The influential book meme

Tyler Cowen has started a meme among bloggers by encouraging us to list the ten books that have most influenced our view of the world. I’m happy to play along.

The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek — As close as any book gets to defining my own political views: Classically liberal, non-dogmatic, skeptical of government power, somewhat deferent to evolved institutions, nurturing of spontaneous order, and always cognizant of the limits of knowledge.

The Economic Way of Thinking, Paul Heyne — The title explains it all. Heyne explained economic principles by grounding them in human action, making the subject enlightening and approachable. I’m grateful that my high school economics teacher chose this particular textbook for our class. In contrast, my college peers were expected to start their study with macroeconomics and no background in micro; they were understandably perplexed. I wish that more students were introduced to economics via this book.

On Liberty, John Stuart Mill — “The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand — I count these as one because I read them in quick succession, in fact for a few months in high school nearly every book I read was penned by Rand. Thankfully I avoided the ideological lure of becoming a pure Objectivist but it was these books that transformed me from a moderately conservative teenager into the kind of college student who plans spring break around a visit to the Cato Institute. As I wrote in an earlier book meme post, “It’s safe to say that without Atlas… no Torch, no IHS seminars, no Cato internship. And no eventual burn out that led to becoming a barista? Perhaps. The alternate life in which I didn’t read this book while young is hard to picture.” Conor Friedersdorf includes Atlas in his list as well, in part for its depiction of the rewards of work. For that inspiration I’d cite instead…

A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean — “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” Previous blogging about this here.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins — A stand-in for any number of books about evolution, selected for the starkness with which it depicts evolution as a process not directed to any particular end. What survives is what replicates.

The Gay Science/Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche — “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

The Art of the Bar, Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz — It’s odd to put a bartending book in the same list with Nietzsche and Hayek, but mixology has become my primary non-writing creative outlet. It’s not from this book that I learned to tend bar but it was the one that inspired me to start inventing my own drinks.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov — My introduction to science fiction, a genre that paints the universe as vastly wonderful and inspired my optimistic views of science and technology. Ironically, the premise of Foundation — that a social scientist could predict humanity’s future for centuries and guide the government needed to shape it — is as anti-Hayekian as it gets.

A decade-plus of Superman and Batman comics — A boy could have worse influences than these iconic heroes.


Darwin Day

Today was Darwin Day, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years after his On the Origin of Species. Remarkably, even now only about a quarter of Americans accept the theory of natural selection. 63% believe that life has always existed in its current form or was created through a process of guided evolution. So in Darwin’s honor, a recommended reading list of books investigating and extending his ideas, some of which I haven’t read in years but that remain among my favorites:

The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) — This is one of the most stunning books of non-fiction I’ve ever read, the sort that made me see the world in a whole new light. Dawkins describes natural selection from the gene’s perspective, offering a new and unique way of understanding evolution. This is also where the fertile concept of memes is first presented.

Unto Others (Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson) — Dawkins’ perspective is illuminating. It’s also limiting, in the sense that selection only at the gene level limits the kinds of altruism that can evolve. In this book the authors argue that selection for groups of organisms is also possible and can lead to more robust forms of altruism. The first half is a fascinating inquiry into that idea. The second is about the psychology of altruism and is in my view less interesting, but still worth reading.

The Song of the Dodo (David Quammen) — Quammen is an amazingly talented nature writer. In this book he discusses how the study of life on isolated islands reveals insights into evolution, extinction, and the effects of carving up natural habitat. Along the way it delves into the work of Alfred Wallace, whose independent work on evolution finally jolted Darwin into publishing his ideas.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Daniel Dennett) — An introduction to Darwinian ideas, with provocative extensions to culture, morality, and technology.

Bones of Contention (Paul Chambers) — As scientists, intellectuals, and theologians debated the merits of Darwin’s theory, the fossils of Archaeopteryx, a dinosaur with feathers, burst onto the scene. Whereas most pop science books take a grand view of evolution, this one looks in detail at one particular incident to illuminate warring perspectives. Unique, esoteric, and informative.

Consilience (Edward O. Wilson) — The opposite of esoteric. Here the father of sociology argues for a unified view of knowledge grounded in physics and evolution.