Posted by: yannaungoak | April 8, 2010

Ten Influential Books

Last weekend, I was reading some blogs and came across this post on Crooked Timber about 10 influential books by Kieran Healy, a sociologist who teaches at Duke. I thought he had some interesting choices, and I thought it’d be fun to make a list for myself, of the books that immediately come into mind when I think about “books that have influenced me”. So, these are not necessarily THE most influential books I’ve read, but they’ve definitely made an impact on my life, or the way I look at things.

It seems to have become somewhat of a meme this month for political/econo-bloggers. Here’s a list from economist Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution, and here’s one from the famous political blogger Matt Yglesias.

It’s funny, none of the books that come to my mind right away are academic ones, or ones that I had to read for class. All the books on the list are ones that I read in my spare time, except #6 which I did read for class. Even though I read that during totally chilled out month when I was doing an independent reading/study. I guess it says something about the rate at which one absorbs ideas and internalizes them. Especially for me, reading something, reflecting, mulling over, sidetracking on a tangent and being lost in my thoughts for an hour before returning to that page I was on is not only one of the best private joys, it’s also essential for me to remember or understand anything. It’s like planting a vine and watching it’s shoots climb across the fields of my memory and entangle themselves with the rest of the complicated mess that constitutes my “understanding of the world”.

So, here’s the list. I’d recommend any of these books to anyone with eclectic interests ranging from science to society.

1. George Orwell, Burmese Days.

This was the first book by Orwell that I read. I instantly fell in love with its atmosphere of subtle bleakness, and just how much it resonated with modern day Myanmar. I was about fourteen when I read it, I think, and Orwell’s portrayal of colonial Burma was to me a spot on description of twenty-first century Myanmar.

Most of Orwell’s most famous works like 1984 and Animal Farm, which are diatribes against totalitarianism are banned in Myanmar for obvious reasons, but this book, being a critique of colonialism, is widely available. It’s the ultimate irony. Orwell’s Burmese Days provides a more penetrating critique of present-day Myanmar and any of his other works. 1984 and Animal Farm dealt with made up, idealized dystopias, this book deals with a real-life one, in which Orwell himself lived a good chunk of his life. In Myanmar, nothing really ever changes, and anybody who wants to understand the country has to first realize that fact.

2. Stephen Jay Gould, Full House.

This book made me appreciate the explanatory power of clear-headed scientific reasoning. When you finally get to the real reason behind things, it usually has that stark simplicity that makes you go “duh”.

Gould centers the book around two questions, the first concerns the disappearance of the 0.400 batting average from baseball, and the second concerns the idea that evolution has a “direction”. Yeah.

It’s written so well, and it’s like reading a crime novel, where the clues build up and you only get the real answer in the end. It’s one of the few non-fiction books for which you have to watch out for spoilers. And the realization you get in the end that connects those two questions together, like I said, really makes one appreciate scientific reasoning.

3. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity.

In high school, I was obsessed with complexity theory. Obsessed. I would scour the libraries in Singapore looking for books about Lorenz attractors, small-world networks, autocatalytic sets, sand piles, and all the other weird and wonderful things associated with that topic.

This book in particular, really stuck in my memory. I think especially because it was centered around the lives and stories of misfits: Brian Arthur, Stuart Kauffman, Chris Langton. And it gave me my lifelong dream: to go to the Santa Fe Institute.

4. George Johnson, Fire in the Mind.

Another book on complexity and the Santa Fe Institute. Out of all the books I’ve read on the topic, this book particularly stuck. It presented things from a perspective of individual peoples’ worldviews, specifically people who have settled in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico throughout the ages. And in the middle of that social history, the author would mix in more detailed descriptions of science, religion and worldviews, leading up to the “complexity” view of the world. It also had a particularly well written description of modern physics.

5. Douglas Hofstadter, Godel, Escher and Bach.

Wow, where do I start? It’s an absolute classic. Probably unlike anything else you’ll ever read. Get ready to become friend’s with Achilles and the Tortoise, GOD and Djinn, and if you don’t already, to really dig M.C. Escher and the genius of Kurt Gödel.

Hofstadter bends your mind. I haven’t really gotten back to thinking about the ideas in the book, but I think I still believe that his idea of the “strange loop” is a fundamental, inescapable part of reality.

6. Joeseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

Hmm… it seems I’ve unconsciously arranged this list into a somewhat chronological order. The first half of the list were books I read before college. The second half, I read during my college years. And my college years were a time when my interests shifted from the natural to the social sciences, and now I have an unhealthy obsession with both.

Well, anyways, like I mentioned above, I had to read this book as part of an independent study while I was on break from college in the US and living for a month back home in Myanmar.

I was studying economics in school, and as anyone who studies economics, you are gradually induced to take a side on whether you’re a “right-wing” free market supporter or a “left-wing” supporter of government intervention. This book of Schumpeter’s and his other book The Theory of Economic Development, were the two books that really convinced my how markets were essential and how markets worked.

And the thing I love about Schumpeter’s arguments are their sophistication. This is nothing like the pathetic dribble you hear the talking heads spewing on TV these days. This was written by one of the most brilliant economists of the twentieth century, who was a first rate sociologist as well as an economist; a believer in the power of entrepreneurs and private enterprise, who nonetheless worked for and admired a socialist government that came into power in inter-war Germany; who was living in an era where big government controlled socialism seemed to be the wave of the future (the 1940’s). This book was an acceptance of that trend, and a quiet lamentation and defense of the market forces that are so important to society.

7. Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers.

I read this during a summer before I took a class on the history of economic thought. I think I enjoyed reading this small book more than all the stuff I had to read for class.

This book introduced me to Mill, Marx, Veblen, and Schumpeter. And who can forget that kind of an introduction? I love learning about how people view the world, and how worldviews evolve.

8. David Brooks, On Paradise Drive.

When David Brooks is not writing in his sometimes brilliant/sometimes crappy New York Times column, he’s going around America being a “comic sociologist”. This is one of his books where he analyzes American society in a not-so-serious but very fun and insightful way. I remember chuckling alot while reading the book and basically agreeing with pretty much all he says in the book. I particularly liked the part about geography, where he dissected the different groups of Americans depending on whether they lived in the inner cities, suburbs, exurbs, etc. It’s a great book for a foreign kid trying to understand American attitudes and mentalities. It’s like a slightly more serious version of Stuff White People Like, and sometimes just as funny.

9. George R R Martin, The Song of Ice and Fire series.

(Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4)

In addition to being a brilliant, brilliant story about a whole bunch of people in an awesome fantasy world, the Song of Fire and Ice is also about the gritty, realistic portrayal of medieval society and politics. You get sucked into it. The people you love die, just like in real life. And just like in real life, evil people are more often than not, people that you can really relate to. You can’t put these books down.

10. Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle.

(Book 1, Book 2, Book 3)

I think this series has influenced me more than any other book on this list. And if I look back at where all my ridiculously eclectic interests in everything from science to history to economics to computers come from, it’s from this series of books.

The books are historical novels set in the Baroque era (the late 17th century) and deals with real life characters such as Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Christian Huygens, William of Orange and a whole set of other characters ranging from a Catholic Samurai vagabond to Eliza the escaped harem girl from the fictional island of Qwghlm.

They weave together science, philosophy, politics, finance, economics, religion, the beginnings of what was to become computer science, and pirates hunting for gold. Stephenson is a total geek, and his books are meant for geeks, they’re like those “tomes of experience” in RPG games that upgrade your geekiness all in one go.


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