Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Books Which Have Influenced Me the Most

(This meme which nobody is calling a meme was started by Tyler Cowen.)

These are the books, off the top of my head, that influenced me the most. No particular order.

Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card.

Ender's Game is the story of a nerdy kid who uses his strategic and tactical genius to defeat the schoolyard bullies and then save the human race. In space. The perfect escapist fantasy for a nerdy kid, in other words. It also introduced me to the idea of blogging. In the 1980s.

Speaker for the Dead is a much different book, less action and more philosophy. The title refers to a priest-like figure, who is invited to learn about and tell the whole truth of someone who has died, as a memorial. I was blown away by the idea of telling the whole truth about someone, the good parts and the bad parts, the parts parents would be proud of and the ones that they would be ashamed of. The idea was that it's impossible to really know somebody, even a horrible somebody, without loving them. That made a big impression on me.

When I grew up, having read all of Card's books, I found out that he is a Mormon and a homophobic bigot. That was an important lesson, too, in that it conflicted so much with the spirit of empathy (and, as an interesting side note, the homoeroticism) that pervades his fiction. I also grew to become horrified by the ruthless and simplistic ideas about fighting and war that are featured in Ender's Game and that I heard Card himself relate to American foreign policy when I attended a book signing as a young adult.


The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, Richard Dawkins.

I'm pretty sure I was headed in that direction already, but I believe that I picked up The Blind Watchmaker a believer and put it down an atheist. It takes on the famed watchmaker argument for God's existence (a.k.a. the argument from design) and not only defeats it but demonstrates the elegant beauty of Darwinian evolution.


Contact, Carl Sagan.

I found Sagan's secular sense of awe exhilarating. Contact introduced me to the idea that science could provide the same sense of transcendence that religion can at its very best without requiring you to believe in the obviously untrue. It also has a great part about what a message from a real Intelligent Designer might look like.


Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins.

A friend turned me on to Still Life with Woodpecker while I was at yeshiva in Israel. When I returned home, I quickly found all of Robbins's other books and read them, too. Collectively, they blew up everything I thought I knew about writing and fiction. Another Roadside Attraction introduced this still-sheltered young man to a host of characters and ideas about society and religion that just about blew my mind. From mocking the Catholic Church's vast stores of obscene wealth at the Vatican to introducing radical hippie ideas like just enjoying the rain to basically advocating psychedelics, it provided a lot of thought-fodder for an Orthodox Jew raised by squares.


A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking.

I read this a couple of years before The Blind Watchmaker and I think it laid the groundwork for my future atheism. Hawking doesn't come out and say that there's no God, but he does argue that there doesn't need to be a God to explain the universe. The cosmology he lays out in the book is so much vaster and more awe inspiring than the one laid out in the Torah that it makes Genesis look like a fairy tale for children.


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig.

This book introduced me to Eastern philosophy. It suffers from not being as good as the author thinks it is, but it introduced me to mindfulness and inspired me to learn about the Eastern religions. I don't think I got anything worthwhile from Pirsig's philosophy itself, though.


Feeling Good, David D. Burns.

Having suffered from a chronic, low-grade depression for a few years, I read scores of self-help books. Most make you feel motivated and optimistic for a day or two but don't change your life. Feeling Good is a miracle. Dr. Burns explains the theory behind cognitive-behavioral therapy in a very accessible way and it made me aware for the first time of all the automatic thoughts I had which had until that moment gone completely unexamined. The self-help exercises in this book had immediate, dramatic effects for me in an extremely positive way. It also changed the way I thought about the human mind and the human brain.


My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok.

All of Potok's novels are fantastic, but I think this one had the most effect on me. The story of a young hasid torn between his religion and family on the one hand and his artistic integrity and expression -- one might say his soul -- on the other, it brings the reader into the Asher Lev's turmoil. Although I am not an artist, I too felt the conflict between family and religion on the one side and my own integrity and perhaps my soul on the other. This book made me feel less alone while I was going through that.

22 comments:

B. Spinoza said...

I didn't read any of the books that influenced you the most. I did, however, read Even Cowgirls get the Blues (I think I may have read this in yeshiva in Israel too. There was this nice little book store in Jerusalem called sefer v'sefel, did you know it?)

Bruce said...

I had the same reaction to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig wrote a sequel called "Lila" which in many ways fills in the gaps. It's well worth reading.

Anonymous said...

B. Spinoza: Just recently I took a book of Conrad Aiken's poetry off my shelf and read a few pages...and noticed the stamp of Sefer V'Sefel inside the front cover, and remembered buying it there in my yeshiva days in Israel a little more than 20 years ago.

CyberKitten said...

Enders Game was *very* good. Haven't read the sequel...

