Tyler Cowen posted a list of books that had influenced him the most some time ago; the list, like so many other memes on the internet at the right place and time, went kind of viral. Here are lists from Peter Suderman, E.D. Kain, Arnold Kling, Michael Martin, Niklas Blanchard, EconJeff, Bryan Caplan, Matt Yglesias, Jenny Davidson, Will Wilkinson, Matt Continetti, Ross Douthat, Mike Konczal, Kieran Healy, Ivar Hagendoorn, Scott Sumner, and Steve Landsburg.
This is of course my non-definitive list. Now that I’m about to post, I want to add another 10 books to the list but…maybe later.
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstader: I have so much to say about this single text, which has informed my thinking more than any other single work, that I feel overwhelmed. But let me start by saying that the notion of Godellian incompleteness has deep and rich connections to every study or topic I am aware of. Through it I began thinking of the world in terms of systems and interactions and over time many things became obvious to me later on as I would take upper level mathematics course on chaos, nonlinear dynamics, and fractal theory, along with engaging the many related ideas discussed by Stephen Wolfram in his work (best represented by A New Kind of Science). I have lately begun to ask questions about economic systems in this light and considered modeling economic interactions using large scale cellular automata.
GEB has given me the intuition to ask questions about for instance the computational equivalence of different economic or legal systems. It has also forced me to reject classification systems based on strict hierarchical architecture because as systems get larger and more complex hierarchies tend to break down.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: I first read the abridged version on Christmas when I was 15. It took me an entire day, and later on I would find that the book was actually 6 books and available freely online. I was attracted to both the language (the english translation remains remarkably good) as well to the sense of rigor and coherent analysis I found in the historical parts of the novel (which are dense, prosaic, and effusive). Hugo was remarkable to me because overtly this is a very simple, though well-developed story; under the surface there is a richness of texture that comes from the fluid comprehension and description of the human condition. To this day the chapter on love (Marius’s first aphoristic letter to Cosette) remains one of my favorite passages in all of literature.
Power/Knowledge, Michel Foucault: I don’t know if there is anything intrinsically new in Foucault, though it is certain that his was the first real coherent expression of ideas that others had never really dealt with systemically or from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Namely, Foucault talks about things like power, which is a subject that demands analysis from more than one perspective. Foucault’s dictum that power and knowledge were coterminous were revelatory to me both in an epistemic sense, but also because he didn’t dodge the obvious endogeneity nor did he let its existence hinder his understanding of it. I find Foucault’s ideas on micro-politics and relational rights to be strangely libertarian in content though not in form. Notably, my engagement with Foucault and critical theory came immediately after my fling with Ayn Rand and Objectivism, an ideology that I found sorely lacking.
Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre: My first true experience with literature that engaged on multiple levels. Part of it is because the book is so strange in character and tone beyond my experience, yet I found it profoundly moving. The alienation that the main character experiences was at the time something my younger, angsty self found fascinating, partly because a young angsty person really wants something to identify with. But there are nuggets of insight that have stuck with me through several paradigm shifts. I would eventually give up on Sartre, who I found grew increasingly obtuse as he aged (Being and Nothingness, anyone?). I also felt that he was too enamored with himself, which was a turnoff, and he ended up in the Marxist intellectual trap, which is to use an inconsistent system to explain everything away. (One of the marks of a good paradigm is it tells you where you are confronted with unknowable propositions).
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Really one of the more perfect novels I’ve ever read.
Ada or Ardor, A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov: Nabokov is one of the most wonderful writers in the english language. The one thing I can share here is that reading Nabokov is difficult because of his utter fluency and intimacy with words and language and, well, most of us aren’t used to that.
An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith: Perhaps cliche, but Adam Smith really does have something to offer us that was unique in all of recorded human thought. Here, finally, was a framework for beginning to understand the nature and dynamics of human systems.
Nonlinear Dynamics, Chaos, and Fractal Theory by Steven Strogatz: My working reference book is now a much thicker and mathematically complex text, but this was my introduction to the mathematics of systems and interactions. You don’t need much beyond a basic understanding of differential equations and a working knowledge of trig and calculus to be able to work with this text.
The True Believer by Eric Hoffer: I strongly believe that Eric Hoffer’s short text should be required reading for social studies in high school and political science majors and journalists (specifically) in college. His thoughts on the nature and features of mass movements are clear, insightful, and extremely relevant.