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Mar. 19 2010 - 5:44 am | 894 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    I think for me it’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Western Horseman magazine. Great cartoons.

  2. collapse expand

    Yes to No. 1, which I’ve read.

    Narziss and Goldmund — almost anything by Herman Hesse. Winnie the Pooh — you can be a Tigger or an Eeyore, although I liked Piglet. My macroeconomics textbook made clear what a brutally efficient piece of machinery capitalism is and how human beings aka labor are disposable. It taught me young not to personalize how business behaves, even in the worst recessions.

  3. collapse expand

    “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 Foucauld.”

    Because everyone knows that only radical leftists read Foucauld, and radical leftists are communists, and communists love government more than they love anything else, therefore Foucauld is pro-government.

    To call it incoherent is to give incoherence a bad name, but what do you expect from people who find Rand convincing?

  4. collapse expand

    I’ll go with Superman, Batman, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. Taught me to read and about right and wrong and to only wear spandex when you are in great shape.

  5. collapse expand

    Based on this article by Matt Steinglass, which I find to be stupid and inferior, I am put off from ever reading anything else he ever writes. (“Accumulating Peripherals?” Seriously? Do you know what it means to sound pretentious?)

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    About Me

    I've reported from Vietnam since 2003. I'm now the Hanoi correspondent for the German-based, English-language wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and was previously a Hanoi-based stringer for the Boston Globe and for Voice of America. Before that I reported from West Africa, and before that from the Netherlands; my articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times. I've got a thing for languages, and have picked up Russian, French, Dutch and Vietnamese. I used to write scripts for the children's cartoon shows "Arthur", "Doug", and a few others. I got a degree in interactive telecommunications back when most people had never sent an email. In April 1991 I predicted the USSR would collapse into its constituent republics and that Boris Yeltsin would become president of Russia. Since then most of my predictions have been rather less accurate, so it was probably a fluke.

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