Books which have influenced me most

by on March 16, 2010 at 7:15 am in Books | Permalink

Chris, a loyal MR reader, asks:

I'd like to see you list the top 10 books which have influenced your view of the world.

I'll go with the "gut list," rather than the "I've thought about this for a long time list."  I'll also stress that books are by no means the only source of influence.  The books are in no intended order, although the list came out in a broadly chronological stream:

1. Plato, Dialogues.  I read these very early in life and they taught me about trying to think philosophically and also about meta-rationality.

2. The Incredible Bread Machine, by Susan Love Brown,  This was the first book I ever read on economics and it got me excited about the topic.

3. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand.  This got me excited about the idea that production is what matters and that producers must have the freedom and incentives to operate.

4. Friedrich A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order.  The market as a discovery procedure and why socialist calculation will not succeed.  (By the way, I'll toss a chiding tsk-tsk the way of Wolfers and Thoma.)

5. John Maynard Keynes: The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  Keynes is one of the greatest thinkers of economics and there are new ideas on virtually every page.

6. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography.  This got me thinking about how one's ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime.  Plus Mill is a brilliant thinker and writer more generally.

7. Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object.  This is actually a book about how to arrive at a deeper understanding than the one you already have, although I suspect few people read it that way.

8. Reasons and Persons, by Derek Parfit.  This convinced me that a strictly individualistic approach to ethics will not in general succeed and introduced me to new ways of reasoning and new ways to plumb for depth.

9. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae.  I don't think the ideas in this book have influenced me very much, but reading it was, for whatever reason, the impetus to start writing about the economics of culture and also to give a broader focus to what I write.  Alex, by the way, was the one who recommended it to me.

10. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past.  This is still the best book on interiority.

I'd also like to mention the two books by Fischer Black, although a) I cannot easily elevate one over the other, and b) I capped the list at ten.  La Rochefoucauld's Maxims also deserves honorary mention, on self-deception and related issues.  Plus there is Shakespeare — also for thinking with depth – although I cannot point to a single book above the others.  Harold Bloom's The Western Canon comes to mind as well.

I would encourage other bloggers to offer similar lists.

1 Tori in DC March 16, 2010 at 7:46 am

I am very disappointed in you — bad, bad Tyler. A nice boy like you should not be seen the company of unpleasant and disreputable women like Camile Paglia and Ayn Rand. Miss Rand concerns me in particular.

2 josh March 16, 2010 at 8:21 am


Believe it or not, Tyler was once young; and when he was, things influenced him. There are probably things much stupider than Ayn Rand in everyone’s list of *actual* influences. Of course, this list is more about signaling than about what actually made Tyler Tyler even if Tyler is trying to be as honest as possible.

3 Urstoff March 16, 2010 at 9:05 am

That is a unique take on Word and Object. Aside from semantic ascent, I’m not entirely sure how you get that reading.

4 Chris March 16, 2010 at 9:43 am


I’m glad that someone else rates Rand’s nonfiction above her fiction.

5 Chase Saunders March 16, 2010 at 10:02 am

Tori, have you actually read Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal? It’s pretty good. I don’t like Rand’s black-and-white thinking and her belief that she knows everything about everything. I don’t like most of her fiction, and her art book is particularly heinous. But Capitalism is really good. The sections written by Alan Greenspan, who was a disciple at the time, are particularly interesting.

6 dearieme March 16, 2010 at 10:17 am

Interiority? Try Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner – the shiveriest novel I’ve ever read.

7 Steve Z March 16, 2010 at 10:30 am

The autobiography of Mikhail Tal.
Balthazar Castiglione – Book of the Courtier.
The 1001 Nights. (A Victorian translation.)
The Sorrows of Young Werther.
A Candle in the Dark.
Pale Fire.
A History of Western Philosophy.

8 Greg March 16, 2010 at 11:42 am

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman pretty much changed my life.

9 C March 16, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Here are 10 I can come up with a bit of thought:

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (especially “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”)
Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment
Shakespeare’s The Tempest (really, it’s this one play in particular)
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Heller’s Catch-22
Barthes’ Camera Lucida
Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
Gibson’s Neuromancer
Paul Celan’s poetry
Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

It’s hard to keep Catcher in the Rye off this list. I think it may shake The Crying of Lot 49 to 11…. and Space Merchants gives Neuromancer a strong run for its money.