Can't remember if I've read The Blind Watchmaker but The Selfish Gene made me a confirmed Darwinian in my teens....

My Law teacher leant me Zen & the Art telling me it would change my life. It didn't. Fairly interesting book though.

dbackdad said...

Cool list. Completely agree on Sagan, Dawkins, and Hawking.

Amazingly, I've never read Card. I really need to fix that.

Off the top of my head, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, was one of the most profound books I've ever read.

tommy said...

Ender's Game is the story of a nerdy kid who uses his strategic and tactical genius to defeat the schoolyard bullies and then save the human race.

I haven't read it, but it sounds like the perfect liberal novel: make the protagonist a utopian liberal, replace the schoolyard bullies with heartless conservatives and greedy capitalists and keep the part about saving the human race.

Science Writers: I got the same emotional reaction from Carl Sagan's Contact that you report. I got the same feeling when reading portions of The Demon-Haunted World. I loved the Cosmos television series as a young teen.

I get a similar but weaker feeling from Hawking's work: A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.

You can't skip Dawkins, but I don't get the same profound feeling from his work. I'm not entirely sure when I came to accept evolution, but it struck me as much more intuitive than God from an early age. Maybe I was less impressed by biological concepts by the time I encountered Dawkins.

Murray and Hernstein's The Bell Curve and Rushton's Race, Evolution, and Human Behavior affected me profoundly in my early to mid teenage years. Those two books shattered my idealistic view of the world. I became more interested in conservative thinking thereafter. (Perhaps the only event that disturbed me at that level was finding out the Neverending Story theme wasn't sang by a woman. That turned my nine-year-old world upside down.)

I didn't get an opportunity to read Jensen's The g Factor until later.

Potok: I haven't read the Potok work that you mention. I did read The Chosen in my early teens. I recall it being a very nice little story.

Baruch Spinoza said...

The funny thing is that it was not the notable atheists of today who influenced me. It was a philosopher (obviously from my username, it is Spinoza) from almost 400 years ago. Haha.

It was not Spinoza first though. It was Thomas Paine, who was from 18th century. Paine made me give up religion. But I was still not a determinist and materialist. That came later with Spinoza.

I say this is funny because I gave up religion essentially in a pre-Darwinian way. How rare is that?

I do not like Richard Dawkins. I never liked Richard Dawkins. I know it is blashphemy to say that among atheists but I never appreciated him. Christopher Hitchens is so much more amazing, I love Hitchens so much.

Random said...

"Ender's Game is the story of a nerdy kid who uses his strategic and tactical genius to defeat the schoolyard bullies and then save the human race."

He also commits genocide whilst under the impression he's playing a computer game. I never really got my head around that bit...

When I was a nerdy kid, the SF book that interested me most was "Islands in the Sky" by Arthur C Clarke, about a teenager who wins a game show and chooses as his prize a trip to a space station. It's only superficially a novel, it's more a vehicle for Clarke to explain his ideas about how space travel should be used and give a then current (it was written in the 1960's) understanding of the state of the solar system. It's still on my bookshelf, and I'm looking forward to giving it to my own child to read when she's a bit older.

"Contact" - if you liked this, you'll love "Cosmos" (the book of the TV series) which is straightforwardly about the awe and wonder of astronomy at its best and unconstrained by the novel format. It may be difficult to find but is worth the effort. Speaking personally, but Sagan had a big effect on me - he failed to conince me to become an atheist, but he did convince me to do my level best to become an astronomer. But then he wasn't an evangelist like Dawkins, he had too much integrity to try to tell people how to think and attack them if they disagreed with him. Instead he simply laid out the truth as he saw it and invited others to reach their own conclusions, and if that took them down a different road to his - well, the universe is big enough.

Interesting BTW that you put Sagan next to Dawkins in your list - Sagan once said that he could think of only one reasonably respectable scientific theory which, if it could be proved, would disprove the existence of God. (Hint, it wasn't evolution.) I somehow doubt that Dawkins would ever say something so self-effacing.

"A brief History of Time" - where you another of the 5% of people who bought it who actually read it all the way through then?:-) It was a good book, but I can't say it hugely affected me one way or the other. But then, I was probably older than you when I first read it...

Haven't read the rest of them, but if "Feeling Good" is a good as you say I'll look it up - somebody close to me suffers badly from depression, and it helps it'll be worth it,

Thanks for an interesting list...

Jewish Atheist said...

Thanks for all the comments, everybody. I'm always afraid nobody's going to be reading when I don't post for a while. Yay for RSS!

Spinoza:

Might have been in there once or twice, but I'm not sure.

Bruce:

I read Lila, but I don't really remember anything about it except a woman and a boat. So I can't say it changed my life. :-)

CK: Oh, you get to read it for the first time then! How lucky.

dbackdad:

Amazingly, I've never read Card. I really need to fix that.

