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.


Suvudu has a great cagematch tournament going on. The tournament pits various sci-fi and fantasy characters (reps from major fictional universes).

Some of the best (possible) battles:

Dumbledore vs. Ender Wiggin

Aragorn vs. Arthur Dent

Rand Al’Thor vs. Conan the Barbarian

and my personal favorite:

Hermione Granger vs. Cthulhu

How great is that!?!

My prediction:

Final four: Arthur Dent, Roland, Aslan, and Cthulhu.

The Elder God drowns the simpering Christian allegory in a sea of endless dread.

And there it ends.

Arthur Dent and Roland Deschain battle endlessly. Arthur Dent is functionally immortal and Roland’s narrative is cyclical.

Wowbagger, the Infinitely Prolonged and Cthulhu bond over beers while watching the fight.

Alien contact

OK. This is extreme geek-out.

I came across this the other day (HT Instapundit)  which cheerily discusses the problems inherent in plausibly anticipating what contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence might be like.

The genesis of the article was a meeting of the Royal Society in London on the consequences of alien contact. Essentially, the question raised was, “Should we broadcast our presence to the universe?” We’ve been (sort of) sacanning and listening for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence for a few years abut aside from some LP records (analog records!!!) stapled to the side of a space probe (Veeger!), we haven’t done much to advertise our existence to the cosmos.  David Brin responded with a cautionary note intended to squelch at least a little of the geek squee.

Robin hanson summed it up,

As Brin notes, many would-be broadcasters come from an academic area where for decades the standard assumption has been that aliens are peaceful zero-population-growth no-nuke greens, since we all know that any other sort quickly destroy themselves.  This seems to me an instructive example of how badly a supposed “deep theory” inside-view of the future can fail, relative to closest-related-track-record outside-view.  As Brin says, the track record of contact between cultures, species, and biomes is not especially encouraging, and it is far too easy for far-view minds to overestimate the reliability of theoretical arguments to the contrary.

J. Storrs hall goes further,

In fact, it’s a lot worse than that.  As far as I can tell, nobody talking about interstellar contact has a model even vaguely close to a reasonable analysis of the situation.  Short form: these discussions are the equivalent of the natives of a Polynesian island deciding who shall be allowed to wave as the galleons heave into view.  Our own technology, today, is getting close to detecting Earth-like planets around other stars, for heaven’s sake.  The galleons see the island, not the waving. …

Reality is that any alien race out there with whom we have any kind of physical contact at all is virtually certain to have (a) full-fledged nanotech, and (b) hyperhuman AI.  Given these capabilities, if they want to find Earth-like planets anywhere in the area of space they would have the physical capability of travelling to, they will find them. Period. Doesn’t matter whether we are standing on the shore waving or not.

Undoubtedly true. But Hall then goes on to make the same kind of errors he disdains,

Any sentient creatures that actually get here will be nanotech-based robots, not water-based organisms.  They won’t have spacecraft, they’ll be spacecraft.  They will be unlikely interested in the carbon-poor mudballs of the inner solar system, but reap abundant carbon from the outer planets and carbonaceous asteroids to build Dyson-sphere-like structures around the orbit of Mercury. …

We aren’t going to see any less ambitious visitors due to simple evolution: in a universe where the ultimate meaning of “carbon footprint” is the total mass of the superintelligent diamondoid robots you’ve built, spaceships burning cellulosic ethanol simply aren’t going to be anywhere near the fittest.  Indeed, cultures that aren’t inherently aggressive and ambitious aren’t going to put the effort into sending out starships at all.

Well… maybe. But probably not.

Any alien intelligence capable of traveling interstellar distances would have routine access to technology that is simply unimaginable to us.  Let me be clear about this, we can’t imagine what it would be like. Whatever we do imagine is almost surely wrong. The analogy isn’t Polynesian islanders waving to European Galleons, it’s Iron age Celts meeting 21st century archaeologists face to face. Alien technology would be as impossible for us to imagine as a nuclear reactor would have been for the druids who danced around Stonehenge. Saying that Aliens would have “full-fledged” nanotech is like an ancient Celt imagining that 21st century technology would have really, really big anvils and lots of iron tools.  Hyperhuman AI? Maybe… but that’s sort of like Columbus imagining that 21st century navigators would have really precise sextants. Sure, we still have anvils… but we also have titanium alloy golf clubs. We don’t use sextants because we have GPS systems.

