wonder if I'm going off half-cocked. Yeah, Billick, arrogant Ravens coach, as a Titan fan I hate him, blah blah blah. He's a credible and sometimes thoughtful insider who's describing the current state of the game in some important ways exactly the same as I'm seeing it. That sort of confirmation can make for a nice pick-me-up. Unfortunately, in a way this book is almost too good, too recent, too accurate, and could therefore be mostly obsolete within three years.

Bonus Novels:
A. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. I have said before, though possibly not out loud, that the world can be divided into two groups of people: those who have read and greatly enjoyed Cryptonomicon and those with whom it is probably not worth having a general conversation. This is, of course, a gross exaggeration and absolutely not true at all, but that doesn't mean it's not a principle you couldn't and shouldn't live your life by. My favorite pat of it changes every 6 weeks or so, but perennial favorites include the dinner party, the business plan, and Scott and Laura.
B. Dune by Frank Herbert. The Dune series (the initial sextet, not all the follow-up nonsense) is, to me, best described as a slide, but it's one starting from an incredibly high peak. Herbert creates an amazing world and tells a great story. This is a book to press on open-minded readers who normally abhor science fiction.

The more perspicacious among my readers will realize that several of the aforementioned works are by authors with a partisan reputation or otherwise more political in nature. I have, for various reasons, adhered fairly scrupulously to There's No Politics In Football in my postings, which was another one of the reasons I hesitated to write a post like this one. To explain why, I will note a great story from Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Goodwin, in an attempt to explain why it was worth spending 800-odd pages writing about Lincoln's cabinet relates a fascinating anecdote from Tolstoy about telling a bunch of Siberian peasants, I believe, everything he knew about Lincoln because they were insatiably curious about this man who had been head of this country they knew very little about 20 or 30 years ago. To them, Lincoln wasn't just this old dead foreigner, but someone who dealt with matters that were of great interest to their lives.

Similarly, to me, there are really very few questions that are actually particularly interesting. The books above that may seem more political in nature all address one or more of those particularly interesting questions in some way, and at a minimum helped me resolve or crystallize my thinking about the question. That a book is included in the list above does not represent agreement with any particular viewpoint discussed in the book, let alone a complete endorsement of everything said therein, nor that there are not other, better books that address the same question.

1 comment:

evision said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.