13 Books


Two weeks ago, Don Boudreaux over at Cafe Hayek listed the twelve books that have most influenced his thinking in economics. In fact he treated himself to a baker's dozen by adding an extra book, so since I love the number 13 I figured I would follow his lead by listing (in roughly chronological order) the 13 books that have had the greatest influence on my mental life:

  1. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Yes, it usually begins with Ayn Rand, or at least it did for me. I read this book nine times as a teenager but have not read it in twenty years (I tried to pick it up a few times but got turned off). One of these days I'll re-read it (as I have done in the last few years with Rand's other novels), but even though I disagree with much of her philosophy at this point, I know that Rand's ideas continue to influence me in many ways.
  2. Complete Works by Aristotle. I basically majored in Aristotle back in college, which has quite influenced my style of thinking about problems. I'm currently (if slowly) re-reading all of Aristotle, which will enable me to determine how much influence his thought still holds for me.
  3. The Epicurus Reader by Epicurus. From Aristotle I moved on to Epicurus. I appreciate the less scholastic approach of Epicurus to ethics and life in general, and his enlightened hedonism still holds quite an appeal for me. But I know that I'm too much of a modern American workaholic to follow his core ideas of pursuing mental calmness (ataraxia) and living in obscurity (lathe biosas).
  4. Die Froehliche Wissenschaft by Friedrich Nietzsche. After reading Rand, Aristotle, and Epicurus I absorbed a lot of Nietzsche, and a year or two ago I re-read his complete writings in English. To me, Die Froehliche Wissenschaft (a title often translated into English as "The Gay Science", through I prefer the Provencal subtitle of "la gaya scienza") captures Nietzsche at his most positive and thought-provoking.
  5. Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. Well, one needs to relax after all that serious philosophizing. I still feel that the gnomic expressions of Lao Tzu provide an attractive antidote to the categorical thinking characteristic of Western philosophy. That doesn't mean I'm a spontaneous free spirit, but I try to cultivate that side of my personality despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I am essentially a categorizing, logical person.
  6. A Soviet Heretic by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Zamyatin is one of my big favorites -- a true individualist who provides deep insights into culture, society, and human experience.
  7. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. About as close I've gotten to Christianity since I became a non-believer at the age of nine. But I find Gnostic thought to be quite appealing in many ways.
  8. Complete Poems by Walt Whitman. True Americanism. A wonderful corrective to elitist thinkers like Rand and Nietzsche, with quite a whiff of Gnostic ideals mixed in, suitably democratized for the American experience.
  9. The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley. I think this is one of the most important books published in the twentieth century. The best analysis I have read of the origin and meaning of human civilizations.
  10. How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. The power of vernacular, low-road, truly organic architecture -- and, by extension, vernacular, low-road, truly organic thinking.
  11. Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer. The story of the transmission of America's founding cultures from the British Isles. This book gave me a deep appreciation for culture as opposed to ideology or philosophy.
  12. Evolutionary Psychology by David Buss. Although this is "just" a textbook, it provides the best overview yet written of the ongoing application of evolutionary insights to human psychology.
  13. The Structure of Liberty by Randy Barnett. The possibility of anarchism. I don't know if I'm really an anarchist, but I don't much believe in government anymore (where I use "believe" in the same sense here that I use when I call myself a religious non-believer), and this book more than any other led me in that direction.

Note that I've read many of these books only in the last few years, so as I read more I'll likely update my list of 13 most influential books. Or at least I hope so: better to keep growing intellectually, especially in these interesting times!

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