My Ten Most Influential Books

After reading this great post about the ten books that most influenced an author over at First Thoughts (one of my favorite blogs) a few weeks ago, I’ve been working on my own list.  The list changed drastically over a few drafts, and I’ve been surprised by the final results.

These are not necessarily my favorite books (though many of them are), nor are they what I’d consider the best books I’ve read (though, again, some of them are).  These are the books that have most contributed to who I am today.  For better or for worse, these are the ones that stuck with me, changed me, that left some deep imprint impossible to explain me now without. 

The only caveat here is that I decided not to include any scripture on this list.  For it to be accurate, they should be on here, but I ran into too many problems.  Should I count them all as one monolithic book called “Scripture,” separate them into Standard Works, or separate them even further into individual texts by author?  The more I broke them down, the more I had to wrangle with how to rank them.  It got too thorny, and I just decided to ignore that altogether for this list.

The original list at First Thoughts, along with many of the comments afterwards, cheated by doubling up on books and squeezing more than ten onto these “top ten” lists.  This draft has significantly fewer than my first couple, but I’ve still elected to cheat, also.  My top ten list has twelve titles.  If you really want to be a purist, cut off the last two. 

I’ve listed them here roughly in order of just how much they’ve shaped me, and I’ve included the general period in my life when I read them. 

1.  Hugh Nibley, Nibley On the Timely and the Timeless (college).  This isn’t my favorite Nibley book (his Book of Mormon works or Approaching Zion would probably get that nod), but this “greatest hits” collection deeply impressed me at the time with its range of classical literacy to social criticism to studious, spiritual discipleship.  It was the first Nibley book I read cover to cover, and started me on the path to the rest of his oeuvre.  The way that I read scripture, study history, and understand the practical relations between things ancient, esoteric, and pragmatically modern are all heavily influenced by his life and work (though, since reading his biography–which I took with me to read on my honeymoon because it had just come out and I couldn’t wait to start it–I have attenuated this idolizing a bit and tried to expand my circle of influence).  Undeniably, his books have had more of a profound effect on me than any other.  I bought an old copy from E-bay several years ago…right before it was reprinted in a new edition.

2.  Hopkins and Sugerman, No One Here Gets Out Alive (high school).  I owe this one to my older brother.  Like all boys, I worshipped my older brother, so when I was old enough to emulate his adoration of classic rock, I followed suit.  I came across this biography of Doors frontman Jim Morrison and devoured it.  For a moody, pretentious adolescent, it provided a role model worthy of my own egomaniacal imagination.  This book’s influence reached far beyond my devoted memorizing of every note on the legendary Best of the Doors two CD set.  Even back then, I would read biographies with an eye especially keen for what great people had done at my age.  Morrison had been, above all, a voracious, even a ferocious, reader, and a nascent poet. 

My own forays into poetry reading and writing were not terribly productive (though I still like The Lords and the New Creatures), the titles and authors cited by Hopkins and Sugerman as formative on Morrison–James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, the Romantics and French Symbolists–became my bread and butter for years, and sprouted branches of further influence that still dominate what I read today.  Though I certainly no longer emulate Morrison or his lifestyle, I can’t deny that this book has had a huge impact on me over the years.  Just last week I was flipping through radio stations and heard “L.A. Woman,” and I fondly paused to listen to some of it.  This book may be dormant, but it is in my DNA.  Continue reading

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You Are Not a Gadget…Or A Passive, Vacuous Techno-Consumer

“It has become appalingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”     –Albert Einstein

Einstein was mostly talking about the bomb, and how we don’t have the maturity to handle such a powerful weapon wisely.  His thought applies equally well to that other insidious invention of the last century, electronic entertainment.

I was thinking of this again this week as I read a brief new essay at City Journal, Adam Thierer’s even-handed, thoughtful review of the new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier.  Lanier writes persuasively, Thierer agrees, about the need for caution and analysis in our application of online technology, but he also singles out some of Lanier’s major themes and disagrees with them.  In this, Thierer’s review is faulty: when he tries to rebut Lanier’s points, he falls into a trap of contrarian clichés, asserting blindly that Lanier is wrong:

Indeed, Lanier and other Internet critics—including Neil Postman (Technopoly), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), and Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism)—are guilty of a form of hyper-nostalgia about some mythical “good ol’ days” when all was supposedly much better. But despite the hand-wringing and occasional “techno-panics,” we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.

It’s interesting that Thierer uses Neil Postman as one of his references as a promulgator of the “mythical ‘good ol’ days,'” when much of Postman’s most popular book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, establishes quite firmly that general literacy and attention spans used to be significantly greater than they have been since the introduction of mental-labor saving devices during the 20th century.  Thierer commits his greatest fallacy, though, when he asserts that “despite the hand-wringing and occasional ‘techno-panics,’ we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.” 

This is patently false. 

Thierer seems to base his claim in the fact that technology critics predict dire consequences, yet we’re all still here, therefore the prophets of doom are wrong.  But nobody ever said that turning over more and more of our intellectual autonomy to electronic toys would completely destroy us (except, of course, for The Terminator, The Matrix, and pretty much everything Michael Crichton wrote), but that it would result in a world increasingly sterile in its mental acumen.  Is there any way to deny that that’s exactly what’s happened?

This week I watched an episode of PBS’s Frontline, from just last month, called “Digital Nation.”  It’s a stunning documentary about how the minds and lives of young people have been fundamentally changed by their sudden and total immersion in an electronic entertainment technology climate.  Continue reading

Neil Postman’s Trenchant Social Criticism, Now In Convenient (And Ironic) Cartoon Format!

Stuart McMillen at Recombinant Records takes some text about the realized visions of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and sets them to an illustrated format that perfectly summarizes how each has actually appeared in the real world. 

It also leaves little doubt which kind of dystopia is more prevalent in our modern world–the repressive dictatorship or the fascist, benevolent nanny-state.  Still, the irony of using the Internet to view this cartoon commentary should not be lost on anyone. 

Please also see my post about de Tocqueville and despotism yesterday.  Complements this post nicely.