My Ten Books

There has been a Facebook thing going around about the ten most influential books we've read, or something along those lines. Without further ado, here are:

The ten* books** that have influenced*** me most****

* Some of these are multiple volumes

** Not all are books, per se

***It’s hard to say what influenced means, as certain books opened up the possibility of my understanding other books. However, I have tried to capture the books or texts which I see as pivotal in my personal journey.

****The list is organized not by level of impact by the time that I read the book when it influenced me the most.

1. Bill Waterson: Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995) 

I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes. One of my first memories is of the strip ending, and over the next several years I devoured the collections. A certain combination of Calvin’s critical rationality and fanciful imagination rubbed off on me, as did some of Hobbes’ genuine contentment with the world. Sometimes when I feel that adulthood is too much I return to Waterson’s world, only to find each time that it is more nuanced and ‘adult’ than it was the last time; it mirrors my growth. Certain strips, like the one where Calvin asks his dad about black and white pictures, will stay with me forever.

 2. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings (1954)

I can’t remember how I first encountered Tolkien. It must have been through the Hobbit, but I have no real memory of that other than that we vaguely listened to the book on tape on a family road trip. The Lord of the Rings, however…wow. I know I read it in elementary school because I was a Nazgul for Halloween in fifth grade. It’s hard to overstate how much I loved those books. They opened me up to the world of high fantasy, which through the Wheel of Time books, Warhammer, and Magic: the Gathering has taken up an inordinate amount of my time.  None of those fantasy worlds speak to me as resonantly as the world of Middle Earth, with its tragic-mythic sense of loss and wonder that parallels how I often feel about the world we live in. In a discussion about whether or not our souls are born for this world, I once told a professor (not the professor from whom I took “Tolkien: Medieval and Modern”) that I felt my soul was born for Middle Earth. 

3. Alan Paton: Cry, the Beloved Country (1946)

I read Alan Paton’s searing novel of pre-Apartheid South Africa in seventh grade, when I was preparing to go on a family trip to that complicated country. No book before or since has moved me in the same way. The lyricism of the prose, the sophistication of the themes, and the radical structure of the text itself were all new to me. This was the first and maybe only book that has brought me tears. "There is a lovely road which runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it…"

4. Charles C Mann: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005)

Our friend Dana gave this book to me my junior year of high school. It is the book (maybe after Hodges & Whitehouse’s Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe) that has most determined where I stand in my professional life. It introduced me—someone who loved history—both to the idea that traditional historical narratives could be radically flawed and that archaeology was a way to recover more of an ‘objective truth’ (this was my naively positivist phase) than possible through other techniques. The book is a tour de force destroying the idea that the Americas were uninhabited upon European arrival, and so thus combines revolutionary historical data with a potent political message. 

5. Plato: The Apology of Socrates (c. 395 BC)

I had read Plato as a kid growing up (I remember, vividly, not understanding the Meno at age 8) but it was only in my time at the University of Chicago that I realized the programmatic goal of Socrates and the importance of living an examined life. I can’t remember whether this happened in Edmund Dain’s “Greek Thought and Literature” or in Agnes Callard’s “Intro to Greek Philosophy,” but at some point I read the Apology and it changed my life. I will let Socrates speak: “while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you, who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? […] For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons and your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul.”

6. David Hume: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1740)

David Hume is my favorite philosopher. I love his radical empiricism, and thinking with it over time has helped me cast aside the specters of various superstitions. I remember being viscerally torn by his argument (more explicit in the Treatise) that there is no such thing as personal identity. I decided I wanted to major in philosophy while spending hours and hours and hours trying to get around his argument and validate the idea of the Self. More recently, in my study of meditation and spirituality, I have returned to Hume quite frequently as I wrestle with the claim—made from a totally different, non-rational place—that the self is an illusion. Hume is also just a great guy. He loves life, it seems. Hume on causation is great way to introduce kids to the effects of asking, “how do we know?” And he really socks it to religion in a bold and brave way in the chapter “On Miracles.”

7. Karl Polanyi: The Great Transformation (1944) 

Polanyi is something of an economic anthropologist. The great insight of this book, and one that I have had to remind people in many discussions of economic policy, is that people aren’t parts. This notion of the human as a rational actor selling his labor as a commodity isn’t something that goes back time immemorial; it is a particular ideological invention of market-based capitalism enforced by the laws of a market oriented state. As much as capitalism tries to reduce labor to a commodity, labor is really just people, and those people have families and they love other people and they have homes and they have friends, and you can’t treat them like commodities without really fucking things up for them. Sometimes it’s easy to look at charts and numbers and forget that each person making up those statistics is, as Kant would say, and end in him or herself. And to treat them as just another input like steel or corn is to do disservice to humanity.

8. Pierre Hadot: Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995), especially the essay “Spiritual Exercise.”

I encountered Hadot several times before I read him in the proper context. His work (both in this volume of collected essays and his What is Ancient Philosophy? and The Present Alone is Our Happiness) changed the way that I viewed philosophy completely. Before reading Hadot, I wanted to get a PhD in philosophy. But what I realized was that getting a philosophy PhD was how to become a philosophy professor. I wanted to be a philosopher. And the way to become a philosopher is to practice philosophy every day through the type of “spiritual exercises” (his terminology) that defined ancient philosophy: debate according to the rules of reason, conversation and knowledge of the self, meditation, intensive reading, moral clarity, etc. Philosophy is in this context less the acquisition and defense of doctrines about the universe and more the love of the wisdom gained by mastering ourselves.  See how Socrates defines philosophy above: it is about the care of the soul. 

9. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)

The final nail in the coffin of my dreams of being an academic philosopher was the intensive study of the Tractatus that I did over the course of a year at the University of Chicago. The Tractatus is an intimidating work of philosophy of language that begins with the seemingly banal observation that “The world is everything that happens to be the case” and ends with an almost mystical claim that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Despite the serious philosophy of language that forms its core, the work is fundamentally an ethical work about how to live your life. I had several friends who were with me on parts of this journey through analytic philosophy of language (you know who you are), and the climax for me was being taught Jim Conant’s ‘resolute reading’ of Wittgenstein. It’s dense, but the upshot is basically that philosophical problems dissolve. Having recently read Hadot, I viewed this process as a series of spiritual exercises. Working through them led me to believe that contemporary philosophical discourse was not for me; what was important was clarifying my thoughts and coming to understand what I really meant when I spoke, and that had to be done outside of the philosophical academy.

10. Eric Schlosser: Fast Food Nation (2001) 

After college I reread Fast Food Nation. We had had to read it in high school, but I really didn’t get it then. Taking another look at it inspired my current obsession with food policy in America, which falls at the crossroads of public health and social justice in a way that ties many of my interests together. I went from Fast Food Nation to Michael Pollan and the paleo diet, and my life today is healthier and richer because I finally came to realize how insidious and pervasive the food industry is in this country.  It’s also important to remember that the health issues it talks about aren’t (like in many food books) primarily those of the eaters—there are myriad problems that occur as a result f the way our food is produced and processed that leave people and communities scarred and destroyed.

© Henry Gruber 2013