Friday, April 02, 2010


Ten Books

The "what ten books have influenced you?" meme is making its way around the blogs, and while I don't usually do memes, this one is just too much fun to pass up.

In fairness, I have to admit that I've interpreted "books" pretty liberally below.

In roughly chronological order, defined by when I read them:

- The Sneetches and Other Stories, by Dr. Seuss. A parable about racial diversity set to singsong rhymes, with bright colors and a sneaky sense of humor. And I can still recite most of the story about Mrs. McCave, who had 23 sons and named them all Dave. Anyone who has endured fruitless faculty debates will recognize the story of the North-Going Zax and the South-Going Zax. One of the great rewards of parenthood has been sharing Dr. Seuss with my kids. (The Sleep Book is a close contender, too.)

- Mad magazine. In the mid-to-late 70's, I read Mad voraciously. That included the compilations of older stuff from the 60's, the extra-thick special issues, the whole thing. Although it had an image of being pure gross-out humor, it was actually more sophisticated than it got credit for. Reading the movie parodies, I developed my first awareness of genre and cliche. Reading the political stuff, I got my first hint that you don't have to believe things that authority figures tell you. And I laughed myself stupid. Mad has since fallen on hard times, but for a while there, it was a lifeline. For my money, Don Martin and Frank Jacobs never really got their due.

- The Affluent Society, by John Kenneth Galbraith. I read it about thirty years too late, but it was the first book I read that addressed the intersections of economics and politics in a readable way, in a context I could vaguely recognize. It's very much of its time, but even in the late 80's, twenty-year-old me was stopped in my tracks by an actual thought.

- Fear of Falling, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is hit-and-miss, but when she hits, she hits. Fear of Falling wrinkled my brain, as Troy and Abed would say, because it explained so much in such an accessible way. Honorary mention to Re-Making Love and Nickel and Dimed.

- A long and long-lost interview with Christopher Lasch in the San Francisco Chronicle in the summer of 1991. I was out there that summer because it seemed like the thing to do as an unattached twenty-two year old. Lasch gave an incredibly long and complicated interview that mixed politics and history and sociology and religion in ways I had never seen before, and that I wasn't even vaguely equipped to understand at the time. But I could sense that there was something real there -- I could smell wisdom, even if I couldn't quite make it out -- and it got me looking at some things I haven't stopped looking at since.

- The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. I later chose a house based on this book. If that's not influence, I don't know what is.

- A conversation with Richard Sennett in 1995. I asked him about his absurdly prolific early years, and he told me his secret was to write every single day. At the time, I considered it lunacy, though I never forgot it. Now I blog five days a week, and I owe him a debt of thanks. (Sennett's The Hidden Injuries of Class and The Corrosion of Character are outstanding; you also can't go wrong with The Uses of Disorder or The Fall of Public Man. Skip the novels, though.)

- Personal Finance for Dummies. I don't even remember the author, but I read this book right after getting my first real job, and it made a world of difference. Who knew that savings accounts were for suckers? I didn't.

- The Bertie and Jeeves series by P.G. Wodehouse. It's a slog on the page, but read aloud, it's some of the funniest and best-crafted prose in the English language. Wodehouse is so bracingly good that I don't even get writerly jealousy; I'm just glad to have found him. Bertie describing a loathed aunt: "She was a sturdy light-heavyweight of a female." Another: "Although not entirely disgruntled, he was certainly far from gruntled." More than once I've sat in my car listening to the audiobook long after having parked, laughing myself silly and drawing stares from passersby. Totally worth it.

- The Two-Income Trap, by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi. This came along at exactly the right time for TW and me. It united the macro and the micro in recognizable ways, and explained a whole host of things I'd noticed but had been unable to connect. I was heartened when Obama chose Warren as a key advisor.

Honorable Mentions: Factsheet Five, a long-forgotten tabloid compendium of 'zines (remember 'zines?) from the 90's; The Academic Administrator's Survival Guide, by C.K. Gunsalus; The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman; Avoiding Politics, by Nina Eliasoph; The Creative Class series by Richard Florida; Charlie the Tramp (author long forgotten), a children's story about a gopher who decides to become a hobo; the blog Management by Baseball, which showed me that this could be done; The Overworked American, by Juliet Schor; A Restricted Country, by Joan Nestle; and nearly everything by Dave Barry, Malcolm Gladwell, and Michael Lewis.

Okay, wise and worldly readers, your turn. What has influenced you?

Thank you for posting this list. I just used some of your suggestions to update my request list at the local library.

Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed was so influential to me that I used it in my Composition courses last semester. It definitely had an impact on my students as well.

I've recently read Lisa Dodson's The Moral Underground. I'm still trying to sort of my conflicting feelings about that particular book and highly recommend it to others.
Interesting choices; I think most of mine would probably be fiction, and probably be books that I read as a child or teenager ... it's possible the Anne of Green Gables series has more responsibility for my moral upbringing than anything else but my parents.
From Wodehouse:

“I met Dahlia Prenderby once,” said the Egg. “I thought she seemed a nice girl.”

