Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books that have influenced me

People on some political blogs I read have been listing the books that influenced their thinking the most, and I'll join in. My list has almost nothing in common with theirs.

  • Gods, Graves, and Scholars, by CW Ceram.
    This book sparked a lifelong interest in archaeology and related subjects. I couldn't count the number of books I've read since then relating to stuff dug out of the ground. I imagine that means any decent book on archaeology would have kindled my interest, but this was the one that did it for me. It made Heinrich Schliemann a personal hero.
  • The Hunters or the Hunted?: An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy, by C. K. Brain. In structure, this is an examination of some South African human remains found with animal remains, to ascertain who was eating whom. (It turned out people were being eaten by cats.) More than that, it is, as  the subtitle suggests, a book on how bones become fossils and fossil assemblages. It occurs to me every time I read about some discovery.
  • Rats, Lice, and History, by Hans Zinsser.
    Matt Yglesias listed Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeill, which is a better book than Rats, Lice, and History, rather than Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, which he said was better than Plagues and Peoples, because he read McNeill's book first, so it had more influence. Me, too, with Rats, Lice, and History. I read it long, long, ago, and it gave me a way of thinking about how the landscape could influence large-scale human events. The introduction to Plagues and Peoples has one of my favorite quotes: "We have to do the best we can with the language and concepts we inherit and not worry about obtaining a truth that will satisfy everyone, everywhere, and for all time."
  • History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
    After my first attempt at college and before my second, I did a bunch of things unrelated to anything I'm doing now. For several years, I had a job that involved foreign travel for months at a time in places where I had a lot of time to read, but there weren't any bookstores, so I had to carry at least three months worth of books with me. At first I carried light reading, mysteries and such. I found they were inefficient; not enough hours per pound. Then one day I was passing through the Dallas airport on the way to Yucatan, and my eye hit on the History of the Kings of Britain in a bookstore as I was about to get on the plane. I got it, read it when I ran out of mysteries, and loved it, really enjoyed reading it. So when I got home, I asked my friend the historian for a list of ancient historians to read. He suggested Procopius, Suetonius, Thucydides, Herodatus, and half a dozen more.  I took them with me on my next trip and didn't read another mystery for 25 years. When I ran out of ancient historians, I read philosophy of science (Popper, Kuhn) and modern history and tons of other stuff. The History of the Kings of Britain diverted my reading patterns for the rest of my life, so far.
  • Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin.
    This came out when I was a sophomore in high school. It's the story of a guy who underwent treatments to make his skin Negro-ish and then hitchhiked across the South and wrote about how he was treated by whites. I lived in a part of Southern California where there were a lot of Mexicans and a lot of Japanese but very few blacks, and at least in my schools, the Mexicans and Japanese were just normal kids. And certainly in my family I never heard any racial talk. So this was a revelation to me. People do what? 
  • Systems of Survival, by Jane Jacobs.
    This is a dialog on public corruption that usefully divides people into two groups, based on what acts they deem honorable or not. It colors the way I look at politics more than any other book. This is the ultimate basis for my ideas on conservatism and liberalism.
  • Marvin Harris's body of work
    Marvin Harris is an anthropologist who explains cultural ideas in terms of means of production and reproduction and physical environment. In places where land is cheap and open, women are valuable, because they can pump out babies to work the land, so men have to buy wives by paying a bride price. In places where land is not cheap and open, women are not as useful, and families have to pay men to take them off their hands by paying a dowry. Pigs are not forbidden because of trichinosis but because they eat the same things people do, so except in times of surplus, they compete with us for food, whereas goats, sheep, and cattle eat grass, which we cannot digest. I look for economic explanations everywhere now. A couple of good books are Cannibals and Kings and Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. The basic style of thought is not unlike that in Guns, Germs, and Steel, but it looks at cultural details rather than the broad sweep of history. (I must say, however, that the one professional anthropologist I know thinks Harris is basically wrong about everything. What does he know?)
  • Darwin's body of work
    Not Darwin himself, since I've never read his actual books, but I have read a lot about his ideas. I read Jay Gould's columns in Natural History, and then book after book. The theory of natural selection explains so much and can be extended so many useful ways (such as Dawkins' idea of the meme), that some application of it occurs to me at least daily. On Growth and Form, by D'Arcy Thompson, is a good check on just-so stories of evolution. Sometimes what looks like speciation may be really just a morphological response to salt levels in the water.
UPDATE: How could I have skipped Mother Nature, by Sarah Hrdy? It's human behavior as affected by evolution. I sense a theme here: things that affect human thought and behavior.

UPDATE 2: And how could I have forgotten H.L. Mencken. I think I've read every word he wrote that was put into a book (except the second two books of The American Language). If I have a writing style and a thinking style about politics, it is a copy of Mencken's. And he was the funniest person in America between Mark Twain and Robin Williams. Appropriate quotes from Mencken occur to me daily. Start with the Chresomathy, which is Mencken's hand-selected clip show. I was reminded of Mencken here.

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