Friday, January 4, 2013

Influential Books

David R Henderson linked to some lists of books by econ bloggers I read regularly, including himself.
As interesting as the lists are the different approaches. Bryan Caplan catalogued arguments which convinced him, David mostly books that made an impression at one time, Tyler Cowen somewhere in between. My list is more like David's.

I am either impressed or skeptical at the claims to really know which books influence you; can we really pick apart influence from resonance? To keep it focused I will concentrate just on one aspect: my reaction to the past. Someone said we live in an age impatient with the past. This is true, and I feel the impatience myself often enough. But I am at the patient end of the spectrum, both naturally and deliberately.  

When I first read Homer in high school I expected a jingoistic John Wayne tale of Greeks at war. What I found was startingly different. Homer still surprises every time I read him. Tolstoy’s two big books were important. I am very glad I never met Tolstoy, I fear he would have had too strong an influence over me.

My favorite book is The Decameron by Boccaccio. I read it in first year, and learned that everything I thought I knew about the middle ages was wrong. I also remember Boccaccio’s farewell to specifially his female readers, asking that they remember him. If any book book convinced me that prejudice against the past is foolish, weak, and invidious it is Decameron. Had I read Don Quixote first I think it would be my favorite book, for similar reasons.

De Rerum Natura by Lucretius. This wonderful poem shows that the skeptical, reductionist mind has been around a long time, and can be allied to a poetic soul.

History certainly. I read Shirer’s book on the Third Reich in high school. The Great Terror by Robert Conquest on Stalinism. Tuchman’s Guns of August.

Some books of argument, just not to seem completely woolly:
The Extended Phenotype by Dawkins. Much more convincing than the Selfish Gene.
Darwin’s dangerous Idea by Dennett. More reductionism!
Reflections on the Revolution if France by Burke. Ideas entirely new to me at the time.
Object Oriented Software Construction by Meyer. A geek book.
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Language.