Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ten Books

A blogger has certain responsibilities, including, inter alia, listing the top ten books that have influenced your view of the world. It would be perverse not to participate, but I will anyway because it's interesting, and because I don't want LarryNiven to come after me with a tire iron or pack my dryer's exhaust vent with pine cones and contact cement (it's a long story, one I haven't finished making up).

I list the ten in alphabetical order by author so as not to suggest any hierarchy or ranking. The presence of a book on this list is only to suggest that the book shaped how I see the world, not that I presently endorse anything in or about it:

  • Albert Camus, The Fall. With or without god, we will not escape judgment, if only our own.
  • Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media. I don't know how many Chomsky speeches I've seen or heard in which he is introduced by quoting The Nation, "not to have read Chomsky is to court genuine ignorance." Maybe. Not to have read this book is to court genuine ignorance of how mass media function in modern societies.
  • Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This was not the first philosophy book I ever read, but it's the first one that left me reeling: reeling in a good way, that is, in a way that forced me to step back and think about the foundations of knowledge.
  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick. After a few pages I had forgotten that this was one of those World Classics That All Must Suffer Through. From that moment on, I continue to look to this amazing, swerving, cosmos masquerading as a book as a prompt for reflection, ideas, novelty, and, it must be said, practical advice on whaling.
  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. Negative freedom formalized and defended.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra. The ideas range from brilliant to unintelligible to laughable; the manner of expression, with its bombast, irony, and self-aware audacity, entered my head and never left.
  • Plato, Euthyphro / The Apology / Crito / The Cave Allegory from The Republic. I know, I know, but Plato wrote dialogues rather than books per se, and any anthologizing of them is a tad arbitrary. I first encountered these as a unified reading assignment, one years before I read Kuhn, which is an indirect way of saying they didn't initially strike me as special. First impressions can be very wrong! The questions he raised and how he dealt with them have a way of provoking and enduring long after the first encounter, as those first interlocutors were the first to discover.
  • Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason. Among the first skeptical books I read, this opened my eyes to what clear thinking and lucid expression can do with nonsense, and spiced that with the thrilling insight that America's canonical heroes can be more radical than they're often portrayed.
  • Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden. This was the first "serious" non-fiction book I remember reading, and its breadth and daring quite ruined me for any kind of specialization. I still think of it as a paragon of intellectual curiosity and a model of science popularization.
  • William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. This was the first Shakespeare I read and it surpassed the hype. Starting with Act 1 of that play, I have understood Shakespeare as the writer to consult to see the possibilities of the English language.

2 comments:

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

I just wondered … is our LarryNiven that Larry Niven, or a clone?

larryniven said...

Aha! I knew you wouldn't be able to resist the lure of the meme, Dale. Well, that or the threats.

Anyway - Sam, I am neither a famous science fiction author nor (so far as I know) a clone thereof. This screenname is an oblique reference to Magic: The Gathering, from back in the days when screennames were all oblique references. I may have to change it one day but for now I still like the (relative) anonymity of writing through an alternate identity.