10 Mark Thoma March 16, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I didn’t say anything negative about Hayek, only that I’d put David Ricardo on the list first. I stand by that — Ricardo’s contributions to economics were much greater than Hayek’s (in my opinion). Instead of tsk, tsking, do you have an argument as to why Hayek ought to be included over Ricardo?

11 Barkley Rosser March 16, 2010 at 2:44 pm


I am not able to post on your blog since you put up that roundtable on China. Somne weird
thing pops in saying there is a plug in error and then my computer freezes and I have to reboot,
so no more comments there from me for now.

In any case, you have not explained what is so wonderful about Ricardo. Is it that he
formulated the first theoretical version of the standard classical model? Is it the Principle
of Comparative Advantage? Both of those plus Ricardian Equivalence plus more unmentioned?

12 Jule Herbert March 16, 2010 at 5:20 pm

I first met Tyler when he was, I believe, 17 or 18, and this period, I gather, was just after his Rand and Hayek introduction and just before Keynes and Mill (if the list above is in fact in chronological order).

I have no idea if during this period Tyler had a chance to read Hazlitt’s The Failure of the “New Economics” before reading Keynes (as I did) or Hayek’s comments and analysis in John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor prior to reading Mill’s Autobiography, but the experience of having coming in touch of those books first certainly inoculated this writer from being easily swayed from those quarters.

13 thehova March 16, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Plato boggled my mind as a freshman in college. I’m not sure why, but it shocked me that one author could think so deeply thousands of years ago.

14 Justin March 16, 2010 at 8:58 pm

I know you prefer to write short, often cryptic, remarks, but the claim about W&O demands an explanation. It strikes me less as a heterodox reading and more of a non sequitur.

@steve z @ed_finnerty I actually haven’t read a history of western philosophy myself, but my understanding is that it is regarded as gratuitously wrong about many, if not most of the historical figures it covers. So the explanations will be specific to the individual philosophers.

15 tkehler March 16, 2010 at 9:45 pm

I was once deeply influenced by Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, a book I now see as biased and tendentious

For what it is worth, I have never read a word of Ayn Rand, but I have read some Hayek

Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (I don’t think I understood a tenth of it, as I was a teen, and I realize it is deeply problematic, but it had a long-lasting and haunting effect on me)

Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy

Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere

Stendhal, On Love

Homer, The Odyssey

One of the greatest and most influential books I’ve ever read is Jon Elster’s Sour Grapes

16 thehova March 17, 2010 at 12:18 am

Heidegger is out of fashion. But several of his essays in, “The Question Concerning Technology and other essays” were deeply enlightening to me.

17 iedge karte  March 17, 2010 at 7:58 am

I like your blog and i am quite impressed with it. I am also fond of reading books. I would like to read one of it which you have listed over here. Thanks for sharing the list.

18 Steve Z March 17, 2010 at 1:00 pm

ed_finnerty: Ditto re: the above reply. I think it’s been panned for being an inaccurate history. Regardless, it was great insofar as it introduced me to a broad range of ideas at an early age.

One book that I haven’t read but imagine excellent is Emanuel Lasker’s “Kampf,” setting out his theory of games. Does anybody know if it’s been translated into English?

19 Ryan Vann March 17, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Prof Thoma,

While I believe Ricardo definitely added some understanding to economics and human understanding, I’m not sure I’d consider his works more important than Hayek’s. But that seems a rather subjective point that is really neither here nor there. The issue is whether adding Ricardo to already existing curriculum really adds anymore insight than adding Hayek would. On that issue, I would contend that no he doesn’t, as Adam Smith already provides much of the material that Ricardo does (labor theory of value, comparative advantages, advantage of trade, etc.) Hayek adds an informatics complexity element that some of the other authors mentioned simply don’t. Also missing from the list is growth theory, in which case a bit of Solow would be a good addition too.

In other words, I don’t think the point of Economic curricula is to champion the guys who waved the biggest academic dick, but to provide a rich amount of perspectives as to build a much more complete view of Economics.

20 ed_finnerty March 18, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I have read many of the pans of History of Western Philosophy and was left with the impression that most of the critisism was because he mocked some of the giants in the field, and specifically dismissed Hegel as unreadable (and pointless even if you did), Kant as wrong, and Rousseau as ridiculous.

21 mark March 18, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Allison, Essence of Decision (the best political science book I ever read)

Newfield, RFK: a Memoir

Hobbes, Leviathan,

Wilson, To the Finland Station

Dawkins, the Selfish Gene

My 9th grade literature textbook, which introduced me to Borges, Ionesco, Beckett, Ibsen.

