Various bloggers are listing the top 10 books that have influenced them. Some of these lists look pretty pretentious. I would be the first to admit that the books that have really influenced me are a miscellaneous bunch, starting with Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World and continuing through various teen adventure novels, read-alouds for my kids (Go, Dog, Go! is up there), and a fair amount of downright junk. But there’s benefit to listing books that you have actually read and that have shaped your serious, professional work–call them “aspirational influences.” Here are mine, in the order I first read them:
George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the great novel for grownups (because it begins instead of ends with a marriage). I first read it in a college-style seminar at the Telluride Summer Program for high school kids, and it was my earliest experience with real criticism: close reading, understanding a text in context, applying theoretical frameworks. That was eye-opening and inspiring. I have even deeper respect for the novel now, having re-read it in middle age. By the way, the city of its title is industrializing. It is in the “March” of its development, with a long summer of growth ahead. Many of our cities today are experiencing de-industrialization; they are at November. More than anything, I would love to read a Middlemarch of the post-industrial American city.
Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station, which I read when I was a teenager. It introduced me to historicism, the idea that fundamental premises and values change from culture to culture and that modernism is a response to that recognition. Those were also basic ideas for my father, and Wilson helped me to understand his work.
Ernst Gomrich, Art and Illusion, which I also read when I was a teenager. It gave me a scheme with which to assimilate the Italian art that we had seen during six months living it Italy. Gombrich’s theory is fundamentally not historicist: he sees painters as scientists, learning to represent objective nature by trial-and-error. I accepted both Wilson and Gombrich and tried to harmomize them in several long and unsuccessful undergraduate papers. I still think it is essential to reconcile progress and problem-solving (Gombrich and others) with some kind of relativism (Wilson and others).
Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, which I have not opened since I was about 18, but I read the whole thing then, and it made me want to be a political philosopher. It also helped to make me a liberal, although that outcome was probably overdetermined.
Shakespeare, King Lear. Hardly an original choice, but I have seen at least a half dozen productions and published a chapter about this great study of human love when life has no purpose.
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. Although I rarely quote him, my sense of moral reasoning is heavily Wittgensteinian. Moral concepts are not one kind of thing and do not all have one logic. They are miscellaneous but they work in their various contexts. Further, the Investigations exemplifies how philosophy is a kind of writing (to quote Richard Rorty); its form matters as much as its conclusions.
Theodore Lowi, The End of Liberalism (1969, revised in 1979), which argues that American politics has degenerated into negotiations among organized interest groups, while the notion of the public good had been lost in both academic theory and political practice. Lowi remains completely timely, alas.
Dante, Inferno–in the Robert Pinsky translation and glimpsed dimly in the original Italian. Dante is great to “think with.” I’ve been struggling with him since I took three college seminars on the Divine Comedy, and this winter I published a book-length study of him. He is fundamentally alien to me but he challenges us with his strong and clear vision.
Nabokov, Lolita. Some of the worst misreadings in history are the ones that interpret this book as some kind of defense of Humbert or an argument for sexual liberation. Humbert is a monster; the hero is the child he rapes. Nabokov, the Russian aristocrat, could see the world from the perspective of a suburban, gum-popping, American tween, which was was a great feat of empathy and moral imagination. Humbert’s sophisticated rhetoric almost erases her, in a profound illustration of tyranny.
Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House teaches the spiritual benefits of civic engagement, the need to respect ordinary people and vernacular cultures, citizenship as co-creation, and the value of listening with an open mind.