Uh, yeah, you do. :-) Start with the old stuff -- the quality fell off over the years. The old stuff and the short stories are great.

tommy:

I haven't read it, but it sounds like the perfect liberal novel: make the protagonist a utopian liberal, replace the schoolyard bullies with heartless conservatives and greedy capitalists and keep the part about saving the human race.

Um, maybe, if you change the whole book, I guess. But Card's an archconservative, as I mentioned, and it reads more like standard scifi libertarian fantasy than anything remotely liberal.

Murray and Hernstein's The Bell Curve and Rushton's Race, Evolution, and Human Behavior affected me profoundly in my early to mid teenage years.

I haven't actually read The Bell Curve, but I've read a lot about it as I'm sure you know from discussions elsewhere. Brings up an interesting point -- since I really got online, I've been much more affected by blogs and articles than by physical books.

Potok: I haven't read the Potok work that you mention. I did read The Chosen in my early teens. I recall it being a very nice little story.

The Chosen is probably his second-best work, after Asher Lev. Asher Lev is much more touching, I think.

The funny thing is that it was not the notable atheists of today who influenced me. It was a philosopher (obviously from my username, it is Spinoza) from almost 400 years ago. Haha.

Ah, the original Jewish Atheist. :-) Haven't read much of him, although I think I tried once. I did read Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian. It was good, but didn't say anything that was new to me. (It was probably new when he wrote it though!)

Random:

When I was a nerdy kid, the SF book that interested me most was "Islands in the Sky" by Arthur C Clarke

I loved that book! Not in the same league as Ender's Game, but I probably gave it 3 or 4 reads.

"Contact" - if you liked this, you'll love "Cosmos"

I did, but I prefer Contact. I like the novel format. :-)

"Contact" - if you liked this, you'll love "Cosmos" (But then he wasn't an evangelist like Dawkins, he had too much integrity to try to tell people how to think and attack them if they disagreed with him.

I think he was an evangelist, and a good one. Much less in-your-face and abrasive than Dawkins, yes. But I don't think he was as laid-back about it as you imply. He just wasn't as confrontational and didn't dwell on the negative as much.

Interesting BTW that you put Sagan next to Dawkins in your list - Sagan once said that he could think of only one reasonably respectable scientific theory which, if it could be proved, would disprove the existence of God. (Hint, it wasn't evolution.)

Ok already, what was it? :-)

While I don't think Dawkins measures up to Sagan, they are both real scientists who made legitimate contributions to their field before becoming popularizers of science and public atheists as well. Not only do they belong next to each other, but they're pretty much the only two people in that category! (Maybe Dennett and some others, but they're more small-scale.)

"A brief History of Time" - where you another of the 5% of people who bought it who actually read it all the way through then?:-)

Yeah, I was a nerdy kid, as I said, and fascinated.

Random said...

Wow, quick answer:-) Pleased you liked "Islands" BTW - I haven't found many other people who have even read it...

"I think he was an evangelist, and a good one. Much less in-your-face and abrasive than Dawkins, yes. But I don't think he was as laid-back about it as you imply. He just wasn't as confrontational and didn't dwell on the negative as much."

Fair point. The analogy that occurs to me is that if they were religious then Dawkins would be the evangelist who has a cable TV show which preaches that God wants you to give him all your money, whereas Sagan would be the sort who lives the gospel by running a Salvation Army style refuge in a rundown inner-city area. Both evangelists perhaps, but only one is likely to get much respect from people who don't share his beliefs.

"Ok already, what was it? :-)"

I thought that'd pique your curiosity:-) Steady State Theory is what you want. Basically the universe is infinitely old, without a beginning or an end. As Sagan observed, if there is no creation then logically there cannot be a creator. Classical Steady state Theory is pretty much dead now, but as the link observes there are variants of the theory that are still going.

"Not only do they belong next to each other, but they're pretty much the only two people in that category!"

Then let me introduce you to Stephen Jay Gould. An evolutionary biologist like Dawkins, but his personal style and approach is much more like Sagan's. FWIW I've got about half a dozen of his books on my bookshelf compared to only one of Dawkins' (The Ancestor's Tale).

There's a fascinating account in one of his books about a trip to the Deep South where he testified as an expert witness in a court case brought to stop some school board teaching creationism in science class. Gould recounts how, despite making no secret of why he was there, he received nothing but kindness and friendship from the people whose beliefs he was confronting. He ended up by concluding that the real enemy wasn't religion, it was intolerance. Again, I find it difficult to imagine Dawkins writing something like that.

Jewish Atheist said...

