4 of the 10 books that influenced me most
Lists of the 10 books that most influenced you. People on the right are posting ‘em, people on the left are posting ‘em, I’m a hopelessly faddish so I decided I’d post one too. But I ran out of time. So here are four of them, anyway.
1. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. Everybody’s citing it, but you know, that’s the kind of book it is. I remember sitting in a waiting lounge at Dulles International Airport reading this and feeling like I was being personally eviscerated. I was in love for the first time and she was still somewhat involved with her previous boyfriend, who was a lot taller and more athletic than me; that may have had something to do with it. But the idea of examining the value of values, looking at them skeptically as things that had evolved historically for often brute-fact instrumental reasons (i.e. because a certain value was useful to the claims on power of a certain interest group), was incredibly compelling and ruthless. Once you’ve recognized this, you can’t — or shouldn’t — ever be able to uncritically embrace any kind of “first principles”, ever again, without thinking about who those “first principles” serve and whom they enslave.
2. Foucault, Discipline and Punish. This book fell out of favor by the late ’90s and is now back in favor, I think. Whatever. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I found it extremely influential. Basically it did for my thinking about institutions and governance what Genealogy of Morals did for my thinking about values. As a side note, I’ve never understood why people who read Ayn Rand (whose work I’ve always found completely idiotic) are presumed to be more skeptical towards government than people who read Foucault. Foucault is far more brutal and uncompromising in his skepticism towards institutional and governmental motives and incentives. It’s just that, not being childishly naive, he also sees that we’re all formed by and imbricated in the institutions, and the brutal skepticism has to extend to individuals too.
3. Ayn Rand, Anthem. This is acquiring a narrative thread. Anyway, I read this on a bike trip through Cape Cod when I was 15, and found it so stupid and inferior (I’d read Animal Farm the week before) that it put me off Ayn Rand and any form of libertarianism forever. So I’d consider that pretty influential.
4. Neil Sheehan, A Bright and Shining Lie. But this is where I ran out of time, so you figure it out.