There’s a meme going around asking people to name ten books that have been influential in their lives, or views. You’re not supposed to think too much about it. Well, here are mine, with brief explanations. I left a great deal out, for example the works of Érico Veríssimo, which taught me a great deal about Brazil, or Mary Renault, whose early historical novels I liked so much.
If I did it tomorrow, I'd come up with a different list, maybe starting with Apuleius's Golden Ass, the Lazarillo de Tormes, and A Confederacy. There are no right answers.
1. Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell.
Orwell, like many leftists of his time, went to Spain to fight in the Civil War. In Orwell’s case, he didn’t leave his common sense or keen observer’s eye behind, and was able to see and convey the darkness behind many leftist movements, especially the Stalinist version of communism. At an early age, I acquired a skepticism (not strong enough) about the left.
2. The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich A.Hayek
A popular book on the follies of socialism and the managerial state, that lays out pretty clearly how government control of the economy doesn’t work very well, and tends to tyranny. I’m not a down-the-line libertarian, but this is an important book.
3. The Orthodox Way, by Kallistos (Timothy) Ware
A concise and literate overview of the Orthodox Christian tradition.
4. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
A fine book about a special, but not entirely atypical corner of American public life. Evokes the great but flawed Huey P. Long of Louisiana. See also Liebling's The Earl of Louisiana, an account of Huey's brother, crazy, though perhaps like a fox.
5. 100 Poems from the Chinese, by Kenneth Rexroth
Lovely gems of classic Chinese poetry, beautifully rendered into English. Rexroth, a West Coast anarchist poet and critic, is almost always worth reading.
6. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
Jacobs led a successful crusade against the bureaucratic visionary and “master builder” Robert Moses, who wanted to drive a highway through Greenwich Village, destroying it. Jacobs shows how conventional zoning destroys urban community life.
7. A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula LeGuin
LeGuin is the daughter of the Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, but instead of researching existing worlds, she creates fascinating worlds of her own. Earthsea is perhaps the best known. This is the first novel of the trilogy--or is it now a tetralogy. A coming-of-age novel in a well-imagined different world.
8. 1-2-3 Infinity, by George Gamow
Gamow wrote more than one popularization of the cosmology known in my youth. It’s all changed, of course, but it drew me into an appreciation of science and mathematics, even if I never became proficient in either.
9. Growing Up Absurd
Paul Goodman’s dissection of the early meritocracy, and dream of a better way of growing up, and being grown up.
10. Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher
A wise and humane account of the pressures on many pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, and how to help them to grow up strong, with the liveliness they had at 10 and 11.