Friday, March 19, 2010

10 Influential Books

A few days ago Tyler Cowen listed 10 books that influenced his view of the world, and kicked off a fascinating meme among bloggers. My list is below.

Like Cowen, I compiled from the gut. I read every entry, except for the last two, before I turned 21. Only one or two would go on a current list of favorite books, but their influence is undeniable.

Here they are, in chronological order:
  1. Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park: The book that made me love the novel. Before I read Jurassic Park, at the age of 12, the only books that interested me were comics. Jurassic Park was the novel that made me realize books could enrapture without the aid of images (fractals notwithstanding).
  2. Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle: The book that made me an atheist. Before Cat's Cradle, the idea that god existed was immutable, self-evident. Vonnegut's apocalyptic parable was my first encounter with the notion that not only is religion ridiculous ("No damn cat, no damn cradle"), but that it's possible to think of it that way. Added bonus: Cat's Cradle was the first book that caused me to obsess over a single author. I went on to devour the entire Vonnegut oeuvre. For better or worse.
  3. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice: The book that made me love a good sentence. I read Pride and Prejudice in the summer before my junior year of high school, for AP English. I initially dreaded reading it. It seemed stuffy and out of date. Austen's prose grabbed me from the novel's iconic opening line. It was the first time I enjoyed reading a novel for its craft, rather than its plot or theme.
  4. Toni Morrison, Beloved: The book that made me a critical reader. Another entry in the high-school-required-reading category, this time twelfth grade. I was determined to conquer Morrison's seemingly impenetrable style. By the end I realized some books that require effort actually reward you for it.
  5. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged: The book that most made me who I am today. This is the most obvious entry. Rand's novel presented a world, and a point of view, that still shapes me to this day. I would never have studied economics without it. And I would still be a socialist.
  6. Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal: The book that made me certain that capitalism isn't only better than its antipode, but the only moral system. Atlas Shrugged made me a capitalist, Capitalism made me a crusader.
  7. Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The book that made economics personal. By the time I read The Worldly Philosophers, I was already interested in economic theory. But Heilbroner's book was my first exposure to the ideas of individual economists. Though I disagree with Heilbroner's perspective (as I did at the time of reading it), his enthusiasm for economic ideas was infectious. It cemented my decision to study economics.
  8. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: The book that grounded my approach to thinking about economics. Until reading Mises, my opposition to socialism was based in morality. Socialism showed, in great depth, why the price system is central to applied economics. It showed that socialism is not just wrong, it's impossible in practice.
  9. Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis/Careless Love: The book(s) that made me a serious music fan. I had dismissed the music of Elvis, until I read Peter Guralnick's incredible two-part biography. That I'm now an Elvis fan is a happy consequence, but only a side note. Guralnick's bios showed that reading about music can be as rewarding as listening to it.
  10. Bill Buford, Heat: The book that made me a foodie. I was a fat kid, so I've always loved eating. But I never appreciated food. Buford's account of working in the kitchen of Mario Batali's Babbo was the catalyst to my most expensive obsession: fine dining. Heat showed that food contains pleasures beyond being a terminus to hunger.