Friday, November 6, 2009

My Most Influential Books

Various books have influenced me throughout my life. Below are the titles:

Middle School: Although I was reading numerous books, I can't remember anything in particular that influenced me. I just remember loving to read. My mom would go window-shopping in the mall and leave me in a bookstore. After four hours, I would usually finish one or two books.

[I do remember enjoying everything by Roald Dahl, especially Matilda; Sweet Valley Twins (*not* Sweet Valley High), and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series.]

High school: (tie) Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. After reading this WWI book, I became anti-war. I've been that way ever since.

John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me (1961) displayed America's racist past from a poignant, unique perspective. Griffin, a white man who darkened his skin so he could pass for a black man, showed the daily slights of Jim Crow's South from a deeply personal voice.

On Griffin, from San Francisco muckraker Warren Hinckle: "Blind or sighted, Griffin worked on like a metronome. He was always trying to save somebody, himself last... If there is something wrong with Griffin it is that he is a goddamn saint, an insufferable Christian, a soft-spoken, gentle guy who never seems to think ill of anyone; he even prayed for those friends and neighbors who burnt him in effigy on the main street of his home of Mansfield, Texas, when the word reached the local pool hall that he had gone and turned himself into a n*gg*r. "(If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade (1973, 1974, hardcover), pp. 85, 86.)

College: Burton Malkiel's A Random Walk Down Wall Street. I didn't necessarily agree with Professor Malkiel's conclusions, but I appreciated his rationale.

Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (1981). Few writers can rival Professor Gould's vast scientific knowledge. His writing is unique in that it is both dispassionate and engaging. Thus far, no modern equivalent exists to Professor Gould. Only Michio Kaku comes close.

Law school: N/A. I played too much basketball to read anything fun during law school.

Late 20's: Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom. See here for more.

[Update on August 6, 2012: after reading Friedman's book, try David Cay Johnston's 2007 book, Free Lunch. Johnston's writing is generally biased, but this specific book provides excellent food for thought.]

Early 30's: Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. It's sickening to see everything Mr. Postman predicted coming true, and yet, no one seems to care.

See also George Soros' Lecture #4, titled "Capitalism vs. Open Society." The lecture is available here.

I will give honorable mentions to Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence PeopleNiall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money, C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain, and Stephen Pollan's Die Broke.

Late 30's: Hernando de Soto's The Mystery of Capital (2000).

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1999) -- many of my own ideas are encompassed in this book.  I did not add this title before because it didn't influence me so much as display my own thinking, but with citations.

Eisenhower, Soldier and President (1983) by Stephen Ambrose.

If This Isn't Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young--The Graduation Speeches (2014) by Kurt Vonnegut. (I thoroughly enjoy reading both George Carlin and Kurt Vonnegut, despite them being almost complete opposites.  At the end of the day, I'd like to leave this earth with my hand closer to Vonnegut's side of the shelf.)

Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder (2012), by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Future Crimes (2015), by Marc Goodman. Bonus: Adam Segal's The Hacked World Order (2016).

Early 40's: TBD.

What books influenced you the most? Please feel free to share book suggestions by leaving a comment.

Update on 10/6/11+: I enjoyed Junot Diaz's book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao immensely (2007). It is my favorite fiction book. In second place so far is Christina McKenna's The Misremembered Man (2011).

Update on 10/2/12: I enjoyed Raul H. Castro's autobiography, Adversity is My Angel: the Life and Career of Raul H. Castro (TCU Press, paperback, 2009).

In Bemidji, Minnesota, I witnessed ethnic intolerance, though it was a completely alien form to me.  Swedes and Norwegians, I discovered, discriminated against Finns.  As I walked the streets I saw signs that read, "We don't rent to Finns" and "No Finns wanted."  It was hard to believe because the Finns were blonde and blue-eyed--why would anyone be prejudiced towards them?  All of the prejudice that I knew related to the darkness of one's skin.  Raul Castro, don't feel so sorry for yourself, I thought to myself, they are picking on someone else here in Minnesota. In Bemidji, they viewed me through a stereotypical prism; I was a Latin from Manhattan [Mr. Castro is from Arizona], and somehow I must have been a great lover who played the guitar.  The experience there reinforced my view that racial prejudice makes no sense.  (pp. 27-28)

Adversity has been my angel, as I have always seen it as something to overcome, not as a roadblock to my success.  I was never satisfied with the status quo and always wanted to move ahead, to progress to the next level.  If that is "ambition," then it gave me a good life, and I wish it for everyone. (pp. 106)

Update on November 10, 2015: my favorite comedian is Chris Rock. Never Scared (2004) is his most searing standup routine. One excellent indicator of whether I would enjoy someone's company is our mutual like or dislike of comedians.

Update on March 2017: Samuel Cohen's 50 Essays (2006) is fantastic reading.

Update on April 2018: I'm starting a new list, one including my most influential or favorite speeches/lectures. In no particular order, I present the following:

1. ee cummings six nonlectures

2. MLK's Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence (April 4, 1967)

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