A Shakespeare reader

Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis.

The Sunday New York Times and the New Yorker my father subscribed to.

The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845-49 by C. Woodham-Smith

22 Bill March 18, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Your list you’ve made consists of books you THINK have influenced you the most. I would like to know the books that you don’t realize have influenced you the most.

23 William Flesch March 19, 2010 at 2:30 pm

I am so glad that you included both Proust and Quine, and agree entirely with your description of both of them.

24 randy March 19, 2010 at 3:53 pm

My personal favorite is The Bamberg Affair In The All. It represents some astounding philosophical thought that explains the 7 fundamental laws at work in the universe. The laws are unchanging truths that consistently operate across all epochs, and answered so much about “who am I, why am I here, etc.” It left me viewing things in a totally different way.

25 VangelV March 20, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Keynes? If you really read, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, how is it that you missed the muddled thinking and the contradictions? I think that you must have mistaken skimming with careful reading.

26 Jack Imari March 21, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Norman O. Brown’s “Life Against Death”
Simone Weil’s “Waiting for God”
W. H. Auden’s “The Dyer’s Hand”
St Paul’s Epistles
Rene Girard’s “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World”
D . H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow” & “Women in Love”
James Watson’s “The Double Helix”

27 PaulW March 24, 2010 at 11:11 am

Here’s my list of ten:

Yes, I have Gaiman twice and no Bradbury even though I list Bradbury a better writer. The question is best book, and Bradbury’s greater works are his short stories. If they get a full anthology of Bradbury’s stories into one volume, you’ll see that added to the list.

28 John Williams March 26, 2010 at 11:48 am
29 Twain April 1, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Ivan Illich’s “Toward a Histoy of Needs” and “Tools for Conviviality”.

“The Blank Slate”

The Works of Schopenhauer.

Orwell’s Essays,Plus Down and out in Paris and London” and “Road to Wigan Pier”.

I read Swann’s Way, but not the rest of Proust yet. Someone said that Proust should only be read in French. I don’t know how much different it is in English. Imagine Shakespeare in Italian. It wouldn’t be the same.

“The Moral Animal”.

30 PC 108 April 2, 2010 at 9:51 am

Steve Landsburg has linked to some others who posted similar list inspired by this one.

My site link is also a link to that page!

31 Javier R. April 4, 2010 at 2:00 am

Not surprising that Mises’ Human Action didnt make your list. Also not surprising that you have Keynes on your list with such glowing praise. That anyone should take you for a libertarian? Now that’s surprising.

32 GH23 April 4, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Well, this explains a lot, especially Keynes being a huge influence. So we can put that argument to rest, Tyler is a Keynesian, just like Krugman, just like all the government economists. It’s why we’re in this mess.

33 Name April 8, 2010 at 11:36 am

1. The Tao te Ching
2. Nag Hammadi Gospels
3. The Prophet by Frank Perelli. As ridiculous and dogmatic as it is, it was my fundamentalist introduction into the magical realism genre.
4. The LOTR cycle, especially the Silmarillion.
5. The Antichrist, Nietzsche
6. Catch-22
7. Baudalino, Umberto Eco
8. Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein
9. Frankenstein
10. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

34 keevin April 28, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Keynes it a disturbing choice. it is his economic policies that allow governments and private banks to print limitless money, all created from debt (which is worse than nothing, oddly). Keynsian economics are what allow the incredible and immoral militarization and never ending war. Since banks always profit when they have to loan money to the government to finance it. Keynesian economics is effectively infinity interest rate extracted from the tax payers to redistribute wealth vertically into the hands of the userers. I suggest you read “Creature from Jekyll Island” by E Griffin and see if your high opinion of Keynes remains.

35 Tom Grey December 31, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Happy New Year! I was disappointed that none of the first page of comments, nor the lists linked to, included the Boy Scout Manual. I learned it with twelve virtues, that a good scout strives for:
Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent.

Funny, I’m pretty sure it was hugely uncool to be most of these, but most women are looking for most of these characteristics for future husbands. They’re good in guy friends, too. The world would be a lot better place if these virtues were a bigger influence on more guys — it’s little wonder that anti-Boy Scout Leftists so often have so little of many of these characteristics.
Also, intelligence is not listed, nor is it necessary (and obviously is insufficient).

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