I saw a blog post on a book related web site that listed several posts about the ten most influential books in a person’s life. It seemed like a good idea, so I have borrowed the idea for here.
The books are listed in the order they occured to me, which is probably a good gauge of the importance to me.
1. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White – I read this book in first grade, and it is the first book that I ever remember having an emotional effect on me. A story of life and death is pretty deep stuff for a six year old, but E. B. White respected children enough to understand that they could handle it. I still have the copy of the book that I read back then.
2. Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter – I got a chance to read this book as a sophomore in college. I was a newly minted mathematics major after deciding that computer science wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. As you will see below, I had been taken by the beauty of math, but this book opened up a whole new world to me. It showed me how math was more than just a fancy way to put numbers together. Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is among the highest achievements ever done in mathematics. It came about at a time when one of the leading mathematicians, Bertrand Russell, was seeking to show that everything in mathematics could be decided by starting with a set of axioms and a rigorous logical process. Godel’s theorem states that this cannot be true. Any consistent structure (no true statements are proved false, no false statements are proved true) cannot be complete (every statement is proved either true or false), and likewise any complete structure cannot be consistent. Hofstadter attempts to explain this by exploring paradox, recursion and self-reference in the art of M.C. Escher and the music of J.S. Bach. This book truly changed the way I think.
3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – This book was quite a revolution 35 years ago when it was the first introduction a lot of people got to Eastern philosophy. This is another book that I was exposed to in college and is the non-scientific equivalent to “Godel” in opening up a new world to me. The main theme of the book that stays with me is the difference between Western, reductive thinking and the Eastern, holistic style. As noted above, I was being immersed in the world of mathematics which appealed to my analytic nature. I was in love with the idea that you take a big problem, break it into a bunch of little problems, solve each of the little problems and then build it back up to understand the whole. Pirsig argues that this approach is not complete. Using the motorcycle as a metaphor, he tries to explain a concept called “Quality”, by which he means that a machine or organism is more than just the sum of its parts. There is a “Quality” of being a motorcycle that cannot be explained by understanding spark plugs, carburetor, pistons, etc. I was totally blown away by the concept when I read it for the first time, and I still go back to it to this day.
4. Calculus by Dennis D. Berkey – Yes, this is a textbook. The fact that I have my degrees in mathematics and not another subject can be traced to one day during my freshman year in college in Calculus I with Dr. John Kinney. As a reminder to all of you that have tried to put the horror of college math behind you, the derivative is demonstrated by finding out how to determine the tangent to a curve at any point. In the first few days of Calculus, you see that the derviative is the limit as y goes to zero of [f(x+y) – f(x)]/y. And, all Calculus students remember that the first function you put through this definition is xn. Going through the effort of plugging that into the formula for a derivative give the result that the derivative for xn is nxn-1. I was amazed that something as complex as that formula for a derivative could yield something so simple for exponents, and yet had a direct counterpart in the physical world. It was a truly beautiful moment.
5. Five Weeks to Winning Bridge by Alfred Sheinwold – Bridge had to be in here somewhere, right? My best friend in college taught me to play bridge from this book. This book was written for a different time when playing bridge was a requirement for social success (yes, not that long ago EVERYONE played bridge), and taking five weeks to learn how to play bridge was not unreasonable. No one uses this book to teach bridge anymore, especially because of the bidding (it teaches four card majors and several other bidding treatments that went out of style many years ago). But, Sheinwold had a smooth writing style that made it easy to get hooked on both the book and the game, and I did.
6. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J. I. Packer – This is a strange entry on the list because the effect this book had on me is the exact opposite of the intent of its author. During a stretch of my life running from junior high school to college, I was a religious person. However, I always carried a significant amount of doubt and skepticism about it. One of the largest sources of doubt in my life was the paradox between the supposed omnipotence and omniscience of God and the idea of free will and accountability. If God is omniscient, then how could he not know that man and woman would ultimately commit the original sin? And, if God is omnipotent, why couldn’t he prevent man and woman from sinning, so that he wouldn’t have to punish them, those he loved? In this book, Packer takes on this paradox and ultimately, in my opinion, fails to make any headway. His main text is from Ephesians 1 where Paul writes that Christians are “predestined” to be holy. If those who are Christians and thus will be saved were predestined to be so, then what is the purpose of evangelism? I read this book waiting and hoping for it to be made clear to me, but it never happened. When finished, my doubts and skepticism had morphed into certainties, and this book remains the foundation of my atheism.
7. East of Eden by John Steinbeck – This is really a stand-in for all of Steinbeck’s works. While I know that Steinbeck is looked down upon by the critics, I have loved every book of his that I have read. Though “Grapes of Wrath” is lauded more than “East of Eden”, to me “Eden” is a more epic and complete novel than “Grapes”. But in all of Steinbeck’s works you will find a recognition of the ability of the human spirit to rise up over overwhelming trials and struggles. “East of Eden” adds in the concept of forgiveness and redemption. Steinbeck’s credo is stated in “East of Eden” and has served as one of my guiding philosophies. “This I believe: That the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.”
8. The Fran Libowitz Reader by Fran Libowitz – “Anyone who thinks that a dog is man’s best friend hasn’t met a good tax accountant.” Fran was really the first person that showed me you could make a living out of sarcasm. I’ve been trying to follow in her footsteps ever since.
9. 1984 by George Orwell – The great dystopian novel. I read this book waiting for the happy ending that never arrived. (The last line is haunting.) This book taught me the importance of politics.
10. Tales of the City Series by Armistead Maupin – I was at a retirement party where this collection of six books was given as a present. The recipient was so touched that I decided that I had to find out what they were about. I went to the library to check out the first book in the series. Three days later, I went back to the library to check out the next three. I believe that I read the entire set in about two weeks. These books were originally serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle during the late ’70s and ’80s. They were a realistic (from what I hear) snapshot of life in San Francisco at the time. I remember being captured by these books from the very first image in them of Mary Ann Singleton visiting San Francisco on vacation and deciding never to go home again. It is a very romantic beginning to all the adventures that follow, and Maupin never loses the sense of romance and joy throughout any of these books. These books and all of the characters in them have a very special place in my heart.
That’s the list. Perhaps in a couple of years, I’ll come back to this and revise or augment this. I’d love to hear comments on this or see anyone else’s list of influential books.