Recently, a few friends and colleagues tried to recruit me to do a “10 most influential books you have read” challenge on Facebook. The problem is, I couldn’t bring myself to just post a list. I wanted to explain each selection a bit. It was hard to limit myself to a small number of books, and I undoubtedly will think of egregious omissions later. I have added a few at the bottom as honorable mentions.
Keep in mind that this is a “most influential” list. A list of favorites would look much different, as would a list of books that best illustrate human psychology - both of which would be fun to compile.
1. The Bible
Sure, it’s sometimes a cliche, but I was raised on this book, and it is, after all, the book of my faith. To us, it is the remarkable record of God’s dealings with mankind. Earthy and human, it is filled with the sordid, the inspiring, the best of good and the worst of evil. Often beautiful in language, touching on every human emotion, it is by no means a safe book. It has been the inspiration for the most noble of men and women, but also for some the most base and oppressive.
More than anything, it contains the history of the one who turned the world upside down. Who dared to assert the existence of an upside down kingdom, one where the greatest is a servant, where enemies were to be loved rather than hated, where children were closer to God than wise men, and the greatest commandment was love.
2. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My mother, who stretched my mind during my childhood by introducing me (and my siblings) to all kinds of classic books during our childhood. We read this one together. I am including it because of chapter 31.
Huck considers turning in his friend (and runaway slave) Jim, feeling that his religion compels him to do so. (Indeed, many preachers of the era spent sermons on this topic.) Huck eventually, however, cannot bring himself to do it, even though he believes he will be damned if he doesn’t do the “right” thing.
"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.
This quote has been a bit of a guiding light to me in my own life. I do not believe God calls me to ignore either my brain or my conscience. Like Huck, I would indeed choose hell over doing evil.
3. Family Happiness and The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
I know, I am totally cheating here and counting two novellas as one book. However, I read them back to back, and I would say they influenced my views of marriage and sexuality in a huge way. (I read them during high school.)
Family Happiness is believed to be Tolstoy’s “fantasy” of what would have happened had he married a younger girl he was infatuated with at one point. In his imagined version of the story, told from her point of view, the passionate romance comes off the rails as they discover their inherent incompatibility. She likes the city, the parties, and the excitement; while he prefers a sedate country life. Is this difference due to age? Or is it personality? In the end, the couple settles down to a life (largely on his terms), and she resigns herself to a form of “happiness” akin to deep unhappiness. The book ends with what I believe to be one of the most devastating closing lines in literature:
That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time.
That image has haunted me, and made me determined that I would never inflict that sort of “happiness” on a woman.
The Kreutzer Sonata should be required reading, in my opinion. Tolstoy tells a tale of a murder of a wife by her jealous husband after he catches her (possibly) having an affair. But the tale itself is mostly a vehicle for Tolstoy to argue his view of sexual intimacy as an evil to be avoided. In the narrator’s view, the murder was accomplished, not when he killed his wife, but when he slept with her, which was in itself animalistic violence. Tolstoy seemed incapable of an understanding of sexuality that led to mutual bonding and closeness, rather than selfish use of the other.
Let us stop believing that carnal love is high and noble and understand that any end worth our pursuit -- in service of humanity, our homeland, science, art, let alone God -- any end, so long as we may count it worth our pursuit, is not attained by joining ourselves to the objects of our carnal love in marriage or outside it; that, in fact, infatuation and conjunction with the object of our carnal love (whatever the authors of romances and love poems claim to the contrary) will never help our worthwhile pursuits but only hinder them.
When I read this book, I was not expecting this at all, being familiar with Tolstoy primarily from his short stories of morality, ethics, and mysticism. It was my first real experience with a highly sex-negative religious viewpoint - although I have since encountered it in various forms since, particularly among some followers of Christian Patriarchy. From Doug Wilson’s view that sex cannot be an “egalitarian pleasure fest,” but needs to be about dominance and submission; to an acquaintance of my wife’s family who worried that he was “lusting” after his wife; to a friend who vowed never to inflict sex on his wife, not realizing she might enjoy it. Tolstoy’s twisted vision is alive and well.
Both of these books greatly influenced how I approached dating and marriage. I was determined to avoid these scenarios, going so far as to have some pretty involved discussions about sex with my wife before I ever asked her out. I also made it my goal to make marriage a source of true happiness for my wife, not a tolerable state of “happiness.”
4. Watership Down by Richard Adams
I was given this book by an aunt, who really loved it herself. I must have been in late elementary school, or maybe Jr. High. I wore out my original copy through the years. Definitely one of the books I read the most times as a minor.
