10 Books

I dropped the ball on doing the 10 most influential books list the past two weeks (lots of people are playing). If you can handle one more, I’ll submit my “gut list.” I can’t tell if I give off a sense of identity or not on this blog, talking about capital ratios nonstop, so regular readers may find this interesting. These aren’t necessarily the books that influenced me politically, or that influence the things I do day to day. These are the books that I can look back on and say “the way I viewed the world and my life changed after having read this book.” Chronologically:

- Grant Morrison, Doom Patrol and Animal Man comics. I’ve read comics most of my life, but these were the first comics I really thought were mind-blowing. I loved Jim Shooter-era Valiant comics, but once those died down I probably would have lost a lot of interest. Thankfully the cool comic shop people telling me (probably inappropriately as I was a kid) that I needed to be reading this last Doom Patrol “Candlemaker” arc and that immediately sent me digging into the crates to read all of them and the Animal Man stuff. The comics actually had weird people in them, as opposed to the S.W.A.T. teams that were the Leifeld/McFarlane stuff I had been reading. Being a kid all the narrative and panel stuff – the pages within pages, paintings within paintings, Animal Man getting to meet Grant Morrison where he explained what he tried to do with the comic and how he felt a little disappointed – was all conceptually brand new things you could do.

- Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach. Again another thing I read way too early. Grant Morrison wrote that it was an inspiration for a Doom Patrol arc, and I ran to the library to read it. I was like 12 years old, and I think I only understood about 5% of it. But it gave me a love of math that never really went away. And I think, from a life journey point of view, it made me associate the idea of being smart with a sense of curiosity, a sense of adventure. I thankfully never had to deal with learning or being smart as a secret private burden that the masses could never understand, but instead as a process of analogies and exploration and making wonderful connections between different things and telling stories. I try to stay true to that spirit.

- David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The cool thing about books that really influence you is that you find new ways that they’ve influenced you as you lead your life. I’m going to steal from Andrew Seal’s take on DFW’s Midwestness: “Wallace’s personal geography is distinct largely because, as a product of the Midwest, his life’s itinerary seems largely absent of the kind of conflict so many other Midwestern boys (and some girls) manifest…I think Wallace was blown like a leaf around the country largely because of his illness, but I also think that he was enabled to do so because he lacked the kind of cultural anxiety exhibited by many Midwesterners and this lack meant that he wasn’t pushed toward New York like Franzen was and is, or like many writers have been. I think Wallace’s geographical chaos and openness is one of the things that makes him so interesting to read, especially in his non-fiction; his view of the whole country is unobscured by any specific geographic attachment, whether to the country or the city.” As a person who deeply loves his home of the upper-Midwest, and who has been blown around the country recently, I strongly identify, and identify to some degree in most of my closest friends and loved ones, a kind of nervous brainy hopeful sadness that I always read in Wallace. Plus he’s from Champaign, which is rad.

- Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism. Heh. Yes, this blog is titled after an internet handle I’ve used on and off over the years, which is from Richard Rorty. (I didn’t expect the life of the blog to have taken the arc it has.) I notice a lot of people have Genealogy of Morals on their list – this book is my version of that. I read the introduction of this before I seriously read any Nietzsche, which is pretty fantastic because I got the same lessons filtered through a Dewey-ite Americana lens.

- Mike Davis, City of Quartz. This made me pay a lot more attention to cities and urban environments. Obviously the big giant stories of racial conflicts, the wreckage of sprawl and the scars that last across generations of neighborhoods and people. But also the little things, like who is privileged and who isn’t when a neighborhood has public toilets versus toilets in a store.

- Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club. Still one of my favorite books. A major accomplishment of American intellectual history, but it taught me how ideas can both be shaped by history and shape history in return. How ideas are tools necessary to deal with the problems of our time. A story that is very important to me.

- Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life : Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991. There’s a kind of tracking that is done in working class white ethnic neighborhoods, at least in Chicago, where it’s like getting the top 5% of the students onto the last lifeboat off the Titanic. Beyond the cynicism it involves, the destination is a lot more hollow than we’d normally expect. I read this right after leaving college, and I thought I understood what people meant by DIY, but I really got it when I read all these fascinating stories about how people who weren’t all that dissimilar to the bad-at-music-me decided to make their lives their own.

- Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. The Bourdieu stuff seems sliced up by department, so this book in particular was helpful because it covered the whole range of thought, and, appropriately since it is a dialectical theory, the interview structure works particularly well.

- Jacob Hacker, The Great Risk Shift. Perhaps it was because I was doing a lot of thinking about risk, uncertainty, etc. during the time period, but this gave me a conceptual framework to think through how to match my political beliefs with the particular skill set I’ve pulled from the genetic lottery and from my life training.

- Blogs. It’s a really important thing to note. I will mention a few things: (a) the feminist blogosphere help me “get” feminism in a way that academic literature couldn’t, particularly for seeing it as a project of how to live one’s life. (b) the economics/finance blogosphere really bring what are often terribly boring things to life and (c) the lefty-liberal blogosphere were this odd candle keeping the light on for me during the Bush years, especially post-2004 where I could have realistically just gone indifferent.

Wow that was more writing than I expected. You?

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7 Responses to 10 Books

  1. Ed says:

    “We’d play for free as long as they fed us, but when they promised us pizza we showed up and there was no pizza.”

    You learned a useful finance/econ lesson from that.

  2. Jake Seliger says:

    list the past two weeks (lots of people are playing)

    I’ve been playing too, and find the game fascinating mostly as a source of books I should read. My queue is growing longer.

    One meta comment: the lists very seldom have examples of what not to do—in other words, books that one reacts strongly against. I included one or two such examples in the form of the Wheel of Time and Dragonlance series (although they’re really examples of an entire genre and its conventions), but I don’t recall seeing any others saying, “this book helped me not think or do x.”

    (b) the economics/finance blogosphere really bring what are often terribly boring things to life

    Agreed. It also introduced me to some of the behavioral economists/psychologists (think Dan Ariely) I never would’ve paid attention to otherwise, since I’m a grad student in English lit.

  3. Queef says:

    Really? Rorty? The one who scoffs at truth? Sad day.

  4. Uptownperiod says:

    “These aren’t necessarily the books that influenced me politically, or that influence the things I do day to day.”

    Ok, I take the above caveat, but a top 10 list from a financial engineer with only 1 book having to deal with finance or engineering? Maybe you’ve dropped references over the past years prior to my taking up on the blog, but I’d love to hear what’s been most formative for your thinking about matters economic/financial/probabilistic.

  5. Pingback: Books, Books, Books at Steven Landsburg | The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics

  6. carmichael says:

    I once wrote “there is nothing i can read that is so remote that it is not immediately useful.

    first cut at ten

    1. Ernst Cassirer, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms and other books. the nature of knowledge as system in relation to the world as system, rather than word-thing correspondence.
    2. Jean Piaget Play Dreams and Imitation Childhood and others. the general view of development as a big and interesting process
    3. Eric Voegelin History of Political Ideas, 8 vol. Wonderful and important detail. His own perspective i am not aligned with, but he deals with the key and forgotten political thinkers.
    4. Kenneth Burke: The Rhetoric of Motives and others: the use of literature to understand life.
    5. Lewis Mumford: The Megamachine technology and society
    6. Guy DeBord The Society of the Spectacle. Most insightful anticipates the medium is the message
    7. Freud/Fromm general on human motives
    8. Feynman, generally perspective on science
    9. Toulmin Cosmopolis: a critique of the enlightenment and the lost humanist perspective.
    10. Paul Goodman, Growing up Absurd. A human touch in our time

    of course tomorrow or yesterday the list would be about half different :)

  7. Pingback: The most influential books in my life « Ducks and Economics

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