The Books That Influenced Me the Most: Not

Tyler Cowen recently posted a list of books that influenced him the most, adding that "I would encourage other bloggers to offer similar lists." And offer they did! Here's a collection of links, plus there are Matthew Yglesias, Kieran Healey, the nameless drunk at A Sort of Happiness Experiment, Scott Sumner, Will Wilkinson (adding the caveat that "I’m a bit skeptical about the reliability of introspection and memory, and I think this kind of thing generally reflects one’s favorite current self-construction rather than real influence," which may help explain the popularity of this little exercise), and John Althouse Cohen. I considered publishing a list of my own, but it took me about twenty seconds to realize that, all in all, books haven't influenced me all that much. For the record, the book that changed the way I see the world most was Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption, the book that most changed my view of what literature can and should do was Zone érogène, translated into German as Erogene Zone by Michael Mosblech, and the book that seems to have influenced my personality development the most (and not for the better, one might add) was Ray Coleman's biography of John Lennon. But why can't I come up with a proper list? Some interconnected reasons:
  • I started regularly reading books for fun very late in life, at around age 18. I believe that's about as typical as starting smoking at age 20, but there you go. By the time books got a serious chance, a lot of influencing had already been done.
  • Sure stuff influenced and influences me, but it seems this usually happens gradually and I can't tell you why I hold this or that belief. I'm the skeptical, Bayesian type and always have been. Conversions are not my thing.
  • Keeping in mind that it's hard to tell where stuff comes from and one is likely to make one's biography a more coherent narrative than real life's messiness warrants, I'll tentatively submit that the biggest two influences on me were two men. The silver medal goes to Herbert, who was my football coach between my ages 6 and 10 (or thereabouts). It seems to me that he taught me to give one's best to reach the common desired goal, an aversion to whining that's maybe a bit over the top, and a certain general humility that one had better develop to survive the hairdryer treatment that one knows one fully deserves. The gold medal goes to my father. To give a pars pro toto, yes, I did read lots of Popper, but only to learn that I already knew all of the most important parts, having been taught by dad about falsificationism and epistemology more generally (though not in those terms) when I was a teen.
Hats off to the two of them. Maybe one of those days I'll write down a little anecdote in which both of them feature. Writing that sentence, I remember I recently promised a post denouncing sociologists. That's first. Within the next 6-8 weeks, promise!

1 comment:

Strether said...

Thanks for this. I came (late) upon your post after googling "i'm not influenced by books," because I had the same epiphany after trying to pick my own 10 books (out of hundreds read). (I have no blog. Just an imagination.) I'm surprised that so few bloggers reacted as you (we) did. But maybe I shouldn't be, since steady bloggers probably need a bedrock of firmly held views, which I, too, generally lack.