“Freddy thought so, too. He loved her madly.”

“And lost her, of course?”


“Do you know,” said a thoughtful Bean, “I’ll bet that if all the girls Freddie has loved and lost were placed end to end--not that I suppose one could do it--they would reach half-way down Piccadilly.”

“Further than that,” said the Egg. "Some of them were pretty tall."

--“Good Bye to All Cats”
Warren is a great dispenser of folk wisdom, but all of her attempts at quantitative work have been thoroughly discredited.
In no particular order:
The Coming Plague – Laurie Garret (outstanding marriage of politics and microbiology, totally readable but scientifically accurate – and terrifying)
Woman – Natalie Angier (brilliant science writing and all the biology you could ever want know or learn about women – with a splash of politics for fun)
And The Band Played On – Randy Schilts (Chilling tale of the early years of the HIV epidemic and all the nasty politics. I lived through this as a child (my parents lived in the Castro) and this book explained what I had observed first hand but was too young at the time to understand.)
Strength in What Remains – Tracy Kidder (Helped me understand what some of the issues are in East Africa and reinforced my opinion that we do a piss poor job helping refugees integrate in this country.) Anything he writes is worth reading – Among Schoolchildren made me first think about teaching as a career.
Shrinking the Cat - Sue Hubbell (Beautiful science writing – as are any of her books (Waiting for Aphrodite, A Country Year)– she kicks Michael Pollan’s ass in talking about the evolution of the apple and its spread through the US, in no small part because she has respect for the people she interviews – and Pollan is a little snarky for my taste and not as scientifically sharp.)
Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales - Ray Bradbury (Each of these stories showcases a particular feeling, and some of them are complex – like the story about a 70 year old who wakes up on his birthday feeling frisky (published originally in Playboy magazine – OK, maybe this one is not complex), or a poor but loving couple in their first year getting ready to have their first child. It’s like a voyeuristic tour of the emotional range of the human experience.)
Charles Schwab's Guide to Financial Independence - Charles Schwab (Simple and complete, this book along with the Motley Fool series contains all most middle class people need to know about investing)
New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding - Arnold Schwarzenegger (If only he had stuck with his strengths and stayed out of politics – this is one of the best body building books out there and is cheaper and better than a personal trainer if you have the discipline to follow the routines.)
Ordinary Jack - Helen Cresswell (Hilarious story about a smart and overachieving family in England – only in print sporadically in the US, these books are worth searching out at used bookstores because they are so funny)
Danny Dunn and the Time Machine – Jay Williams (All about a little boy who goes out and invents things like a time machine, universal glue and a homework machine – for a scientific minded little kid, these were great because they weren’t as relationship driven as a lot of the other books for little girls. They were about kids that went out and created new things. Out of print but worth finding. Honorable mention to the Encyclopedia Brown series (Donald Sobol) for similar reasons - he and his friends solve puzzles and invite you to join in the fun. )
John Holt, Edgar Z Friedenberg, Leston Havens, Jules Henry, Kim Marshall, John Stilgoe, JR Ackerley, Karen Pryor, Bill James, R. Crumb, Richard Stark, Peter O'Donnell....
Brave New World
Fahrenheit 451
Are you there God, it's me Margaret?
A Prayer for Owen Meany
Reading Lolita in Tehren
Pride and Prejudice
The Beauty Myth
The Price of Motherhood/The Mommy Myth
Every book by David Sedaris
Any art history book I have ever read
I like the Jeeves and Bertie short stories better than the novels. It seemed to me that Wodehouse could write outstanding short stories, and long short stories, but after about 150 pages or so he'd lose steam, but maybe that's just me.
If you like Bertie and Jeeves you'd probably also like Wodehouse's Mulliner stories and his golf stories.

Not to be cliche, but Godel, Escher, Bach is huge.

My early college Poli Sci books; nothing in particular, but just being exposed to the nature of reality.

I got a ton out of Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal," which set me up for crushing disappointment when I found out that pretty much the rest of the evo-psych field is just-so stories justifying Leave It To Beaver.

When I was a precocious and poorly-handled 14-year-old, Frank Herbert's Dune was deeply gratifying.

This post has a lot of dashes in it.
Nice choices by all...I've added several to my summer reading for pleasure list.

*Catherine, Called Birdy and A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver: both are historical fiction with female main characters set in medieval Europe. They were "assigned" to me by my fabulous grade school English teacher when she saw that I was bored with the class reader. Nice introductions to deeper history and feminism.

*almost all of my introductory international relations books, especially Man, the State and War by Kenneth Waltz. They all encouraged me to organize my thinking and ideas about the world.

*The Rules of Work, which I found to be a great help for professionalization over the course of graduate school.

*A Prayer for the City, about my beloved Philadelphia. It really helped to enlighten me about a time in Philly that I was too young to really understand as it was unfolding. It's also a very informative realistic portrait of city politics, a striking counterpoint to the theory that I had read up until then.
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