The other 6 of the 10 books that influenced me most by mattsteinglass
March 20, 2010, 1:19 am
Filed under: Literature, Uncategorized

Got some more time, so I figured I’d finish it off.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. The first truly complete-feeling aeschatological fantasy. I think Tolkien has been enormously influential in shaping people’s subconscious assumptions about history and international relations, and not necessarily in a good way; a heroic epic approach to IR can be pretty dangerous. The main problem being that while Mordor was full of orcs, Iraq is full of people.

6. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit. Compare to #5 for interesting ideas about American triumphalism in the ’90s and ’00s. But Hegel is obviously more interesting than a narrow reading through the Fukuyama lens tends to indicate, and you do have to figure out some way to synthesize your idea of history with your idea of personal moral development if you want to think about politics as a moral enterprise at all.

7. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. I’m really glad I got to reread much of Bakhtin in my late 20s, because I don’t think I got it at all the first time around in college. It was much more powerful to think about how people’s statements emerge in a social process of response and constraint, rather than springing full-blown from the invisible monad of the individual imagination, after I’d been through the experience of having editors and an audience. Also, I reread Bakhtin in order to write an article for Lingua Franca, which was what drew me gradually into journalism. Again, pretty influential.

8. Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. I don’t think it’s his best book, but it has the most clearly formulated vision of America as either meaningless aporia or fiendish conspiracy. That Americans’ hunger for meaning plays itself out in that fashion is an insight I think remains central to my self-understanding of America.

9. Jane Austen, Emma. Guess what? People often don’t understand themselves very well, and their actions are driven by desires they themselves aren’t aware of. Freud explained this in the 20th century, but it’s ten times more powerful when Jane Austen shows you how it works, in an utterly convincing and sympathetic fashion, a hundred years earlier.

10. Chaos, James Gleick. I think this was my first introduction to the idea that even fairly simple systems can have complex and unpredictable behaviors, and that basically things in the world are likely to be vastly more complicated and perverse than you expect, so great big heroic interventions are usually unwise unless urgently necessary.

This has turned into a pretty weird list; I think that’s because much of what I’ve learned that was most influential didn’t come from books, but from magazine articles, movies, and, yes, blogs.


2 Comments so far
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Influential in what ways? Shaping your thoughts? Actions?
It’s an interesting question and yours is a weighty list. I’d bet for many it’s softer stuff, best- selling business books like Seth Godin, that tend to be clearly prescriptive.

As a writer, for me it’s sometimes more the form — spectacular writing — rather than content that influences or inspires me. I love the spare style of Graham Greene,
who says more in a sentence than many.

Comment by Caitlin Kelly

It is an interesting list. I’m nervous to think through my list for fear there will be seven Louis L’Amours. Or a horse and three dogs. I find it kind of neat that you include blogs. We’re not too old to learn, by Jim.

Comment by citifieddoug

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