Random,

I can't say I've read Gould in depth, but my impression of him is that he's a sloppy thinker, perhaps intentionally, and always in the direction of his personal ideology. (I happen to share most of his ideology, in fact, but intellectual sloppiness is intellectual sloppiness.)

"Non-overlapping magisteria," for example, is not an honest attempt to describe reality, but a way to plead, can't we all just get along? Religion of course has always, always made empirical claims. That these claims have usually been false doesn't mean that they don't exist, it just means that science is far better than religion at ascertaining empirical truths. Even with regard to the things he wants to give religion like meaning, I'd argue science has done a better job at. Empirical test: randomly divide a test group of depressed people into two groups. Hand one group the Bible and the other group Feeling Good. Measure the results. Or give one group a priest not schooled in psychology and give the other a psychologist not schooled in religion. Again, I'll take the psychologist.

Again, with The Mismeasure of Man, I haven't read it or The Bell Curve, but from my readings about both of them, my impression is that the authors of The Bell Curve were more honest and Gould was more slanting towards his ideological beliefs (which again, I share.)

I don't want a scientist who shades truths and misrepresents ideas because it makes the world prettier. I want my scientists to tell the truth, consequences be damned. That's why I prefer Dawkins* and Sagan ahead of Gould any day.

* I have criticized Dawkins from time to time, notably when he argued that religious indoctrination is as bad as actual child abuse, but I think it's easier to separate the rhetoric from the argument with him than it is with Gould.

Jewish Atheist said...

(In other words, if Dawkins followed Gould's model, he would have written an entire book purporting to justify the claim that religious indoctrination is as bad as actual child abuse, not just thrown it out there as a piece of hyperbole and then refusing to back down the way he did. Neither is excusable, but Gould's is more serious a problem, I think.

JewishGadfly said...

That's funny, I just read an interview with Dan Dennett in which he says the same about Gould (though more harshly):

http://reason.com/blog/2007/07/11/philosopher-daniel-dennett-on

Jewish Atheist said...

JG:

Wow, thanks for pointing me to that. Nice to see my impression confirmed by such a luminary.

Orthoprax said...

Sagan an atheist? News to me. He tended to call himself an agnostic.

Jewish Atheist said...

OP: Guess you're right on that one.

sos said...

JA, I think you entirely miss the mark on Gould. From what you write it sounds like you have a fairly idealistic view of the sciences, but this is not a perspective shared by Gould. From the outset Gould admits his ideological position, but he does this from that angle that absolutely every scientist holds biases and it is foolish to think otherwise. I think there is far more merit to this position then you are granting.

As for IQ, it is a concept even contested within psychology, hardly a pillar of modern science. There is also some compelling historical evidence that unitary metric intelligence is essentially a racist invention (which is obviously very "slanted" science.) For a detailed treatment of this see John Carson's The Measure of Merit.

Laughing Boy said...

I'm pretty sure I was headed in that direction already, but I believe that I picked up The Blind Watchmaker a believer and put it down an atheist.

You must have been pretty far along that direction if the arguments in The Blind Watchmaker were enough to convince you.

tommy said...

JA, I think you entirely miss the mark on Gould. From what you write it sounds like you have a fairly idealistic view of the sciences, but this is not a perspective shared by Gould. From the outset Gould admits his ideological position, but he does this from that angle that absolutely every scientist holds biases and it is foolish to think otherwise. I think there is far more merit to this position then you are granting.

The answer is that while all scientists have their biases, the serious scientist will attempt to discover and check his biases rather than wallow in them.

Social scientists spend a lot more time trying to prove things from presupposed theories than they do attempting to determine if the underlying theories are true, false, or unfalsifiable. That is why so much of our research in the social sciences has a polemical quality to it.

sos said...

The answer is that while all scientists have their biases, the serious scientist will attempt to discover and check his biases rather than wallow in them.

Which is exactly why racist assumptions and theories should excised from "serious" research. Of course, the irony here is that psychology is a social science. And really, almost every scientist tries "to prove things from presupposed theories", that is just the nature of the field.

Rabbi Lars Shalom said...

well eow

Tigerboy said...

Dear Jewish Atheist:

Is "Books Which Have Influenced Me the Most" going to be your swan song?

It makes me very sad that you seem to have lost interest in blogging. (I thought these pages were so thought-provoking.)

Kudos to you. You demonstrated a wonderful talent for objectivity. You had a really good thing, here.

Other atheist bloggers would kill for the diversity of opinion that was contributed to these pages on a regular basis.

I can well imagine that one might grow weary of always having to come up with new topics and providing thoughtful discourse, but I really miss it.

Your blog was great.

I will continue to check-in, every couple of weeks, but it appears the party's over. The lively discussion has died.

Sad.

With best wishes and great respect,

Tigerboy