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?