Most Influential Books

Following up on a meme that was started by Tyler Cowen, “The Ten Books that influenced me the most.”

The list is heavy on the fiction and light on the non-fiction.  Partly that’s because the most influential books were the books I read when I was younger, but also that’s partly because narrative has always played a strong role in my life.  I’ve read a number of books on philosophy, politics, and economics and while some have been enormously educational (Nozick, Hayek, Mises, Aristotle, Plat, etc…) they haven’t had as visceral an impact on my day-to-day existence.  Books that changed the way I thought about my life and my work, or profoundly affected the way I live my life… those are the most influential books I’ve ever read. In no particular order:

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman

Henry II: The day those stout hearts band together is the day that pigs get wings.
Eleanor: There’ll be pork in the treetops come morning.

I love this play. The language crackles, the characters are enormous and the drama fantastic. Like most people, I saw the movie first and for me, Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn will always and forever be Henry and Eleanor.  This was the first play in which I realized that every single word was precious. (As much as we lionize Shakespeare, most of the Bard’s work improves with judicious editing.) Every motion, every breath the actors take is important on the stage. Every glance and every touch means something.

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.

Atlas Shrugged is my intellectual lodestone. Or maybe that should be dead-weight?  Fountainhead? Whatever, it’s a big giant brick. It’s also a masterpiece in every sense of the word, compelling, difficult, complex, agonizing, confounding, enlightening and fabulously gigantic.

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone

In the park we’ll notice the ducks squablling but not how carefully they’ll keep their distances when they are not.

The book is a philosophical and pedagogical mess (and Spolin’s books are probably better introductions to theatrical improvisation) but Johnstone’s section on status is priceless. This book completely changed the way I approached the craft of acting and had an enormous effect on my directorial style as well. If you’re at all interested in theater, read this book.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

An odd choice for “influential,” I know.  I read it in high school, over a rainy weekend on the Florida Gulf coast. My best friend read The Fountainhead during the same weekend. We kept telling each other, “You’ve got to read this book.” Influential because of the extraordinary language and breathtaking writing. Influential because it’s a story of obsession and love and a desperate confusion of the two. I was in the middle of a desperate sort of obsessive and un-requited love and Lolita rocked me. It would be a few years before I was finally able to finally unravel my own obsessions and set them aside, but Lolita was the book that warned me to start.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, By Mark Twain

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

This is the first “real” book I ever read by myself.  When I was eight, my mother and I started by reading chapters aloud to each other. After the first few chapters, the pace was too slow and I asked if I could go read and finish it by myself. Later, as a freshman in high school, this was the first book in which I recognized theme and subtext.

Silver Age of Marvel Comics, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko et. al.

It’s clobberin’ time!

My stepfather collected comics when he was a kid.  As a result, I grew up with an enormous chest full of early Marvel comicbooks.  Fantastic four #1, Daredevil #1, Spider Man #1, Iron-Man #1, Doc Strange #1, Nick Fury and the howling Commandos, Thor, Hulk, the Avengers, the X-men… I had all them all. And I read and re-read them and then read them all again. It’s odd to describe them as influential, but they certainly were. I identified with the alienation and angst that drove so many of Marvel’s heroes and saw in their cartoonish and silly struggles a metaphor for my own life.

Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Essentially a retelling of Bastiat’s essay on the Seen and the Unseen, Hazlitt’s little book taught me to think about economics and public policy in a completely new way. The lesson is simple and direct and almost entirely ignored in modern policy. The book is available as a PDF from the Foundation for Economic Education.

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking

… a particle of spin 1 is like an arrow: it looks different from different directions. Only if one turns it round a complete revolution (360 degrees) does the particle look the same. A particle of spin 2 is like a double-headed arrow: it look the same if one turns it round half a revolution (180 degrees)… there are particles that do not look the same if one turns them through just one revolution: you have to turn them through two complete revolutions! Such particles are said to have spin ½

It took me two times through before I thought I understood all of it. It took me another two times through before I realized I didn’t. It’s not the best book on advanced physics or the origins of the universe, but it’s the first one I read. Hawking changed the way I thought about physics and science. I do remember that I once developed a partial solution to the unified field theory in the shower. I can’t remember all of it, but I do remember that it involved rethinking relative acceleration and position and treating light as a fixed reference…. I once spent a day rambling about it to a physics grad student. He was exceedingly polite.

