Ten Influential Books

Even Kieran has made a list. Mine is chronological, by date of first love.

W. Heath Robinson. The Adventures of Uncle Lubin. A gift from my aunt, and my all time favorite children’s book. First published in 1902, the TOC is actually a “List of Adventures” for Uncle Lubin (who has lost Little Peter) which include an air-ship, a sea-serpent, a mer-boy, a charmed dragon-snake, a rajah, and finally, the finding of little peter. I notice some new editions have colored the illustrations by the author, and this I strongly dislike.

Irving Stone. The Agony and the Ecstasy. In an early foray into the “adult fiction” section of the Mt. Pleasant Library (you’re in my will, folks), I stumbled upon this book. Charting the life of Michelangelo in his active prose style, Stone managed to interest me in history while educating me about art. I was transfixed by his description of the “sculpture inside the stone” that Michelangelo would craft into David. My personal world of art and artistic appreciation (developed with help from my artist Aunt and Uncle, and my parents’ affinity for museums) was suddenly linked up with an enormous universe of art and history, and I loved it. I loved it so much, I quoted details years later when viewing Michelangelo’s Pieta (not even an aesthetic favorite of mine) on a college trip to Rome, and during a “tour of Michelangelo’s works” in Florence in 1999. This book made me an insufferable travel companion.

Leon Uris. Exodus. I grew up in a Jewish community and although I remember very little discussion of Jewish art or culture, it is still probably the reason I ended up reading Uris’s massive novel when I was 13. I was getting really interested in religion, and Judaism in particular, and I think I read and interpreted it as non-fiction, although I don’t exactly remember. Strangely enough, I did not take from it an unshakeable committment to Zionism, but rather, a fondness for long fiction written on important historical topics, using a vernacular voice.

Ann Charters. The Portable Beat Reader. Around the age of 11 or 12 I was just getting interested in Bohemianism and would later delve into its other moments, celebrities, and disasters. How does one explain a fondness for Bohemianism? Fuck that. But my point of comparison will always be post war New York City.

Isabel Allende. The Stories of Eva Luna. A good example of a book that I’ve outgrown, I remember being compelled by Allende’s lyricism. I think the book one of my favorites because I read it in my favorite class, Literature in Translation, taught by my French teacher in high school. I remember we also read Marquez, and Italio Calvino, Madame Bovary, and Gargantua and Pantagruel. I loved how beautiful the world was through the eyes of these authors, and that they invited me to join them in fantasizing about it.

William Powell. The Anarchist Cookbook. Josh Rosenblatt gave this to me as an apology for an indiscretion suffered in Boise, ID, at the National Academic Decathlon finals. Reading it I realized for the first time the incendiary character of knowledge. Owning it felt like liberty. I felt dangerous and powerful, and I recognized how systematically I had been denied these feelings. If any government or private agent ever tried to take that book from me, I’d die for it, because it is the Ur book.

Emile Durkheim. Suicide. I chose to read this book in an independent study my senior year. I added a second major in Sociology/Anthropology after I got home from Ireland, and basically crammed me way into a degree. This book had a singular impact on me (among the many contemporary and classic works I devoured). It is so supremely well-argued, in the sense that counter-argument and counter-evidence is methodically presented, empirically investigated, and rejected. It was the first academic work I ever read that had a “reveal.” I applied for graduate school.

Jurgen Habermas. The Theory of Communicative Action. I was in way over my head in graduate school. My response to this was over-confidence. That’s how I ended up volunteering to lead discussion in Contemporary Theory the day we covered Habermas. I didn’t complain (that much), I did my best, and I impressed my peers and myself with my understanding of the text. It was the first of many obstacles I would conquer with sheer determination. And no, I can’t tell you what it’s about.

Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction. The ideas in this book resonated in me like intuition. It’s funny, wicked smart, comprehensive, empirically and philosophically rigorous. It is what I want to be like when I grow up.

I have one more spot. Competition is tight. Why don’t you start writing?


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