I have come to be troubled by the idea of "influence" in the way we usually mean it, but I am intrigued by the meme that has been going around-- and, like Matt Steinglass, I too am hopelessly faddish. So call these books that have taught me something, and forgive the pretense when I say that of course, every book I have ever read has taught me something. Much thanks to Tyler Cowen for coming up with the meme; Cowen deserves all the good things you've read about him.
The Ethics of Ambiguity, by Simone de Beauvoir. The most important book I have ever read. The most humane, the most human. Certainly, from my estimation, the most livable and most compassionate text of Sartrean existentialism ever written. The kind of book that you fall in love with for both the things it reveals to you, and for its fierce dedication to reminding you that you are not learning anything to set you apart from any other human being. I am in love with Simone de Beauvoir, and I am quite sure I will love her the rest of my life.
Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones. An immensely entertaining, incredibly true school story that taught a 10 year old kid who might have been inclined to go the Holden Caufield route that there is no romance in being a scorned genius. It's a meditation, compassionate and fair, that at once brilliant describes the endless cruelty of childhood social divisions and how outsiders are divided from the pack for ridicule, and yet refuses to make that awareness an excuse for those outsiders to turn around and hate the mass and worship their own genius. I remember, in high school, realizing that the unpopular kids could be just as close minded and image obsessed as the popular kids. Jones reminds me again, that the only way forward is understanding and empathy for all of them.
On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense, by Friedrich Nietzsche. "Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of "world history," but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened." All hope for humanity lies in individuals. I do believe in the power and value of the romantic ideal, and in human happiness, and grace. That said, I think we are born in fear of death, we live in fear of death, and we will die in sheer terror, and those who believe in a human consciousness capable of accurately rendering the world around them do so in denial of death.
Incidentally-- it it hard for me to imagine a more fundamentally morally troubling figure than Nietzsche among those who have been widely read and digested. It's truly bizarre to me that people want to banish Heidegger to the realm of the forbidden books, but keep Nietzsche around. Nietzsche out-Nazis the Nazis; Nietzsche feels towards most everyone the way anti-black racists feel towards black people. That near universality of his derision is not somehow an excuse for that derision. It makes it all the worse. Nietzsche is a brilliant, necessary monster, one of the worst in the history of the intellect.
The Holy Bible, and who it's by is controversial. One of the most profound testaments to the capacity of humanity for incredible compassion, and its preference instead for bloodshed and hatred. Some terrible theology, some fantastic mythology, some brilliant adventures, some awfully turgid prose, some of the most delightfully weird, brilliant, unexpected moments I have had the pleasure to read. (Like Mark 14:51-52) A brilliant mess. I read the Revised Standard Version.
The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels. The already powerful will always use that power to keep it, and to keep you from having it, and the most brilliant turn they ever made was to call it freedom.
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. Much more important than Atlas Shrugged, for my own development. AS left me, predictably, full of righteous indignation, certain of the terrible moral corrosion of Rand and her project, sickened by her greed and self-obsession, and generally repulsed. Repulsed I remain, I suppose. But reading The Fountainhead, eventually, became very important. For the first, I don't know, half of the book, I was feeling the same way, and the ideas remained just as screwy and the prose just as bad. But turning through the hundreds of pages gave me time to realize that hating Ayn Rand and those who follow her would be to succumb to exactly what I thought, in my righteousness, I was opposing. Whittaker Chambers wrote that reading Rand raised the specter of the Holocaust, and it does, but over time I have come to find that it also raises the specter of Rand's desperate need, her plain, palpably wounded self. Those wounds are among the most understandable I can imagine: she suffered terribly under the weight of Stalinism and anti-Semitism. That she couldn't ever come to see the similar weight of poverty, need, and fickle chance was indeed a major character flaw, but few of us are perfect. At times, I am frustrated by her contemporary acolytes, for having none of her historical exposure to oppression while maintaining her desperate callousness. But we all have need. Whether I do violence to her, or them, by extending my (limited, frequently forgotten, certainly self-serving) compassion is a question I am very open to discussing.
