Saturday, September 6, 2014

Five Books

Cousin Meg calls me out on Facebook to respond to the "10 books that most influenced you" exercise that is all over Facebook. This is a challenge in many ways, partly because it carries the scent of self promotion, but mostly because it's hard to recommend titles about which your attitude has changed. I loved Franny and Zooey when I read it in 1986, but was not nearly as wild about it 25 years later. Same with the Chronicles of Narnia when I reread them with the OG in 2005. What does that mean? Has their influence on me lessened somehow? Am I embarrassed to recommend books that. in retrospect, don't seem to deserve the love I once gave them? It's hard to answer this question honestly.

The only books I can agree on are not really books at all: The Joy of Cooking, which I've blogged about before; and Four Quartets, which I also loved in 1986, used extensively in the vows for our wedding ceremony, and keep a First Edition of--a gift from three dear law school friends--on my desk at home. One line from East Coker--"For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business." comes closer than anything (except possibly "Be excellent to each other.") at capturing how I feel about life, the universe and everything.

There is an epigram that a book is a picture of who you were when you read it. With that in mind (and inspired by the excellent 5 books site, which along with Farnam Street, are two sites I check frequently for recommendations), I thought I would list 5 books I've read in the last five years that have markedly increased my understanding of the world and the people in it. I'll get the total number of books mentioned to 10 by mentioning that the Road to Wigan Pier almost made the list, but didn't quite belong in the set:

  1. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow;
  2. Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational;
  3. Nassim Taleb, Fooled by Randomness;
  4. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel;
  5. Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist.

I'm not going to call anyone out on this, but I do enjoy seeing the lists. I used to claim that the best way to assess a person was by looking at their music collection. That doesn't work so well in the age of Pandora, Spotify and Itunes, so I'll have to look for other heuristics, and this seems like a viable candidate


  1. Ok - Here are mine and I will have to start by saying that books that "influenced" will, for me, produce a very different list from books I enjoyed most or even books I learned the most from. Also, although Guns, Germs and Steel totally changed the way I look at world history and may have been the most influential non-fiction book I have read in recent memory, I will list 5 others (in no particular order) since you already know all about that one.

    The Idiot - Doestoyevsky
    This book has stayed with me like no other and I have also re-read it several times. It along with Tolstoy's Resurrection (a close second in this category) caused me to reexamine the way I look at others and to try and understand the need to minimize judgments of others and to remember that compassion is always better.

    Darkness Visible - William Styron
    This totally opened my eyes to a new understanding of mental illness (in this case depression) and the intense suffering that can be compounded by society's unjust stigmatization.

    Quiet - Susan Cain
    Another book that made me look at people and how I interact with them in a fresh light. I think about what I read here all the time.

    The Origin of Species - Darwin
    Everyone is familiar with the basics of natural selection. But what I love most about this book is the way Darwin shows the utmost respect for the ideas he is arguing against and still demolishes them. The language is beautiful, but the persuasiveness of the argument is what really blew me away. The antithesis of an author like Ayn Rand who makes her points by setting up a pathetic straw man to knock over.

    The Stones of Venice - Ruskin
    Not just about Venice, but architecture in general. I look at all buildings (at least those from before the skyscaper era) in a much more informed way. Travelling everywhere - at least where European architecture predominates - will never be the same.

  2. I think about Quiet often, as well, especially when I'm surrounded by people arguing loudly. There's a lot in the room that is not being said, and no guarantee of consensus. Need to reread the Idiot. Remember loving it in the 80s, but that's all.

    1. I need to get back to Thinking Fast and Slow. That needs more consideration to fully digest and, although I loved it I don't think I digested it well enough to make the best use of all that was in it. I think I got more from Black Swan than Fooled by Randomness but the end result is the same. I think of those two a lot. Undercover Economist I liked and think about but only in a more superficial way but it did inspire me to read a lot of similar books which never seemed to measure up. I will have to read Predictably Irrational. I put that and Why Things Bite Back in my to read list. BTW - did you ever read Adam Smith? Wealth of Nations sounds like a college assignment but I really loved it and found it much more interesting than the usual 30 second summary you tend to hear.

    2. It is on my bucket list. I'll also read Russ Roberts' book this year.

    3. Added Russ Roberts to my list - thanks.