A Room With a View by E. M. Forester

I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that! Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul! Your soul, dear Lucy! I hate the word now, because of all the cant with which superstition has wrapped it round. But we have souls. I cannot say how they came nor whither they go, but we have them, and I see you ruining yours. I cannot bear it. It is again the darkness creeping in; it is hell.

I’ve been in love with this story ever since I first saw the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation. The book has a quiet grace that fills my heart; it’s full of tender moments and surprising passion. This book fills me with hope and promise. When I close it–each time and every time–there’s a smile on face and sense of wonder and hope in my heart, “… by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory yes if you will, but a Yes.”

Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker

…he doesn’t really know how to be a good man, so he goes for the simple rules that someone else told him. It’s easier than thinking, and safer. The other way, you have to decide for yourself.

Funny. Charming. Disarmingly spare. Parker’s Spenser was my first literary role-model. I recognized very early (I began reading this series when I was 13 or 14) that the core of Spenser’s character was not violence or mystery but integrity and honesty. Parker’s hero has been derided as a cardboard cutout, flat and dull–and he often is. But it’s rare to find a character in modern fiction driven by an authentic commitment to principles.

Spenser isn’t a simple fantasy (although he is often fantastical) of unwavering commitment to an abstract code of honor, he’s a man committed to making principles work in a messy, complicated, often difficult world. The novels are at their best when they explore the moments that Spenser’s principles compromise him and make him vulnerable. Early Autumn is the most thorough exploration of those principles.

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P. J. O’Rourke

Over on Twitter I’m spending the day quoting P. J. O’Rourke, my all-time favorite irascible curmudgeon. He’s like H. L. Mencken, but with a better hairdo.

I’ve met P. J. at least three times and engaged him in conversation twice. Nothing that he would remember; hell, I don’t even remember the conversations. They were brief and occured either before or after he’d spoken at some function or other… anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, Twitter. I like Twitter, but 140 characters is limiting. I’ll put the longer, spillover quotes here. Bibliography at the end.

The quotes:

If we don’t want the world’s wealth to be controlled by people with money then the alternative is to have the world’s wealth controlled by people with guns.

Freedom is not empowerment. Empowerment is what the Serbs have in Bosnia. Anybody can grab a gun and be empowered. It’s not entitlement. An entitlement is what people on welfare get, and how free are they? It’s not an endlessly expanding list of rights — the “right” to education, the “right” to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle. There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.

The weirder you’re going to behave, the more normal you should look. It works in reverse, too. When I see a kid with three or four rings in his nose, I know there is absolutely nothing extraordinary about that person.

There’s a whiff of the lynch mob or the lemming migration about any overlarge concentration of like-thinking individuals, no matter how virtuous their cause.

The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.

One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.

The free market is ugly and stupid, like going to the mall; the unfree market is just as ugly and just as stupid, except there is nothing in the mall and if you don’t go there they shoot you.

If you are young and you drink a great deal it will spoil your health, slow your mind, make you fat – in other words, turn you into an adult.

In comparative terms, there’s no poverty in America by a long shot. Heritage Foundation political scientist Robert Rector has worked up figures showing that when the official U.S. measure of poverty was developed in 1963, a poor American family had an income twenty-nine times greater than the average per capita income in the rest of the world. An individual American could make more money than 93 percent of the other people on the planet and still be considered poor.

Senator Ted Kennedy: “And when the Reagan administration was selling arms to Iran, WHERE WAS GEORGE?” Answer: Dry, sober, and at home with his wife.

Imagine a weight-loss program at the end of which, instead of better health, good looks, and hot romantic prospects, you die. Somalia had become just this kind of spa.

Worshiping the earth is more fun than going to church. It’s also closer. We can just step off the sidewalk. And sometimes we can get impressionable members of the opposite sex to perform sacramental rites with us. “Every drop of water wasted is a drop less of a wild and scenic river, Jennifer. We’d better double up in the shower.

