Top 10 Books of All Time

9 03 2011

Yeah, all time. I could even say Top 10 Books in All Possible Worlds. They’re that awesome.

People often ask me what are my favourite books, or the books that have most influenced me – in philosophy, science, history etc. So I figured I’d post ’em here to fuel my laziness; if I’m asked in future, I can just give a URL. Nice.

The Iliad – Homer

Sing, o muse… Not sure what’s more astounding, that it’s one of the first written works in human history, or that it’s still one of the most profoundly moving books, dripping with pathos and turgid prose the likes of which a pitiful writer like myself can only dream. I mean, rosy fingered Dawn, who spread her light across the lands of the deathless gods and mortal men. Sublime.

There’s a also lesson in reading in reading the Iliad, too. It’s the catalogue of ships. It’s almost the peer of all the begetting in Genesis (well, I assume Genesis is worse because I’ve never made it through that whole section). But it’s like you have to earn the rest of the tale. That makes it all the more epic. In fact, every epic has a catalogue of ships. My thesis has its literature review…

Although I still have an unresolved question: who would win in a fight between Achilleus and Arjuna. Man, that’d be an epic bout.

More below the fold…

The Histories – Herodotus

It’s no accident Herodotus comes after Homer in this list. I’d like to think he’d be pleased to be placed such.

Herodotus is the father of history, I don’t care what anyone says. His tales are rich, vivid, often ludicrous, but endearingly honest, except when they’re not (like when he talks about Corinth).

If you haven’t read Herodotus, here’s a synopsis: wide-eyed scholar from Halicarnassus with a penchant for listening to stories but poor fact-checking skills travels the ancient world in the wake of the Persian Wars.

The tales are enough to remind us of how wondrous the ancient world really was, how wondrously the ancients thought it was, how some things never change, and how remarkable, sophisticated and diverse ancient civilisations were.

My friends and family will tell you that I often tell stories about the ancient world. Most come from Herodotus. Stories about the customs of the Scythians are a favourite. Particularly the way they acquired milk. It was a daring Scythian who first tried that. Look it up (Book IV, section 2) and decide for yourself.

History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell

Reading this book is worth at least half an undergraduate philosophy degree. Maybe write an essay on it, just to be sure. Read it twice and write two essays, and go straight to Honours. That’s pretty much what I did.

Russell starts with the presocratics and ends with logical analysis, giving a dozen or so pages to (nearly) everyone of significance in between. Not only does he elucidate their key contributions to philosophy, but he places them in the grand sweep of history, giving each thinker’s thoughts a context, a motivation and a deeper meaning.

It is written in lucid prose, with pace, wit and humour (his digs are Hegel are, well, ideal). Russell is one of those philosophers who actually weaves his voice into his written words. Rare these days.

Asimov’s New Guide to Science – Isaac Asimov

I stopped studying science in year 10. I’m no good at doing maths, see. And in year 11 and above, science is all about doing maths (or squeezing goop out of a pig’s eyeball – I didn’t react well to that lesson). However, I love science. I get science. I just can’t do science.

So I turned to Asimov. I remember clearly when I first read one of his essays. I’d heard about this nuclear fusion thing on telly (probably around the time of the cold fusion shenanigans), and wanted to know what it was all about. I found a collection of essays by Asimov down at my local library. In it was a 10-page section on nuclear fusion, and in that 10 pages I learned more than I did in a week at school. Or a month of science classes. I still use descriptions from that essay in explaining fusion to others.

I subsequently devoured Asimov’s essays – at least until I found his New Guide to Science. It starts with the universe and ends with the mind. In between is a more than a catalogue of scientific findings, more than just a history of science.

It’s a journey through discovery. Each scientific finding is couched as the solution to a question, with the excruciating process of arriving at that finding spelt out. You walk away not only with an appreciation of our best understanding of the natural world, but why we ought to trust it so much. The findings of science were earned, not delivered from some dubious book from on high.

To this day I’m still deeply indebted to Asimov, for he pretty much prepped me for my present career as not only a science journalist, but as an explainer of things. And in explaining, I shamelessly appropriate Asimov’s style. You can do worse than to emulate the best.

Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville

Ok, ok. I’m still reading Democracy in America. It’s bloody hard to find a complete copy of both volumes, too. So it may be a while before I complete it. Once I do find a nice hardbound pair, they’ll grace my bookshelves until the day I die.

Democracy in America is a work of such profound scholarship, insight and prose that it makes me feel weak and insignificant as a scholar, philosopher and a writer. That a young French aristocrat can tour a juvenile America in the 1830s, and can write two books that are still cuttingly relevant in understanding contemporary America, well, it’s breathtaking.

