Ten Influential Books

Everybody's doin' it. Here are mine, in principal-author order. Beware: lots of libertarian-themed stuff, and my literary tastes are low-to-middlebrow. (And some would argue about the middlebrow bit.) Nevertheless:

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Comments, explanations, apologies:

  1. How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne. This is the one book that I'm a little embarrassed about including, but I can't deny it was influential. Some kids have an intellectual fling with Ayn Rand, but for me it was Harry Browne. Here, he puts forth a semi-Objectivist, anarchist, politics-eschewing, self-help Philosophy of Everything. Intoxicating to a young moron!

    The book decries politics as a waste of time; but a few years later, Browne was a two-time presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party. The book emphatically denounces marriage as an intolerable restriction on your personal freedom; but a few years later, Browne got married. The book (written in 1973) argued that the US was headed for inevitable financial collapse; bad as things got, that didn't happen. So maybe, just maybe, there's some problem with the book's arguments.

  2. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Richard Feynman, Robert Leighton, and Matthew Sands. Back in the early 60's, colorful genius Richard Feynman taught freshman and sophomore physics at Caltech, using a "from scratch" approach completely different from the then-current textbooks. The lectures were quickly transcribed, edited, and published in three volumes. My high school library had a set, and (pretty much as a result) I became a physics major; and when I went to college, I essentially lived with the big red books for a couple more years. The lectures capture the joy of figuring things out, and convey the beauty and mystery of how the world works. Physics didn't work out for me in the long term, but the important stuff is still up there in my head somewhere.

  3. Proof by Dick Francis. Ostensibly a mystery, and it is, but it's also a complex story about character, courage, family, friendship, heartbreaking loss, and hidden talent. I've often thought that if I were to write a novel—not that I see much chance of that—I'd like to write something similar to Proof.

  4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. A great yarn of fighting for independence on the Moon. Mannie, the one-armed computer jock, develops a friendship with Mike, the lunar supercomputer that runs the show up there and has, apparently by sheer accident, "woken up" into a true conscious intelligence. Another book that nudged me onto a libertarian path.

  5. Job: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A Heinlein. Yes, another Heinlein. It tells the story of Alexander Hergensheimer, who's far from the typical Heinlein hero. In fact, he's kind of a jerk. But he's roped into walking on fire in Polynesia, and (somehow) this starts bouncing him back and forth to multiple universes, where he meets Margrethe, the love of his life; it makes Lost look like a missed turn on the way to the supermarket.

    It's a fun read, but also convinced me to get married to my Margrethe, undoing the commitment-phobia that Harry Browne put in place. So it easily gets included on an Influential list.

  6. Software Tools by Brian Kernighan and P. J. Plauger. I'd been a very amateur programmer for a few years, but this book knocked me off my physics career trajectory and sucked me into an obsession with getting computers to sit up and play tricks at my command. Which is, for better or worse, what I've been mostly doing since. You will not believe what these guys were able to torture a Fortran compiler into doing.

  7. The Gift of Fire by Richard Mitchell. Richard Mitchell was a professor of classics at (then) Glassboro State College in New Jersey. He made his name as the "Underground Grammarian", poking wicked fun at the self-important and deluded figures of (mostly) education and (occasionally) politics. But this book steps away from that formula, and delves into …

    Oh, heck. You know what? Of all the works listed, this one is online, free and legal, and you can read it right here. Check it out, see what you think.

  8. In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government by Charles Murray. A relatively short and very readable meditation on that mysterious phrase in the Declaration. There are a number of libertarianish tomes on this list, but I think I'd pick this as the one that comes closest to explicating my political philosophy. At least for today, and probably for the rest of this week.

  9. Programming Perl by Larry Wall and Randal L. Schwartz. I spent years writing coding in Pascal, C, Basic, and Shell. My friends, Larry Wall showed me a better way.

    Note: this is the first edition. I can't recommend you buy it as a reference, because it documents a very obsolete, bug-ridden version of the Perl language. But it explicates that version very well, in much the same way as The C Programming Language by Kernighan and Ritchie did for that language. (I might have included Kernighan and Ritchie if this list were longer.)

    But in addition, the book also discusses issues of programming language design and proramming philosophy all with wit and clarity. See his three virtues of a programmer for a quick example. This sort of thing got squeezed out in later editions. Understandable, but regrettable.

  10. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. Look: as bad as my prose can get, if I hadn't read Strunk and White back in college, it would have been much, much worse. So: on the Influential list it goes.

    Not everyone likes it though. This guy, for example, is currently on kind of a jihad against it.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 3:27 PM EDT

It Might Get Loud

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A documentary about an old guitarist (Jimmy Page, 66), a middle-aged guitarist (U2's The Edge, 48), and a young guitarist (Jack White of The White Stripes, 34). They meet, they talk guitars, the do a short jam session at the end, playing Robbie Robertson's "The Weight".

I really wanted to like it better. It's at its best when the musicians relate their life stories: where they got their first guitar, what they did before fame struck, how they put together their distinctive sounds. The common thread is (as you might expect) their fanatic devotion to their craft, their 24x7 obsession in pursuit of their vision, making things ever more right.

Where it gets (unintentionally) amusing: it's really easy for musicians to get inarticulate and/or pretentious, and these guys are no exception. Then things start sounding like a Spinal Tap parody. At one point, when asked about his inspiration, Jimmy Page meanders on about "the creative spark". Gee, really?

Still if the guys had been guitarists I really liked… say Clapton as the old guy, Mark Knopfler representing middle age, and… um… Brad Paisley for the young guy. That would have been great. I would have put up with much more bullshit to hear those guys jam.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 3:20 PM EDT