The Bridge on San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder. This beautiful book.... A favorite of my father's, and his mother. A meditation on earthly tragedy and heavenly compassion. I think that, if we can't help being the kind of atheists who think about it all, it is incredibly important that we be atheists who understand God's love.
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. My first love, in poetry. It inspired me to read other poets, and eventually, though it would have been sacrilege to me to say so at one time, to leave Whitman a little bit behind. Not that I'll ever leave this book, or could. It's in my DNA now. But I have come to understand that I came to Whitman exactly when I needed him most, and as much as I might want to, I can't go back to being the young man I was. I used to get what I would call my Whitman bubble,where the acceleration and energy of his work would fill me up, and you feel a bit like you want to burst.... Made me an English guy, and remains my constant defense against myself, when I feel like a poseur or that I'm becoming an asshole in being too into grad school; though I'm not in lit anymore, I think back to hiding Leaves of Grass in my algebra book and I laugh and say to myself, "I'll be a parody, then!"
Deep Wizardry, by Diane Duane. I wrote about this book a little while back, so I won't rehash that here. I'll just say that this was a book that reminded me, as a young man, that I was a corporeal, physical being, and that I had to balance all of my dreams about magic against that. In time I came to realize just how absurdly dominant thoughts of sex and thoughts of death are in the human condition.
The Revolution Betrayed, by Leon Trotsky. The already powerful will always use that power to keep it, and to keep you from having it, and the most brilliant turn they ever made was to call it "the people".
I am a romantic at heart, and I have never quite been able to abandon old Lev Bronstein. It exposes me to criticism, but then I will never please the neoliberals. Remember, Freddie: you can be totally committed to the relief of material need within an ethical, liberal framework, and still wake up one day to find your comrades have filled a gulag. Never forget that.
Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger. Baffling and brilliant. I don't understand Heidegger, although I try, and I've read more popularizations, condensations and explanations than I care to admit. An necessary reminder of the ultimately very narrow confines of my own intellect. I would never claim to "get" this book, or most of its arguments. Heidegger was a genius, and I am not, and that's what this book reminds me of, but it also hints and flashes at real transcendence. Heidegger's Nazi apologetics, in contrast to this book, inspired me into a kind of blank dread, once. Kierkegaard wrote about a monk who lived on a mountain and drank nothing but dew, then went down into town one day and became an alcoholic. Very good is never very far from very bad, I think, and we live on that precipice.
Slate/The New Republic/The Washington Post 2002-2004, by the defenders of freedom and right thought. Never could I have a more formative political experience, on the level of partisan politics, than the run up to the Iraq war. Every day, I would read liberals in liberal publications rail against the antiwar coalition (the internationalist left, the noninterventionist right). I read the accusations-- of anti-Americanism, of support for Saddam and his dictatorship, of cowardice, of Islamism, of insufficient support for liberal values, of apathy towards war crimes and genocide. Every day, for months. I learned pretty well how this media of ours works. I learned pretty well.
Be Here Now, by Ram Dass. Important on multiple levels. The first is my surprising embarrassment at respecting other ways of knowing-- I tend to worry, "eh, they'll think I'm some New Agey person!" Which is
unfortunate of me, and unproductive. (To this day, I am more likely to invoke Richard Alpert, former Harvard psychiatrist, than Ram Dass, who he became.) The book itself is interesting, because of how plain and non-navel gazy a look at consciousness and yogic/zen/New Age thinking. Also, it is a necessary reminder to me that I am not my intellect.
The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass. A great, anguished, primal scream of a novel. Grass's critics can't help but seem incredibly small after you read it. Not fun to read, or easy, but necessary. On the level of ideas, explores the essential tension between the absolute dictate against collective punishment and the absolute necessity, at times, of collective shame.
A History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago. Perhaps my favorite novelist, Saramago demonstrates so well that novels can be completely serious, and truly great, without being portentous, depressing, or pessimistic about the human condition. Saramago is the essential, effortless refutation of James Wood and what he stands for. This book is delicate, smart, funny and alive. It always reminds me of an amazing line from Thomas Hardy's "Convergence of the Twain": And as the smart ship grew/ In stature, grace and hue/ In shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg too."
Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, by Stokley Carmichael et al. The anti-Vietnam war organizer and muralist Meyer Alewitz once said to me, "The problem with nonviolence is, if you don't fight back, they'll kill you."
I and Thou, by Martin Buber. Buber, the Austrian Jewish rebbe, is the perfect companion to Jean Paul Sartre, the French atheist philosopher. Buber was a great philosopher, a great translator, a great student of the Hasidim. More than anything, though, I think he was a moralist in the very best, most elevated sense. His vision of Israeli-Palestinian relations, romanticized as it might be, warms my heart and insists to me that I must never abandon hope or embrace a lazy fatalism. He reminds me that there is no ethical alternative to our central duty: to achieve peace, security, prosperity and equality for Palestinians and Israelis.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers. Because it demonstrates both the power of shared experiences, and their limits. Due to some biographical similarities, Eggers work speaks to me in an intimate way, and there are times in the narrative when I was literally shocked, because of how close to my own thoughts, emotions and pathologies Eggers came. But then, just as quickly, there would be a reminder of how deeply different he and I are, and that would be just as shocking. I think there's something to that, the tendency of life to show us ways in which we are very much the same as others, and then the uncanny, painful realizations of the divides. I read the hardcover, then eventually got the paper back, to which Eggers had amended an addendum called "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making." In that addendum, Eggers describes people who have come up to him since the publication of his book and told him their own stories of loss and death, a tendency which Eggers speaks about with ample impatience. The people who have made Eggers successful, well-known and famous, apparently, do not merit his attention. I haven't forgotten that.
What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, by Michael Berube. A great favorite of mine, Berube writes many wonderful things about the academy and the professoriate, and a few that make me batty. This book is a really smart, convincing defense of the university and those who work within it. It's also a smart take on some of the essential intellectual controversies within it. People like David Horowitz allege impropriety and active discrimination of conservative students all the time, and yet you look and you look, and you can't find genuine examples. Almost as if the philosophy of non-coercion and intellectual pluralism that Berube describes and defends so well isn't just an intellectual curiosity, but an actual ethos that he and other professors live by, and which defends conservative students.
The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan. McEwan's first book, and his best, to my mind, so of course he has disowned it. Merciless and understated. One of the blurbs on my copy says that the book is about "the banality of evil," which is spectacularly, bafflingly wrong. This is a book about a great many horrific, chilling situations, for which there are no villains. If anything, the novel shows how terrible things can go with absolutely no malevolence at all. It is beautifully realized, in its ruthless concision, and it says many very accurate things about family-- some of them very disturbing, some of them just true.
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Carl Jung, 350 years before his time. Demonstrates the essential truth of a lot of Joseph Campbell's ideas, but in a way that makes Campbell's work (which I respect and enjoy) seem incredibly small in comparison. Some of the most powerful, animal and elementary of human urges, emotions and cravings are expressed with enormous delicacy and a poignancy that can break your heart. Some poetry just reaches in and shivers. I'm not one for the cult of Shakespeare, and I wouldn't ever say that this play represents the pinnacle of human poetics, but I will suggest that for now, it still represents their upper bound. One day when I was 19 I was out driving near dusk on the Connecticut shoreline and I pulled my little red car over and ran out onto the beach, as grey and brown as a thing can be, and the wind was picking up, and there was one of those all-encompassing wetnesses that you could never really call proper rain, and the goddamn sound of it all, the wind and the surf, and out on water, a single buoy-light beat its blinking way on the horizon.... And I knew in those moments that I was someone who was born old, and that all of my life I would be haunted by the inescapable, dreadful poetry of the hollow-earthed magic that we see just outside of the range of our sight, and when I read about Prospero, his book and his staff, I am afraid.
I should stop. Sorry to go on for so long. This has inspired me to ask again whether all of this constant interiority can possibly be good for me... I'll have to think about it. Ha!