Monday, July 5, 2010

Books which have influenced me most

Tyler Cowen started a trend in March of bloggers listing a "gut list" of the 10 books which influenced them the most. His list is here.

I'm a bit late to the party but my list is below. I have 11 entries because sometimes you just need 1 more, so you take it to 11. Most of the books are on there for one memorable or novel idea, not necessarily original to the author, just the first place I learned about it. They aren't the 10 "best" books I've ever read, but I'd recommend most of them.

Hyperspace - This book introduced me to how interesting math and theoretical physics can be. I started reading it late one night and couldn't put it down, something I can't say for a lot of books.


The End of Poverty - this was the first book I read on development economics. I read close to everything Jeffrey Sachs publishes these days. This book introduced me to the importance of trade and growth in development (in a vague way) and is one of the main reasons I'm studying economics today.


The Tipping Point - this was one of the first books I read in a day. It made me think a lot about applications to politics. I don't think about it so much anymore. I've read tons of Gladwell essays and his three other books since, many of which also had some good ideas. (Outliers almost made this list.)


Stumbling on Happiness - I read 100 pages of this book in high school, then fell asleep at like 7 PM on Friday and never got around to finishing it. Three years later I checked it out from the library and didn't finish it. Then I bought it just a few months ago and read it cover to cover. It's about why we're so bad at predicting what will make us happy. I forget that a lot, but it struck me as a very novel thesis, well argued. I wish I just kept it in mind more often.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - this is the best novel ever written. There are a lot of great but trite messages throughout the series. The thing that struck me and stuck with me was in this quote: "Of course it is happening in your head . . . but why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?" I'm an ethical subjectivist. I think we make up our own significance and this (probably unintentionally) captures that.


Brave New World - this book is about truth and happiness. It plays with your intuition to try to convince you happiness isn't everything and I learned a ton thinking about why the book is wrong (happiness > truth) but feels wrong.


"Politics and the English Language" - this is the best essay ever written, period. Re-read it often. It's easy to try to sound smart by string big words together. It's hard to think up good ideas and then find words to express them. Jargon isn't always bad, and I think he goes too far attacking some common phrases.


A Midsummer Night's Dream - this is the most thoughtful Shakespeare play and the most fun. Literature deal with a few topics well. Love is one and this reflects more of what I think about it (fickle, dramatic, and inescapable) than Romeo and Juliet ("love conquers all", tragic).


Commanding Heights - this is a book but I never finished it. It's on the list because the PBS special based on the book was influential. It introduced me to Jeff Sachs and also changed me from being sympathetic to socialist ideas to thinking history proved them wrong. I didn't understand the calculation problem until later but the seed was probably planted here


How We Decide -  I didn't even finish this book but I made me understand and believe that the brain works unconsciously to solve most of our problems and that emotions can be guideposts based on that subconscious work. It helped shatter my worldview that said you make your best decisions by always thinking thing through. Now I believe you should trust your gut, at least on some issues (see "A Midsummer Night's Dream").


Godel, Escher, Bach - this book is one of the longest books I've ever read. It has hundreds of interesting ideas but the most interesting is the concept of a "strange loop," that what makes conscious things conscious is that they are aware they exist. You can draw an analogy between that fact and how Godel's theorem exploits arithmetic to speak about arithmetic, leading to all sorts of paradoxes. I still don't understand the whole deal that well, but it got me interesting in cognitive science and to the author's hypothesis that all thinking is a process of making analogies. The speech where he explained that might as well share this spot.

Update: I'm adding another pair of books on the same theme because they should have been on here and I forgot to write them down.

Band of Brothers and A Bridge Too Far. These are great books about courage. While Band of Brothers is a triumphant story, A Bridge too Far is tragic. They complement each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment