Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Six Ten books that ruined my life

The current meme at the blogs I read is to post the most influential books one's read - influential on oneself, that is, regardless of merit. (See here and here.) It's a worthwhile exercise in self-understanding, so here goes (in chronological order I think):

1. The Nancy Drew series. My big sister had these, so I didn't read Hardy Boys, I read Nancy Drew. Can't remember a single plot, but this is the first example I can recall of doing something that crossed gender lines, and it probably left a feminist mark on me; certainly I was teased for it and kept reading 'em anyway.

2. The Once and Future King. White's treatment of the Arthurian love triangle, and of the souls of those in it, was deeply humane and understanding, and for better or worse helped me be tolerant of love's weaknesses.

3. The Guns of August. Barbara Tuchman's subject was folly long before The March of Folly, and August 1914 impressed me with how much trust Europe reposed in its generals -- and how little that trust was merited. Whenever I hear someone say that, well, the president (etc.) must know what he's doing, I think of The Guns of August.

4. The Closing of the American Mind. No, really. I started undergrad in English, didn't enjoy it, and found myself reading Bloom and falling in love with the story arc of Western philosophy, Straussian-style. Bloom's argument that the problems with modern university education are deep, conceptual ones, was entrancing. Made me switch majors, as well as inspiring me to pick up # 5 on this list, so I can't deny it was influential.

5. Beyond Good and Evil. Still my favorite Nietzsche book, and happily the one I picked up during my history of philosophy sequence, when I was baffled by the b.s. metaphysics that otherwise sensible people argued for. "What morality is this thinker aiming at?" asked Nietzsche, and I was hooked. It took me a good ten years to be able to see any limits to Nietzsche's thought (besides of course his silliness about women, which even he realised was his bete noir).

6. Against Interpretation. Mainly the essay, not the book, but Sontag made me believe that literary theory was important, and thus I turned back to English -- doing philosophy in the English department, as it were. I desperately wanted a way to think about the "erotics of art" she called for. Didn't find it in grad school, that's for sure, and didn't have the smarts to invent it. But I probably would've ended up teaching philosophy if not for the influence of Sontag.

Those aren't necessarily my favorite books -- such a list would have to include To the Lighthouse, The Red and the Black, Tolkien and Vance -- but those are the books that seem to have pushed my life or personality in a particular direction. Probably there are more children's books that I can't even remember that had equal or greater effect -- I admire Orin Kerr for listing the Frog and Toad books on his own list.

... How quickly we forget. A couple more need to be added:

7 (tie). Montaigne's Essays and the Tao te Ching. Essential to explaining how a Nietzsche-totin' atheist became a Lutheran assistant Sunday-school teacher. Montaigne's skepticism of skepticism itself, his teaching that one should practice the religion one finds oneself born to, appealed to me because skepticism and atheism begin to feel arrogant at some point. As Nietzsche himself says, "Sir, it is improbable that you are not mistaken; but why insist on the truth?" (People miss that Voltairean touch to N.) And the Lao Tzu dovetailed with Montaigne: does knowledge really change anything?

8. The Resistance to Theory. Contains perhaps de Man's most succinct statements of the pitfalls in interpretation (outside the conclusion to "Shelley Disfigured") -- the step whereby Sontag's "erotics of art" became an "erotics of hermeneutics" for me, or less pretentiously, the theoretical buttress for the long-held suspicion that professors, and readers in general, put what they want in a text rather than learning from it. Whether that's inevitable, or merely the overwhelming likelihood, was a question I shelved rather than writing a dissertation.

9. The Creation of the Universe. This one's out of chrono order, and should be at number 2. It's a kids' book on the subject by one David Fisher, which I remember checking out of the Miami-Dade Public Library. Fisher had perfect pitch for his audience: jokey enough to hold attention, but serious enough to explain his subject. This was the book that told me what science was about, and gave me a lifelong amateur interest in it.

I would like to blame law school on some book or other, but that one's all me. Though when you've proved to your own satisfaction that all reading is will to power, legal practice seems the next logical step ....


  1. I've written my list like this but not posted it yet. Interesting to see The Once and Future King. Between Jules Verne and Mark Twain, this book was my favorite. I thought about it off and on for years (but don't have a copy in my house now), did manage to get one of my kids to read it, but it didn't make my list in spite of being my favorite-book-at-all for about 3 years of very impressionable adolescence. It replaced Journey to the Center of the Earth, and was replaced by Huck Finn.

  2. I just posted my similar list