When government does, occasionally, work, it works in an elitist fashion. That is, government is most easily manipulated by people who have money and power already. This is why government benefits usually go to people who don’t need benefits from government. Government may make some environmental improvements, but these will be improvements for rich bird-watchers. And no one in government will remember that when poor people go bird-watching they do it at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

There are a number of mechanical devices that increase sexual arousal, particularly in women. Chief among these is the Mercedes-Benz 380SL convertible.

There’s a lot of debate on this subject – about what kind of car handles best. Some say a a front-engined car, some say a rear-engined car. I say a rented car. Nothing handles better than a rented car. You can go faster, turn corners sharper, and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed in a rented car than in any other kind.

Selected bibliography:

All the Trouble in the World

Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government

Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics

Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut

Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People

Children’s Books That Didn’t Make It

Children’s Books That Didn’t Make It

1. You Are Different and That’s Bad
2. The Boy Who Died From Eating All His Vegetables
3. Dad’s New Wife Robert
4. Fun four-letter Words to Know and Share
5. Hammers, Screwdrivers and Scissors: An I-Can-Do-It Book
6. The Kids’ Guide to Hitchhiking
7. Kathy Was So Bad Her Mom Stopped Loving Her
8. Curious George and the High-Voltage Fence
9. All Cats Go to Hell
10. The Little Sissy Who Snitched
11. Some Kittens Can Fly.
12. That’s it, I’m Putting You Up for Adoption
13. Grandpa Gets a Casket
14. The Magic World Inside the Abandoned Refrigerator
15. Garfield Gets Feline Leukemia
16. The Pop-Up Book of Human Anatomy
17. Strangers Have the Best Candy
18. Whining, Kicking and Crying to Get Your Way
19. You Were an Accident
20. Things Rich Kids Have, But You Never Will
21. “Pop! Goes The Hamster!”…And Other Great Microwave Games
22. The Man in the Moon Is Actually Satan
23. Your Nightmares Are Real
24. Where Would You Like to Be Buried?
25. Eggs, Toilet Paper, and Your School
26. Why Can’t Mr. Fork and Ms. Electrical Outlet Be Friends?
27. Places Where Mommy and Daddy Hide Neat Things
28. Daddy Drinks Because You Cry

(HT John August)

Winter is Coming

About two weeks ago I canceled our cable premiums, HBO and Showtime because, well, because they both deserved punishment. Showtime canceled Dead Like Me, Huff, and HBO canceled Deadwood and Rome.

They make great stuff, but then they cancel it because… well, the reasoning is complicated: it has to do with production schedules, financing cycles, the way that ratings are reported and insufficient attention to aftermarket DVD sales, but mostly because the marketing schmoes are morons.

But, I’m going to have to pick HBO up again next year.

HBO has ordered a pilot episode of A Game of Thrones. Based on George R. R. Martin’s outstanding Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. The plan is to use each book in the series to fuel a season’s worth of shows–which would mean that each book would get a lot of attention.

I’m thrilled and hopeful; the books are great.

Favorite Novels

Shawn put up his top ten books list, and I was so impressed at his ability to actually pick ten, I thought I’d have a go. In the end, I couldn’t pick ten. There are so many wonderful books that could make the list, I just couldn’t decide where to draw the line.

Does Huckleberry Finn make the cut? What about It, or the Harry Potter series?The Watchmen is very, very good. So is Like Water for Chocolate and The Time-Travelers Wife. I loved The Stand, and Charlotte’s Web made me cry and cry and cry. The Fountainhead was first and I check for news of the latest in The Song of Ice and Fire almost daily. There are just so many good books, picking ten is too hard.

But picking the five was easy. These are the ones I return to year after year. They’re the books I’ve read and re-read and re-read again and again. They’re the books that have meant something to me, the ones that changed the way I look at the world around me.

1) A Room With a View by E. M. Forester

I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that! Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul! Your soul, dear Lucy! I hate the word now, because of all the cant with which superstition has wrapped it round. But we have souls. I cannot say how they came nor whither they go, but we have them, and I see you ruining yours. I cannot bear it. It is again the darkness creeping in; it is hell.

I thought about these rankings for a long time, and this book is in the right spot; It’s my favorite. I’ve been in love with this story ever since I first saw the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation. The book has a quiet grace that fills my heart; it’s full of tender moments and surprising passion. This book fills me with hope and promise. When I close it–each time and every time–there’s a smile on face and sense of wonder and hope in my heart, “… by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory yes if you will, but a Yes.”

2) Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.

If A Room With a View is my romantic touchstone, the book that speaks most directly to my heart, then Atlas Shrugged is my intellectual lodestone. It’s a masterpiece in every sense of the word, compelling, difficult, complex, agonizing, confounding, enlightening and fabulously gigantic.

3) Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker

I said, ‘Name’s Spenser, with an S, like the poet. I’m in the Boston book.’ I stepped through the door and closed it. Then I opened it again and stuck my head back into the hall. ‘Under Tough,’ I said.

But he doesn’t really know how to be a good man, so he goes for the simple rules that someone else told him. It’s easier than thinking, and safer. The other way, you have to decide for yourself.

Funny. Charming. Disarmingly spare. Parker’s Spenser was my first literary role-model. I recognized very early (I began reading this series when I was 13 or 14) that the core of Spenser’s character was not violence or mystery but integrity and honesty. Parker’s hero has been derided as a cardboard cutout, flat and dull–and he often is. But it’s rare to find a character in modern fiction driven by an authentic commitment to principles.

Spenser isn’t a simple fantasy (although he is often fantastical) of unwavering commitment to an abstract code of honor, he’s a man committed to making principles work in a messy, complicated, often difficult world. The novels are at their best when they explore the moments that Spenser’s principles compromise him and make him vulnerable. Early Autumn is the most thorough exploration of those principles.

4) Possession by A. S. Byatt

They took to silence.

They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it.

On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.

Neither was sure how much, or what, all this meant to the other. Neither dared ask.

Like A Room With a View, Possession is a beautiful and lyric story of love. At its heart, Possession is about the way that love can change our world; it’s about how love can render our world more beautiful, more lyrical and more moving than we had imagined. It’s about the possibility of a love that can possess us completely and allow us to step through fear, distance, circumstance and time. It’s about how our love creates its own story–a story that is as powerful, as passionate and as extraordinary as any story found in history or poetry.

5) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Daylight… in my mind, the night faded. it was daytime and the neighbourhood was busy. Miss Stephanie Crawford crossed the street to tell the latest to Miss Rachel. Miss Maudie bent over her azaleas. it was summertime, and two children scampered down the sidewalk towards a man approaching in the distance. The man waved, and the children raced each other to him.

It was still summertime, and the children came closer. A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing-pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention.

It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs Dubose’s. The boy helped his sister to her feet, and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.

Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.

Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.

This is the Great American Novel. Harper Lee’s book is a tale of innocence lost and of justice delayed too long. It uncovers the evil of prejudice and the ugliness of ignorance. It is also a heartrendingly beautiful story of growth and redemption.

Most of us read this book as children, assigned it in school. That’s where I first read it. If you haven’t read it again since, do. As a child, you play in the yard with Scout and Jem and you feel safe when Atticus is home. You run with the children through the streets, and you sneak with them into the courthouse, excited and flush with danger. Your heart fills with pride when Atticus takes aim and shoots the dog.

As an adult, you watch with Atticus as the children play and their fragility terrifies you. You dread the courthouse and you feel flush with the heavy weight of the heat as you watch Tom’s life slip away. You heart sinks with the despair and resignation as Atticus drops his glasses and kills a poor, infected animal.

Whatever

About a week ago, I stumbled across Whatever, John Scalzi’s blog. It’s my new favorite. I’ve been reading and sifting through back posts with the same gusto that I normally reserve for James Lileks.

I even went out and bought two of Scalzi’s novels: Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades. I finished the first in two days and am eagerly working through the second. They’re great fun. The first is a love letter to Robert Heinlein; it’s essentially a less pedantic and much funnier rewrite of Starship Troopers. The second is a sequel to the first. It’s good too.

Every so often, my perspective engine runs down a little and my sense of my relationship with the universe degrades. The world seems unduly oppressive and unfair, every thing’s a trial, there’s not enough money in the bank, the kids are whiny, the car’s a mess, the beer’s not cold, etc… etc…. A couple of weeks ago, my perspective had seriously down-shifted. I’d gone from “Relatively-Appreciative-And-Happy” right through “Tired-And-A-Little-Crabby” all the way down to “Consumed-With-Irritation-At-The-Injustice-Of-It-All-And-Taking-It-Out-On-Idiot-Blockbuster-Employees” when I happened across Scalzi’s site and his post, “Being Poor.” My perspective was immediately reset to “Deeply-Appreciative-Of-How-Wonderful-My-Life-Is-And-How-Lucky-I-Am.”

