Friday, March 19, 2010

Ten Influential Books I Have Read

Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution has started a game of people listing the ten most influential books that they have read, which has since been picked up by a large number of folks. At first I thought this was kind of silly, but I have decided to join in and provide a list. This is in rough chronological order of when I either read or initially encountered them, although unlike some others, I am not going to provide any accompanying explanatory verbiage. Let them just be.

So, now, some days later, have decided to add some commentary.

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
Read first when I was 12 in hardbook when nobody knew about it. Blew me away and still does. My all time fave.
2. 1984, George Orwell
I was at the peak of my libertarian phase when I read this (age 14), but I am still deeply struck by its vision of tyranny based on double speak and all that.
3. The Worldly Philosophers, Robert Heilbroner
Not the greatest book on economics, but I read it at the time that I switched into economics, and it played a role. Later I would read many of the classics, but I would say that for all the simplifications, Heilbroner's takes generally held up pretty well on the earlier economists.
4. Collected Poems, Wallace Stevens
I write poetry, and I could list some others, but Stevens has a certain perfection and profundity. I just heard earlier this evening that Hemingway beat him up out of jealousy because he knew Stevens was a genuine genius.
5. Joseph and His Brothers, Thomas Mann
Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain get read more and get more attention, but this longest book of Mann's is more profound in my view. It was where I really became aware of how the western monotheisms took so deeply of the preceding paganism, and it also deeply altered my view of the role of Jews in history.
6. Some Cambridge Controversies in the Theory of Capital, Geoffrey C. Harcourt
This was the book that first threw me into realizing that orthodox economic theory had serious problems. Some of my earliest publications were inspired by it.
7. Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Deeply altered my view of what happened in the first part of the 20th century and and the interconnections between technology and various intellectual disciplines. I remain a big fan of Pynchon.
8. Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
Tyler Cowen praised this one for its "interiority." It has that, but its depiction of the subjective aspect of time as well as of the many layerings of social hypocrisy and obsession is also outstanding, as well as the sheer quality of the writing itself.
9. Structural Stability and Morphogenesis: An Outline of a Theory of Models, Rene Thom
This is the book that first laid out catastrophe theory, which has long since interested me. However, this is also a multidisciplinary book of philosophy and not merely of mathematics, obscure in many ways and disturbing.
10. Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick
This is a pop-schlop book ultimately, but it did put together the pieces of what was going on in chaos theory quite well. I had been aware, but this helped me focus on what was going on in this topic, yet another of my ongoing obsessions.


TheTrucker said...

The following is a signature being used by a fellow posting as "retrogrouch" in Usenet:

"Two novels can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other involves orcs."

Daro said...

I concur with The Trucker. I read LOTR at 11 (struggled) but 6 months later it was the making of me sir! (ignore the fact I'm currently unemployed).

That and chess... I never met a dumb person who was taught chess when they were a kid.

Barkley Rosser said...

I was 12 when I read LOTR, and it was only in hardcover at the time, well before it became a popular phenomenon. It was totally obscure, although The Hobbit was somewhat better known, which I read first about two years earlier.

John said...

This post set me to thinking about a list of my own. As I put it down it was embarrassingly clear that my list was juvenile when I looked at the esteemed lists of others. Those linked and a few more at Dr. Cowen's place fairly steamed with erudition while mine were plain as gingham. (After all, how do you include a book like "All Quiet on the Western Front" in such a list?)

Then I recalled that Gore Vidal's memoir was named Palimpsest and I felt better. His reasoning was that new nothing happens to anyone in life after the age of thirty. In retrospect from my sixties I think he was correct, at least intellectually. I have encountered many new experiences and accomplishments, but inside my growth is like that of a tree adding rings. The heartwood (post-adolescence through young adulthood) has remained basically the same.

Barkley Rosser said...


All Quiet on the Western Front is a great book, if somewhat forgotten now. In terms of the timing of my list, well, I read 1984 at 13, but the final book was not read until I was 39, with the others strung along more or less in order between those two ages (I might have read 6 before 5 and might have read 4 before 3, and so on). About half were in college years, including grad school.

John said...

I feel better and won't apologize for the other nine.

1.Bible, Luke 6:27-38
2.Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud
3.The Human Comedy, William Saroyan
4.All Quiet on the Western Front, Eric Maria Remarque
5.The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Alport
6.The Idiot, Dostoyevsky
7.The Hobbit
8.Future Shock, Alvin Toffler
9.Synergetics, Buckminster Fuller
10.Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink

The Bible selection got embedded when I was about ten but it stuck. Hard. I may have been the only Southern Baptist to register and serve when drafted as a Conscientious Objector.

Dr. Freud had to be included because it was he who assured me that pre-marital sex was natural in many delightful forms.

Enjoyed the Hobbit but got bogged down halfway through the first LOTR book.

Finally, Wink's recognition of the myth of redemptive violence is the most undervalued thesis of human behavior.

edeast said...

Could you expand on 9? Is it still worthwhile to read, and what others should I read to complement it, to get up to speed to read your book. What current books deal with the philosophical basis for models? Basically I'm requesting a personalized recommendation, I've just read your paper on dialectics and you dismiss algorithmic complexity out of hand, which is something I'm interested in, just wondering why? So that I don't waste too much time with it. What is wrong with Chaitin?
I'm an undergrad, whose math background so far, is limited to single variable calculus,linear algebra and discrete math, however I will be learning differential equations and numerical analysis, shortly. And my philosophy experience , has been a bit of derrida after heidegger and a personal interest in whitehead. But none of it stuck. I just know the word hermeneutics and deconstruction. Thanks.

Barkley Rosser said...


I have written quite a few papers on various forms of complexity, and it would be a misreading to say that I "dismiss algorithmic complexity out of hand." I recognize it as the main rival for usefulness within economics with dynamic complexity, with me thinking the latter more useful. Outside of economics, it and its various relatives are probably the leading rigorous approach to complexity. So, there is nothing wrong with Chaitin, per se, and I do not believe I ever said anything like that.

The Thom book is a tough read, and I would not leap into it. The obvious complement if you are interested in catastrophe theory is the book of Collected Papers by E.C. Zeeman, which is far more accessible, both to read as well as mathematically. Zeeman was the first to apply cat theory to economics (to explain stock market crashes) in a 1974 paper in the first issue of the Journal of Mathematical Economics. He was the Anglo public face of cat theory, and also the person who arguably pushed it too far and brought a lot of criticism down on its use. Thom is the deep thinker who goes way beyond just math. The two eventually had a major falling out. So, Thom is indeed worth reading, but it is a heavy slog.

edeast said...

Ok, thanks so much.

Sorry if the out of hand comment was over the top, it was my phrase, for when you wrote that" Indeed Horgan (97) includes over 45 definitions of complexity including some such as algorithmic complexity in which we are not interested." I was just wondering why you weren't interested, in it, or what your criticisms of it were.

Thanks again, I will read the Zeeman book.