What we can say for sure is that Alien tech would be fantastically advanced. Nanotech? Sure, why not? But nanotech might be as meaningful to the Aliens as blacksmithing is to us. Dyson spheres? Well, maybe. But again, that’s us imagining future technology in reference to our own context. We’re obsessed with power production, so we imagine really honkin big power plants. Like the Sun! Our Iron age forebears were really worried about food production. Imagine the farmland and grazing pasture needed to support 5 billion people using Iron age farming technology! Yeah, we have big farms, but our farms are many, many orders of magnitude more efficient than the druids would ever have imagined. Capture the power of a star by building a sphere to surround it? Why do that when you have a Magwumpzillwapper that generates a hundred times the power, fits in your pocket, and smells like daffodils? Or more likely, something else entirely?

As for motivations…. I don’t see why we should even try to guess the motivation of our supposed visitors. Do they want to conquer us? Maybe, but I can’t see what we could offer them. Resources? Whatever they’d want we’re very unlikely to value.  Imagine meeting a group of Druids and telling them you really want the rights to dig up that nasty black stuff in the bog. Think they’d argue much?  I think it’s more likely our first encounter would be with alien anthropologists and research scientists. But again, maybe they’d be zookeepers. Or teenagers on a joyride. Maybe instead of Cattle Tipping, rural alien punks go Human Probing. Or maybe we’re already in the zoo.

Whatever, we can broadcast or not broadcast. Whatever the aliens want to do, they’ll do. If they can get here, we won’t be able to stop them. And if they can get here, they can see us whether we wave or not.

But there’s another option too… that they’re really NOT out there, or if they are, it’s just as freakin’ hard for them to get here as it for us to get to them. It’s at least as plausible as any other theory.  Brin says that it’s likely we’d be the newcomers to interstellar society, but it’s also possible that we’ll be the first. Why not? Someone’s got to be first.

But just in case we’re not the first to the party, let me start the ball rolling by saying howdy to all the aliens reading this blog.


I was in New Orleans for the game.

There’s not much I can add to what I said here.  I’m thrilled and happy and proud of my hometown and so very happy for all of the Saints fans in the Gulf Coast.   As some pundits have pointed out, the Saints victory doesn’t help with insurance forms, it doesn’t build houses, and it doesn’t attract jobs… but it does provide emotional sustenance to the men and women who struggle with the daily process of rebuilding.  This is a victory that hundreds of thousands of people will carry in their hearts for a long, long time.

Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?

Not the Colts and not Peyton Manning.

Not even Katrina.

Wynton Marsalis wrote a tribute to the City and the Saints, played during the pregame show. The text is here. If anyone know where the video is, I’d love to find it.

New Orleans, N’Awlins, the Crescent City, the Big Easy, the northern capitol of the Caribbean, Groove City. Man, they have things down there you wouldn’t believe. A mythic place of Mardi-Gras and mumbo, Voodoo and the moss-covered alligator-spiked pathways of back-country swamp drained and sprinkled with gris-gris dust to house a wild, unruly population. A city with they own cuisine, they own architecture, they own music..streets with names like Dorgenois and Tchoupitoulas.

Down here, people like to brag about how they handle tragedy. Epochal hurricanes like Betsy and Camille are discussed as if they’re people. “Betsy was bad but Camille, ‘Lawd Have Mercy’, the water was up here to my neck.” Nobody brags on Katrina. She swept through here like death on a high horse. Those flood waters seemed to run all the demons, goblins, AND saints away forever. There goes old Jean Lafitte the pirate relocated to Houston, there goes old Jelly Roll Morton off somewhere in Memphis with that diamond still sparklin in his front tooth.

We live the moment. Laissez les bon temps rouler! –Let the Good Times Roll. I think I hear that trumpet calling the children of the Who Dat Nation home–not Gabriel’s or the horns that blew down the walls of Jericho–that jazz trumpet conjuring up the spirit world with a Congo Square drum cadence. Ghosts, goblins, and ‘haints aggravate. Saints congregate. I hear them now bringing that 43 year second line to a glorious crescendo. “Who Dat Say What Dat When Us Do Dat?” It’s like waiting 43 years to hear somebody say ‘I Love You’ back. And they do. Let the tale be told ’bout how the black and gold won the Super Bowl.

And those jazzmen still play sad songs but they always end happy…..they always do.

Read the whole damn thing. And if you find the video, send it to me!