It’s a great post and well worth reading:

http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/003704.html

Cookbooks!

Inspired by Megan McArdle’s recommendations, I decided to put up a post about some of my favorite cookbooks. (I know I haven’t done much food-blogging in the past few weeks, but our digital camera took an untimely fall a couple of months ago. And a recipe without a photo is like creme brulée without the hard sugar crust. Speaking of which, I finally bought a propane torch! If I can get serviceable photos off my new cell phone, I’ll do a brulée post soon.)

On to the cookbooks.

1) Joy of Cooking

This has been a staple in my family’s kitchens for a long time. I love it. It’s packed with basic techniques, and canonical recipes for just about any dish you can imagine. It’s a great reference and a great place to find inspiration. I like Betty Crocker, but I prefer The Joy. Every kitchen needs a “go-to” cookbook for the basics, and this is mine.

2) The Professional Chef

I know this one is a stretch for the home cook, but I love it. It’s the core textbook used at the Culinary Institute of America. It’s not just a collection of recipes, it’s a textbook on how to cook. There’s no great prose, but there is a wealth of information. (Most of the recipes are designed for a professional kitchen, so I use them as guides only. I don’t often make soup to serve 20.)

3) The Larousse Gastronomique

The definitive reference cookbook. It’s literally an encyclopedia. Entries are arranged alphabetically, going from (in my older 1988 edition) abaisse to zuppa Inglese. (a sheet of rolled-out pastry and sponge cake soaked in Kirsch.) The new edition has expanded coverage of world cuisine but the focus is still on French and continental cooking.

4) The Sauce Bible

It’s, well, it’s the sauce Bible. It’s also another book intended for a professional audience. Like The Professional Chef, the recipes are designed for professional kitchens and the quantities can be… large. But I wanted it for technique, history, and culinary education and it delivers on each of those.

5) The Splendid Table

This is my favorite non-reference cookbook. It’s a culinary tour through Northern Italy. This is one to get for the recipes. From a grand Tortellini pie, to a simple pasta with balsamic vinegar, to a Brodetto that continues to amaze me, this is a fabulous cookbook. Kaspar has a wonderful style, and this is a great one to read too. Just a great book.

6) My Mexico

This is a new cookbook, given to me by my wonderful friends, Adam and Elina, as a wedding present. I still haven’t gotten though all of it, this is a cookbook to read. It’s just great food-writing. Some of the recipes (like the one for banana vinegar) can be a little daunting, but I think they’ll be well worth the effort. I haven’t tried to make the banana vinegar yet because I’m sure Jamie won’t be pleased with me leaving 4 pounds of bananas to rot in a bowl for 3 weeks….


7) ?????

I have a bunch of other good cookbooks, but none others that I’m sure are truly great cookbooks. And in some cases, I really like my cookbooks, but I’d love to see more. That’s particularly true when it comes to styles of food. For exampe, I have Creole Feast, and it’s great. The recipes are fantastic. But there are no photos, and there’s very little on technique or history. Truly great cookbooks give you recipes, teach you the history of the dish, and bring you into someone else’s kitchen to see it made. I love Creole Feast, but I don’t think it’s the definitive New Orleans cookbook. I’m still looking for that.

There are other great cookbooks I’m searching for. For example, I haven’t yet found the ultimate Thai cookbook, or the great New Mexican cookbook. I haven’t found the perfect English cookbook either. Ok… so some searches may take longer than others. But I’m still searching, and that’s where the fun is.

Cookbooks are great because they’re read and re-read. They’re books you thumb through again and again. They’re books that are used, and if they’re good, used often. My favorite fiction is dog-eared. But my favorite cookbooks are worn, beaten, and broken.

A great cookbook has torn pages, pages that stick together, pages that are stained with the recipe they describe. The jackets are loose and the spine is broken Often intentionally; a cookbook should lay flat on the counter! In some of my cookbooks I know where my favorite recipes are because the book falls open naturally to those pages.

What are your favorite cookbooks? Have a recommendation?