The book is both an adventure story (with some parallels to the great Roman and Greek epics) and a parable of totalitarianism. It put a human rabbit face on command and control societies in a way perfectly understandable to a young person. Although Watership Down suffers from the same lack of strong female characters as Tolkien’s works, it nevertheless is high adventure, amusing mythology, and provocative commentary on human society.
5. The Ball and the Cross by G. K. Chesterton
Although I was introduced to Chesterton by his Father Brown stories, this was the first longer work of his that I read. I could have chosen Orthodoxy or Heretics, and I was sorely tempted to put The Flying Inn here, but as much as I love those books, The Ball and the Cross gets the prize as most influential. It is the one that led me to acquire and read the others, and the one I find myself referring to most often.
The book starts with a seemingly mundane incident. An atheist posts a provocative slur against Christ, and the devout protagonist objects. Soon, however, the two realize that they have more in common than not, because even though they violently disagree, at least they both care, unlike the vast mass of humanity which never even thinks of the ultimate questions.
6. All About Electricity by Ira M. Freeman
Yeah, this is a weird one to put on the list. However, it is the one book I read more than any other during my elementary school days. It is a kids’ introduction to the science of electricity written in the 1950s. So, it ends with an optimistic statement that those newfangled transistor things might just revolutionize the world. Ya think?
All About Electricity was my gateway drug to a lifetime love of science. From there, I went on to harder drugs, like my Growing Up With Science encyclopedias (still a beloved part of my library), electronic kits and a soldering iron, and a steady stream of books from the library on scientific topics.
The nature of this book also gave me a fascination with those mysterious devices, known as valves or tubes, depending on what side of the pond one comes from. Although horribly out of style in the 1980s, when I was a kid, they have made a comeback in recent years. As a music snob, I firmly believe that nothing sounds like a real tube guitar amp driven hard. Eventually, I was able to purchase my own little amp, the underrated Peavey Prowler, and I can set the filaments aglow to my heart’s content.
7. No Name by Wilkie Collins
There were quite a number of options for influential novels that I read in high school. I selected this one, because it was the first I read with an unconventional female protagonist who defied the conventions of Victorian society.
What the audacious Magdalen Vanstone does in pursuit of justice for herself and her sister seems shocking, even in the 21st Century, but it must have been even more so at the time it was written.
However, she goes no further than any number of male heroes, and that is why it is disconcerting. Her active role contrasts with the passive stereotype of women and the rules that society places on them. It was a great introduction to the idea that there should be more for women than a command to marry a reasonably wealthy husband.
8. Why Societies Need Dissent by Cass Sunstein
As good as Nudge was, I think this one is better and more influential on my thinking.
The discovery that those who only associate with “likeminded” persons become more extreme than any one of the group was before they got together was mind-blowing. It explained so much of my observation of polarized groups - and also a lot about our increasingly isolated and polarized society.
9. The Opium of the Intellectuals by Raymond Aron
Although I was already familiar with the concept, Aron’s book on the essentially religious nature of totalitarianism was an amazing discovery. Aron focuses primarily on Communism (particularly in its Stalinist form), and points out that it lacks only the traditional supreme being to be recognized as a religion - and a cult at that. The priesthood, the mythology of origins, the moral code, the demand of loyalty, and even the belief in a form of the apocalypse (the “end of history”) parallel the traditional theistic traditions. Did I mention that Aron was non-religious? Aron’s argument against the likes of Sartre, who excused Stalin’s purges as necessary to create a better world remains valid today. Totalitarian systems, whether overtly religious or the opposite, have more in common than one might think at first glance.
10. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Another book my mother introduced me to as a kid. Although it is commonly cited as an argument against Communism, it also works well as an indictment of a more endemic problem: those who come to power in any system tend to exploit it for their own gain, oppress those below them, and justify it all as “equality.”
Or, as the Who put it, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”
11. The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross
“This list goes to ELEVEN!”
Even though I have been a classical musician for over 30 years, I never really warmed to 20th Century classical. Other than a few mainstream composers like Copland and Prokofiev. This book really, really helped me understand the different directions that modern music went, and opened my eyes to a world of music that suddenly made more sense.
I reviewed the other book by Ross, Listen to This, which is also excellent - but not as influential.
Honorable mentions to:
You knew I couldn’t stop with 11…
He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Octopus by Frank Norris, The Great Divorce and The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, any number of Dr. Seuss books, Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare, Are Women Human? by Dorothy Sayers, A Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, "The Grand Inquisitor" from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov.
I’m a little disappointed at how few female authors made the list, because I really do love many books written by women. A list of “favorite books” would contain more - as would a list of favorite poets.
You knew it was coming: