It’s been a while since we had a good blogmeme, but this past week a slew of my favorite writers have been playing the “name ten books that influenced you” game. Scanning my shelf, the ones that jump out:
Code — Lawrence Lessig I can trace my interest in most of the core issues I’ve spent the last five years writing about to reading this book as an undergraduate—both the ones where I ultimately shared Lessig’s position and the ones where I vehemently disagreed. How the Fourth Amendment adapts to technological change. How the architecture of networks affects the balance between autonomy and state power. How intellectual property law shapes culture. I’d probably still be a writer if I hadn’t read Code when I did, but I might well have ended up writing about completely different subjects.
Reasons and Persons — Derek Parfit It’s telling that quite a few others have named this book, which suggests that it deserves to be better known outside the walls of philosophy departments. What’s perhaps most striking about it is the sheer density of original insight and (with a few exceptions) the powerful rigor with which it’s laid out. It always seemed like a book published far too late to possibly contain so many ideas that were both compelling and really novel. Just about all of my thinking about ethics, identity, and rationality—whether I agree with Parfit or not—is at some level shaped in response to his way of thinking about the issues.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia — Robert Nozick Probably the first modern book of libertarian political philosophy that the rest of the discipline felt obliged to take seriously. Rather like the previous two books—though perhaps to an even greater extent—this is a book that influenced me less because it made a single overarching argument that persuaded than because it’s such a fertile toolbox of thought experiments and analytic strategies.
Sandman — Neil Gaiman I’m cheating a bit here by grouping the whole run together as a “book,” but this is the series that taught me comics could be used to tell serious and complex stories right around the time I was (temporarily) growing out of funny books about well-muscled men and impossibly-endowed women in bright spandex. Also the first work I can remember consciously appreciating for its hypertextual/intertextual nature—something I’ve since realized is a common feature of art I like.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — Hunter Thompson The initial influence of this one was to inspire me to use a cigarette holder for a few months as a teenager—an influence that has, mercifully, abated. I’ve also mostly outgrown the temptation to ape his style, which is fortunate, since few people can pull that off well. But it’s book that fed my sense of journalism as an adventure at a crucial point. And especially in tandem with his later more overtly political writing, something of that sensibility and that feeling has stayed with me—even if I’m more likely to be on a bender of reading law review articles than taking an acid-fueled road trip through Barstow.
Political Liberalism — John Rawls Theory of Justice is the famous one; I wish the main ideas of this one were as widely dispersed. Obviously I don’t share a whole lot of Rawls’ substantive political commitments, but I’m very sympathetic to his meta-politics. PL lays out a view of liberal societies governed by a relatively thin form of public reason designed to enable peaceful social cooperation between people with wildly divergent metaphysical/religious views and conceptions of the good life. I ended up writing my philosophy honors thesis in college on it, and I’ve pretty much stayed a neutralist liberal deep down.
Rules and Order — Friedrich Hayek Or maybe I shouldn’t have said “designed” when talking about public reason above. This is a slender book, and one of Hayek’s more abstract, but the basic view here frames most of my thinking about social institutions to some extent. I keep waiting for more folks who write about digital culture to rediscover this one.
On Liberty — John Stuart Mill Compact, elegant, and for all the well-worn difficulties, basically right. Hard to ask for more than that.
The Meme Machine — Susan Blackmore I could’ve swapped in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which I read around the same time. Blackmore and Dennett were my introduction to an evolutionary view of human culture and ideas, which you can find lurking in the background of a great deal of what I write, on everything from copyright to religion.
Philosophical Investigations — Ludwig Wittgenstein An occasionally maddening but invaluable judo manual.