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.