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A Meta-Thought About “Influence”

March 24th, 2010 · 10 Comments

As I was coming up with my own list of “influential” books and scanning some of the ones others picked, I got to thinking a bit about just what we mean when we say a book “influenced” us. People used the term in a variety of ways, but it seemed as though most of the variety could be mapped along two dimensions—let’s call them formal/substantive and theoretical/practical. Suppose I say I was influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s books. If I’m an aspiring novelist, I probably mean this in the formal/practical sense: I want to write novels like his, and will probably turn out a lot of painful stuff full of terse declarative sentences. But I might have a more substantive influence in mind: I’ve adopted a particular kind of vision of masculine virtues with a premium on physical courage, “grace under pressure” and so on. Where that falls on the theoretical/practical dimension depends on whether I actually take up bullfighting or enlist in someone else’s civil war.

Slightly less fanciful: Suppose someone lists Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom as an influence.  At the formal end, an economist whose interest in the discipline was sparked by reading Friedman as a kid might say this even if he later came to disagree with all of Friedman’s specific policy views. A little further down, you might come away with a general view about the virtues of unregulated markets, and further still, with a specific conviction about (say) school vouchers.  Of course, you might simultaneously be influenced in all these ways—and indeed, it would be hard to imagine someone finding the particular policy argument compelling without adopting the middle-level view to some extent—which probably tends to obscure the different levels of influence involved.  The theoretical/practical dimension is especially fuzzy for writers and academics, for whom there’s not as clear a division between “what you think” and “what you do.”  But even for us, I think there’s a rough distinction between adopting a belief and adopting a habit of thought. So if I’m a columnist who’s been persuaded by Friedman’s mid-level view of the virtues of lightly regulated markets, a more theoretical form of influence might be that I’m disposed to invoke Friedman’s arguments in a political debate—to assert certain kinds of propositions—while in a more practical mode the same arguments might function as conceptual tools I use to understand a new issue more than statements I’m prepared to endorse. In terms of the old Zen koan about the finger pointing at the moon, you might call this the difference between looking at the finger and following it to the moon.

You can pick a bunch of different types of books and try to imagine what the different forms of influence might look like at different points of this schema.  Say Miles Davis’ autobiography.  Formal/Theoretical: I get interested in reading more about the lives of artists and musicians, or the history of jazz. Formal/Practical: Miles dealt with all sorts of personal hardship, and I take away lessons for my own life from that. Substantive/Theoretical: I have a richer appreciation of Miles’ music because I have a fuller understanding of the context of its creation. Substantive/Practical: I want to be a jazz trumpeter (and either try heroin or stay far the hell away from it).

Anyway, I wanted to toss this out there mostly because I noticed that the books I picked were mostly influential somewhere around the middle of both axes. In other words, they were books that I found I could strip-mine for a lot of handy multipurpose conceptual tools I find myself applying in a variety of contexts.  So the important thing about Code wasn’t that it convinced me to take a particular position on (say) intellectual property laws—though it probably did that to a degree, in tandem with a bunch of stuff I read later—but that it got me interested in thinking about certain categories of issues in a particular way.  So looking over other people’s lists, while of course it’s revealing to learn which particular books people named as influences, it’s also interesting to infer from what people say about them how they tend to be influenced by books.  Now maybe someone can flesh out this schema and write a meta-influential book that influences the way people are influenced by other books.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Language and Literature



10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Freddie // Mar 24, 2010 at 11:07 am

    I have similar issues with how we talk about influence, which I hinted at in my own list. Unlike you, though, I don’t think there’s much to be done about it. Influence is beyond evaluation.

    One thing that is important and interesting is that people can list the same books, and even for some of the same reasons, while arriving at vastly different conclusions. The tendency, when you read someone writing about a book that you yourself love and influenced you, but takes the book in an entirely different way, is to think “you’re reading it wrong!” Which is funny.

    I was considering listing The Wealth of Nations, if only because Adam Smith was an egalitarian so radical as to put me to shame, who endorsed markets with the explicit condition that he did so under the belief that free markets would lead to perfect equality… but it is better to submit to the wisdom of the crowd sometimes, I think.

  • 2 Jake // Mar 24, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    Another meta thought, and one I appended to my original blog post: I’ve noticed that lists very seldom have examples of what not to do—in other words, books that one reacts strongly against. I included one or two such examples in the form of the Wheel of Time and Dragonlance series (although they’re really examples of an entire genre and its conventions), but I don’t recall seeing any others saying, “this book helped me not think or do x.”

  • 3 mike farmer // Mar 24, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    I had a long lunch argument with a very rational, anal-retentive writer when I answered the question of influence by naming Pynchon and Joyce. This was when Pynchon still had not written anything since Gravity’s Rainbow, and we were discussing poetry — he wrote metered verse, and I wrote free-verse, more concerned with the creativity of the content. His argument was that no one could possibly be influenced by Joyce because his style was inimitable and his content practically meaningless (to him). My position was that I was influenced by the spirit of their writing, the verbal exuberance, the creativity, the skill required to write really good stream-of-consciousness without it being complete babble. I’ve moderated my style because of blogging and writing in a hurry, but your post reminded me why I started writing in the first place, which is in large part a spiritual/creative/transcendent exercise. Perhaps I need to write less frequently and with more style and creativity, as I did when writing poetry. Much of what I read lately, and write, is much too stylistically bland.

  • 4 David T // Mar 25, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    “I read him [Hemingway] for the first time in the early forties, something about bells, balls, and bulls…”–Vladimir Nabokov

  • 5 LP // Mar 25, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Surprising that you made it through this whole post without mentioning Ayn Rand, who must be the quintessential example of this among libertarians. Virtually every libertarian I’ve ever met was strongly and permanently influenced by the moral intuitions in her work, while eventually rejecting almost every conclusion she delivers, both theoretical and applied.

  • 6 B // Mar 25, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    I disagree with this: ‘If I’m an aspiring novelist, I probably mean this in the formal/practical sense: I want to write novels like his’.

    It’s more like: ‘I don’t want to write like him, but I mostly end up doing so!’

    Influence is not the intention to imitate, though it may well manifest itself as imitation.

  • 7 David T // Mar 25, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    There is also such a thing as *negative* influence. For example, I have a feeling that Ayn Rand actually turned a lot of people *away* from libertarianism (even broadly defined). Why? Because X’s libertarian college roommate (whom X doesn’t much like anyway) says breathlessly that he has just been reading *Atlas Shrugged* and it’s the greatest book ever written, and it shows how altruism is evil. X reads the book–he may even try to finish it–and develops a lifelong antipathy to libertarians because he thinks of them as “the people–like my ******* roommate–who idolize the woman who wrote these tiresome tirades…”

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