Penn Political Review

The Books That Have Influenced Me Most

Those of you involved in the wider blogosphere may have noticed a tremendous outpouring of book lists in the last few days. Tyler Cowen, Matt Yglesias, Bryan Caplan, Arnold Kling, Will Wilkinson, Peter Suderman, E.D. Kain, and Kieran Healy, to name a few, have penned “my most important books” lists. A couple comments, and my list below.

First, holy cow there’s a lot of Ayn Rand on these lists! The book list infection spread primarily through libertarian/econblogger circles, and I knew at some level that many libertarians got started reading Rand in their youth, but…still, that’s incredible. There seems to be this perpetual “getting beyond Rand” thing in the life cycle of a libertarian. (Check out this conversation on the subject at Cato Unbound). That says something…

There’s a whole mess of philosophy in there that I haven’t read. This summer, I am determined to read the basic works of philosophy in the Western tradition. I must do it. And a couple of those 20th century guys as well. I’ve read Nietzsche, I’ve read some Plato, and I get references to the others, but I really haven’t gone beyond bits and pieces, and I ought to.

A number of people wrote something to the effect that “books didn’t influence me; people did.” Ezra Klein even went so far as not to publish a list of books. That’s certainly true, and it holds for me more than for these bloggers since I spent much of my literate life engrossed in thousand-page fantasy novels without much intellectual heft. However, I can’t really tell you a whole ton about my parents, my middle school science teacher, my high school English teacher, the various circles of friends I’ve kept at different points in time, etc. It would be disrespectful of their privacy, for one, and for another it’d be a book in itself. Books, however, can be dealt with in a blog post, being part of “the culture.”

I will confess to a wee bit of presentism in my retelling of the impact these books had on me. But, it can’t be helped, so without further ado, my list (in chronological order):

1. The Bible – if you were raised on this book, you most likely love it or hate it, but in any case you continually return to it (or the idea of it, if you’re in the latter group). Allow me to be more specific: Genesis, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Gospels. These books are willing to ask difficult questions that a lot of their readers aren’t. But above all, a sense of purpose and of weight animates the Bible: life is important, and worth living well. The conclusion – that you should care about other people – happens to be excellent also.

2. Ender’s Game/Ender’s Shadow – I guess these books are probably my Ayn Rand equivalent. They tell a story about a remarkable individual in a society with a LOT of problems. I read them (and reread them…) in my pseudo-rebellious youth as a middle school student, and while I’ve moved on from the tacit “I’m better than they are” mentality the books engendered, my belief in the importance of individual virtue/competence/leadership didn’t fade.

3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books – simply awesome. Awesome in the extreme. People are weird, the universe is strange, it has lots of problems, but it is still one awesome place. A shame the last book was such a downer. (Adams agreed, btw – didn’t find the interview but it’s quoted on Wikipedia and I read it myself awhile ago).

4. The Foundation books – I used to read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy, but these books were the ones that actually influenced my thinking overtly. They got me to think about how causality works in a complicated world with lots of people. Individuals matter, institutions matter, ideas matter, economics matters, psychology matters…they all matter. There can be strong determination without “destiny.” (Here we see the presentism at work…but I did think about causes I swear).

5. Other sci-fi/fantasy books I read. And a disclaimer – OK, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, and please don’t assault me for my heresy here, but I never actually finished LOTR. Great books, and I don’t know why I didn’t finish them, but I didn’t. I did read the Narnia books, however. A few others include the first several Robert Jordan books, the continuing series A Song of Ice and Fire, Dune, and the David Eddings books. I also include Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology, and the Arthurian legends. I credit all of them for endowing me with a belief in imagination and creativity. Read E.D.’s list for another take on the subject. These books are to humanities majors what chemistry sets are to budding chemists, or beautiful sunsets to most people. They bring a sense of wonder.

6. Catch-22 – “We can make you do whatever we can make you do.” Aside from, and in combination with, “that which will persist, will persist,” the most oddly surprising and compelling tautology that you’re likely to find anywhere. The lesson here? Give people power and they’ll try to screw somebody over. If you don’t want to slog through the Federalist papers, give Catch-22 a try. Yes, I’m kidding. But not really.

7. Cat’s Cradle/Slaughterhouse-Five – are people more than animals? Are we doomed, not just by our moral imperfections, but by our mental limits? These were the first books to put that question in my head seriously.

8. Beyond Good and Evil/Don Quijote/Ecclesiastes and Job – I’m putting the Bible books next to these ones, and I’m putting them all together, because I read them at the same time in my senior year of high school. BGE re-asked the questions that Vonnegut did, but the overall effect was to make me think seriously about the concept of purpose, and the question, “why?” (And before you get on my case, I read DQ in Spanish so I spell it with a j instead of an x, thank you).

9. Ficciones – Borges is my favorite author in the Spanish language. Read these stories. Is the universe comprehensible? Do all questions have answers? Do we deceive ourselves when we talk about truth? Yes, many of the same questions as the above books, but put very, very differently. In a certain sense, the way Borges writes made a bigger impression than the content. He exemplifies Spanish-language literature’s capacity/tendency to put really abstract and intellectual ideas in compelling emotional terms (well, compelling for me anyway) while keeping them abstract and intellectual.

10. Here, I will succumb to Ezra-ism and not put a book down. Being At College has been one of the most intellectually transformative experiences of my life. And you’ll notice, on those other lists, that many books are academic or technical books in the writer’s area of specialty. I fully expect some history books to be on my list in a few years (and some already sort of are, except that they’re too recent to make it). Mostly, the actual process of going through a liberal arts education has impressed upon me the central message of the liberal arts education, which I heard repeated often but never fully got. You need different perspectives, you need different people, you need an open mind. Keep exploring, and you will keep finding.

I realize with a cringe that there aren’t any women on my list…Flannery O’Connor gets an honorable mention, to be sure. But there’s still a gap I can’t account for. I will say that the way I think about gender politics has changed mightily while at Penn, and I haven’t included any books I’ve read in college, so that’s my excuse for now.

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About The Author

John Gee is a senior in the College majoring in Intellectual History. In addition to PPR, he is a member of the Residential Advisory Board and the Philomathean Society.


  1. Jen March 21, 2010 at 5:55 am

    I agree with Ender's Game/Shadow. It always seemed like most twelve year olds had NO idea what the books were about whereas all of the honors kids absolutely adored them. However, I do love Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged, I won't deny it.

  2. Nikki Thornton March 21, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Liked your post. Someday I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away.