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?