Happiness Hypothesis – Jonathan Haidt

Haidt is a rising star, and justifiably so. He sees a bigger picture than most contemporary academics. And he’s motivated by questions of real significance, unlike most contemporary academics.

I feel a bit of a connection with Haidt. We both started out as wide-eyed youths, hunting around for answers, and stumbling across Eastern religion and Buddhism on the way. We both studied psychology and philosophy in our undergraduate years (Haidt philosophy first, then to psych; me the other way around). And we’re both still deeply influenced by that non-European philosophical beginning.

Maybe that’s why I like Happiness Hypothesis so much. It’s clear, it’s wise, it draws on a lot of Eastern insight, but grounds it firmly in science. And reading it will make you happier, and teach you to stay that way. I’m happier.

Way of the Peaceful Warrior – Dan Millman

Achievement leads to nothing. There are no ordinary moments. Jackass. I still remember the wise words of Socrates – not that Socrates, but the mentor who took a young Dan Millman under his wing in the 1970s to teach him the eponymous Way.

It’s mystical, a bit herbal and more fluffy than I’d subscribe to today, but this book profoundly influenced me when I first read it at age 17. It really did. It’s probably the book that turned me to philosophy – not because it was an exemplar of the kind of philosophy I would end up studying, but because it encouraged me to give up chasing whatever vacuous career I would have pursued had I just let myself be spat out of the school and university system without any overriding questioning of where the hell I wanted to go.

I don’t necessarily recommend people read Peaceful Warrior for an insight into the kind of philosophy I do now, but I’m sure there are traces of it in who I am now.

The Way of Zen – Alan Watts

Speaking of philosophy… Before I read this book, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers; while I was reading this book, mountains were no longer mountains and rivers were no longer rivers; but once I finished it, mountains were once again mountains and rivers again rivers.

If there’s anything that has influenced my metaphysics, it’s been Zen. Add a bit of Dewey, and that’s where I am.

Still worth a read today. In fact, re-reading this inspired my recent rant on cartography and the liberation of metaphysics.

Moral Politics – George Lakoff

I stumbled across this book while on a work junket in Seattle, hung over as a burly arse, and tooling around until the cab was ready to take me to the airport and fly me home.

Moral Politics. Intriguing title. I’m interested in morality and politics. I’ll give it a shot.

It started me on the path to my current PhD.

See, I’d blown a philosophy fuse during my Honours, which was on the philosophy of mind, specifically on applying the knowledge-that/knowledge-how distinction to the Knowledge Argument. It was largely pointless. It was a counter-argument to a counter-argument to an argument…

By the conclusion of my Honours, I was thoroughly sick of metaphysics and the philosophy of mind, but I knew I wanted to do a PhD at some point. I just needed a topic. Something interesting, something meaty, something I could get angry about.

And Moral Politics gave me a problem that seemed worth spending several years of my life on: why do people bloody well disagree about almost everything in politics, but do so in a relatively predictable partisan way?

I’m not convinced by Lakoff’s moral metaphorical argument: that conservatives see government through the metaphorical lens of a strict father family relationship; while liberals take a nurturant parent view.

Even if Lakoff is right he doesn’t answer the next question that arises: why does it play out like this? For the answer to that question, I had to wait until I read the next book.

The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker

This dense little book probably did as much to change the way I see the world as any of the books here. It revealed in all-too plain terms how indoctrinated with postmodernism and the Standard Social Science model of human nature I really was. And it set me free.

It also introduced me to evolutionary psychology and to the problems of understanding morality in light of evolution. It laid down a path directly to my present research.

I sincerely wish more academics would read The Blank Slate. Even with its problems, and it has some, it would do such a service at unwinding some thoroughly unhealthy views about human nature.

***

So that’s the list. There are other books that have undoubtedly influenced me, like The Selfish Gene or anything by Hume. But these are the ones that have stuck with me, and shaped my beliefs and worldview today.

What are the books that made you who you are today?

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2 responses

10 03 2011
Tom of the Sweetwater Sea

“Of all time”? No books will be written in the future that are better than these?

Sorry — I had to ask.

27 05 2011
somnambicsand

Hmm, I find it interesting that your list mostly contains books that only relatively few people will have read. I think I would value impact of a book higher if I tried to make a list like that (which is hard, because I want to rip out my hair at the thought of Harry Potter being on it!). It seems a little more like the 10 most influential books in your life, so I wonder if you would alter the list at all for what you think the 10 greatest books out there in world are?

(PS: I’m a friend of Signe’s. She told me about your blog so I was curious to have a look, and since I’m a compulsive book worm this entry spoke to me the most)

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