Friday, March 26, 2010

Books that Influenced Me

Recently several prominent bloggers have been heeding Tyler Cowen's call and blogging about the top 10 or so books that influenced their world-views. I'm not quite as prominent as these other bloggers, but it's hard to resist making my own list. Like the other bloggers I'll mainly list books that influenced by political views, but this isn't meant to imply that I care about politics more than anything else. Also, like Ezra Klein, I'll note that magazine articles and blogs have had a big influence on my views, perhaps even more than books have. I don't know if that's bad or not. The following are mainly books I read in high school or early in college, but some may have been later.

-"Parliament of Whores", P.J. O'Rourke - O'Rourke probably could have called this "Small Government for Dummies." It's basically a humorous, journalistic take on the the way the US government circa 1988, but I think the book has a lot of staying power. It's a somewhat cynical, but unfortunately, pretty realistic portrayal of politicians and policy-making. I haven't this book in several years, but I think the message was basically, Do we really want to give these guys more money and power? If I had to give a person one book to read to explain why it is that conservatives prefer small government, it would probably be this one. Not that it's the best book on the subject, but it's quite good and more fun than a more academic book. "All the Trouble in the World" by the name author is also quite good.

-"Modern Times", Paul Johnson - I was glad to see that this one was also on Ross Douthat's list. It's basically a popular history of the 20th century through a conservative political prism. It's fairly long, but he fits an enormous amount into that space, basically a world history from the late 1910s to the 1980s. Probably a historian could find quite a few things to argue with in this book, but I think it's a good antidote to the standard liberal history textbooks most people read. For example: Johnson tries to find some good things to say about presidents like Harding or Coolidge who are normally either glossed over in history courses or have scorn heaped upon them. He even has some kind words for Nixon. But it's not all about American presidents. There's a lot in there about the dictatorships of the 20th century and the atrocities they perpetrated.

-"Christianity and the New Age", Christopher Dawson. I don't remember enough to write an intelligent summary of this short book. I also read a few other books by him and a good article about totalitarianism. Dawson heavily emphasized the importance of religion in society. He was a sociologist, though some of what he wrote could be considered history or philosophy or theology. I don't know how many of his ideas really stuck with me, but he really struck me with his ability to deal with grand world-historical questions in a concise, eloquent, readable way. He represented a kind of old-fashioned Catholic conservatism that you can also find in Waugh and Tolkein. This world-view saw a certain beauty in the old agricultural, aristocratic, simple society that England had once been (I think Dawson himself actually grew up in a castle). It felt threatened by both the communism and capitalism. I suppose that in the end I basically reject this view as unhelpful. Capitalism, technology, mass democracy and mass popular culture are here to stay, and I don't know how much it helps to seek some third non-capitalist, non-socialist way. But Dawson is awesome.

-"The Story of Civilization", Will Durant. This is a multi-volume series, and covers the period from ancient times to the age of Napoleon, with all but one volume focusing on the western world. Durant is a goldmine for the aspiring historian. He might even have been the one who sparked my interest in history, but I don't remember. One aspect of his books that I like a lot is that they are so comprehensive. They not only talk about the great figures of the different eras, but they also try to get the reader to understand culture, mores, and everyday life in those same periods. They are almost encyclopedic. The downside is that probably not many people have bothered to read all these beautifully written volumes. Probably the more concise books are a bit more widely read.

-"Orthodoxy", G.K. Chesterton. Though Chesterton wrote a lot about politics, this book is mainly about theology and philosophy. My impression is that it is basically his magnum opus, though I'm not enough of a Chesterton scholar to know for sure. The book really touches upon many philosophical/theological problems that come up a lot in one's life. It basically defends traditional Christianity from the various detractors. His take-down of skeptics/agnostics is especially fun. It's interesting to see how little our debates have changed in the last 102 years.

-"Mere Christianity", C.S. Lewis. This is similar in some ways to "Orthodoxy", but it's a little easier to read.

-"American Dream", Jason DeParle. This is a journalistic or documentary account of the welfare reform battles of the 1990s and how they affected several single mothers. I read this book in my second ever economics class. It does a wonderful job of tying together history, economics, and politics, and giving them a human face. Amazingly, it's quite balanced. If I remembered correctly it's been praised on both the right and the left.

-Greg Mankiw's blog, Greg Mankiw. Yeah, not a book, but I've learned a lot of economics there. I don't think I can really leave him out.

-Various polemics, Limbaugh, Coulter, etc. I don't drink the Kool-Aid quite so much anymore, but I can't say these rabble-rousers did not influence me. In my defense, 7 or 8 years ago Coulter did not come across as being nearly as crazy as she now does.

Wish list: I'd like to add Irving Kristol to this list. I read an incredible article by him recently, and I really want to read a whole book by him.

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