Books that had hidden influence on me

Way back when, I considered the ten books that influenced me most, a list I still stand by.  In response, someone asked me to name the books that influenced me, but whose influence I probably was not aware of.  Let’s ignore the semi-contradiction in that request and plow straight ahead!  Here goes, noting that if memory serves I read most of these between the ages of 10 to 12:

1. Alexander Kotov, Think Like a Grandmaster.  From this book I realized you could think you understood a chess position, but then later learn you didn’t really understand it at all.  A huge lesson, one I learned again and to a higher degree when high-quality chess computers came along.  Most of the commentariat on economic and social affairs could use a reminder on this one.  This book also taught me that you learn by doing — trying to solve actual problems — not so much from pure reading.  Or the two in close conjunction.  It may be the distortions of memory, but still I feel this is one of the best books I ever have read.  Hail the Soviet training system!

2. Bobby Fischer, My Sixty Memorable Games of Chess.  Reflects a certain kind of classicism in thinking and method.  Later, it was revealed much of the analysis was faulty and in part was from Larry Evans and not Fischer himself.

3. Reuben Fine, Basic Chess Endings.  I wasn’t influenced so much by this book itself as by a long series of articles in Chess Life and Review, showing the analysis was full of holes.  See my remarks on Kotov.

4. David Kahn, The Code-Breakers, The Story of Secret Writing.  I read this one quite young, and learned that problems are to be solved!  I also developed some sense of what a history could look like and what a history should report.  I recall my uncle thinking it deeply strange that a boy my age should be reading a book of such length.

5. Rudolf McShane and Jakow Trachtenberg, The Trachtenberg System of Basic Mathematics.  From this I learned how powerful the individual human mind could be, and also how much school wasn’t teaching me.  It began to occur to me that the mainstream doesn’t necessarily have the best or only methods.  That said, non-mainstream approaches still have the responsibility of coming up with the right answer.  Query: does it these days ever make sense to actually use this stuff?

6. The Baseball Encyclopedia, or something like that.  From this book I began to figure out statistics and how they fit into broader patterns of historical explanation.  I spent a lot of time with this one even before the age of ten.  It helped me understand my baseball cards in terms of a much longer perspective and also, if I recall correctly, it explained the underlying meaning of many of the statistics, albeit in what would today count as a very naive, non-Moneyball manner.  I still know that Chief Wilson hit 36 triples in 1912.

Honorable mentions: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and The Joy of Sex, all given to me by my mother.  I believe they helped inculcate some of the 1960s-70s ethos of individual freedom into my thinking.  I also consumed numerous sports memoirs, such as Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer and also the war memoir Guadalcanal Diary.  From those I began to think about the relationships between character, work habits, teamwork, and success.  The Making of Star Trek helped me master the details of what was then my favorite TV series, and also to think about cosmopolitanism across different kinds of intelligent beings.  In addition to chess I also was influenced by playing paper and dice war games, most of all Barbossa (the exact title may differ slightly), a really scary game where you have to consider the possibility the Nazis could have won and thus think about the contingency of history.  I began to understand that violence could be a reality that stood above all else and how important it was to avoid such a scenario.

Then there is youthful science fiction, though perhaps that someday gets a post of its own.  I read a lot of books about music too, many about jazz solos and chord composition, including in American popular music.  Much earlier, maybe ages 5-8, it was maps and books full of facts about the world (ahem) and animals, most of all the taxonomic arrangement of the animal kingdom.

Finally, at the time I was fully aware that I wasn’t getting a single one of these titles through my formal school system.


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