The Books Meme

Like Ezra, I was disinclined to do a Cowen/Yglesias style influential books list because of the restrictiveness of the medium. “Taking Preferences Seriously” by Andrew Moravcsik influenced my thinking on international relations at least as much as any book, so it seems silly to focus just on long works. It’s sillier still to lump works of wildly different scale together, so why do a list at all? But Zeitlin says all hope is lost if he doesn’t succeed in goading me into doing one, and Matt’s happiness is important to me, so here goes.

1. The DK Children’s Encyclopedia. Cowen and Yglesias can get away with not including kids’ books on their lists, being adults with full-time jobs and the whatnot. Zeitlin and I really can’t. Ignoring the stuff we read before high school or college seems to totally defeat the purpose of an exercise like this for people our age. For most of elementary school, this thing was my bible. I wanted it with me at all times, and the pocket encyclopedia my parents got as a portable alternative was nowhere near comprehensive enough for my tastes. Whenever some word or idea I heard bewildered me–which was often, because of the whole being a child thing–I looked it up and trusted that DK wouldn’t do me wrong. The book’s little page-long articles have a way of sticking in my head in interesting ways. The entry for “Communism” had an illustration of two factories full of short vertical lines representing workers, with one showing the lines dominated by one other line, and the other where all the lines were equal. The former was supposed to be capitalism, the latter communism. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say my romantic affection for workers’ cooperatives and other palatable ways of giving workers control over the means of production is directly attributable to DK.

2. Zeno and the Tortoise, Nicholas Fearn. In sixth grade, my best friend started “reading” Allan Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic, and wanting to keep up, I gave it a shot, quickly giving up because, you know, I was eleven. But my dad turned me onto this handy little summary of major philosophical theories, illustrated with various metaphors (“Plato’s Cave”, “Descartes’ Demon”, “Ryle’s University”). There were obviously portions that I didn’t grasp–not least Derrida and late Wittgenstein–and the fondness for Popperian falsification it instilled in me was perhaps unfortunate, but it also convinced me that ideas could be exciting, and arguing about them could be fun.

3. The Crucible, Arthur Miller. You could substitute High Noon here, but one of the two is on paper, so I’ll go with Miller. My individualism and dislike for collective explanations can be credited to a McCarthyism kick in middle school, about which the most accessible writing was metaphorical depictions of the era. The reasons are clear enough; the dangers of an overbearing society, not embodied by any one person but by the mass as a whole, being indifferent or even eager in the face of oppression are laid out pretty straightforwardly. I’m sure I’d find the whole thing terribly didactic now, but it was convincing at the time.

4. Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer. In seventh grade, students in one class in our middle school had to make a poster of something they considered a threat to society. Most people chose AIDS or poverty or whatever, but a devoutly Catholic acquaintance of mine chose Peter Singer’s philosophy, focusing on his views on infanticide and the disabled. To annoy this person (who has since become a friend in spite of me being a jerk at that age), I picked up this compilation of Singer’s writings, and was shocked to find I actually sincerely agreed with much of it. I had become a vegetarian the summer before in a fit of anti-parental rebellion, but the selections from Animal Liberation are probably responsible for me sticking with that ever since. And “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” is not the worst thing for a well-off kid in a rich town to read. The book made me a utilitarian, but it also taught me how to think about moral questions with some degree of nuance; I disagreed with the infanticide sections, but figuring out why (they use a different standard than Singer uses in discussing animals–rationality rather than sentience) made me a better thinker.

5. The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus. Another good thing for a discontented middle-schooler to read? “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” I don’t agree with Camus’ account of how one creates meaning in life anymore, given the shaky foundation it gives upon which to build a system of morals, but it’s empowering stuff for dejected kids that age. By contrast, No Exit and The Stranger left me cold.

6. The Brethren, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong. This book will turn anyone into a legal realist, especially a wee impressionable youth. By painting the justices as real people with real interests that are not always pure but almost without exception political was a wake-up call. Any notion I might have had that there is a “law” separate from political considerations and actors vanished when I got to know the Burger court a little better. At the same time, it made the law an exciting subject, precisely because it is an effective avenue for political action and expression.

7. “A Problem From Hell”, Samantha Power. First and foremost, I appreciated this as a history that I found relatable and real, and which took politics, and the obligations of real politicians in real situations, seriously. I was already a huge political junkie when I started reading it and was startled to see a portrait of politicians making the decisions the way I recognized politicians in 2005 making decisions; The Rise of the Vulcans by James Mann impressed me for the same reasons, at roughly the same time. Critics tend to think of “A Problem From Hell” as just a rallying call for Save Darfur-style interventionism, which it is to a certain extent, but in a more important way it’s an argument for a foreign policy that takes human life and suffering seriously, which resonated at the height of the carnage in Iraq, and the peak of my own lack of faith in the political process to stop it.

8. Watchmen, Alan Moore. For some people, reading The Gulag Archipelago or Seeing Like a State is the turning point at which they realize that great power, however well-intentioned, is a dangerous thing. For me, it was Watchmen. The line “Nothing ends, Adrian, nothing ever ends” stung deep, as did the seductive villainy of Veidt more generally. The back story of Dr. Manhattan winning the war in Vietnam, and Nixon seizing the presidency for life, doesn’t get enough attention for the nonchalance with which it’s presented, which makes the arrangement seem dangerously close to life. Before Watchmen I had some vague idea that the US’ global preeminence is a great thing that just needs to be channeled toward benevolent purposes. Alan Moore helped do away with that.

9. The Twenty Years’ Crisis, E.H. Carr. I hate enforced close-reading, and I especially hate the kind of close-reading that necessitates an English teacher walk you through every syllable of a ten-word sentence five times over, with maybe a Freudian sixth go-over thrown in for good measure. But I could do that for every sentence in Twenty Years’ Crisis and learn something new about the world. Carr’s examples are geographically limited, his advice is questionable, his terms are occasionally ill-defined, but this book teaches you, forces you to think about world politics in a critical, systematic way. Carr treats both moral imperatives and political constraints with the utmost seriousness, and is clear and biting in outlining the choices policymakers must make in navigating between them. My long affection for IR theory can be traced to here, and I hope some of the way I think about foreign policy questions can be too.

10. Nonzero, Robert Wright. My general belief that the benefits of human cooperation were bound to lead to greater political organization–and indeed my belief in some kind of world state–can be traced here. Wright does teleology in a very rigorous, appealing way that also accounts for free will. All you need are shared interests, not an essentially communal society of the type Marx assumes. Even if you don’t buy the precise mechanisms Wright cites (though I do), the central premise that human kind is making progress to some benevolent, interdependent end state is hard to disagree with, especially in light of the decline of war as a major activity of states in recent decades.

2 thoughts on “The Books Meme

  1. It always shocks the ear to hear ‘utilitarian’ and ‘thinks with nuance’ in the same sentence, applied to the same person. Utilitarianism is as little concerned with the nuances of human psychology as any system of ethical thought you can dream up. For that matter, systems of ethical thought in general suffer from the same general problem. Sacrifice of nuance to the will to systemization.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s