There is a meme going around started by Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution where bloggers and writers are listing the 10 books that have influenced them the most. Scott McLemee of Inside Higher Ed posted one as did Matthew Yglesias. Some of the writers chose to go with their guts in coming up with their lists. While there were a couple books that were obvious to me, I had to really think about mine.

My list would differ depending on my topic. For example, if on this site I focused on international relations (my field of study at Arizona State University) it would include different books such as Clausewitz’s On War and Jervis, Lebow, and Stein’s Psychology and Deterrence. I decided to choose my list based on influences to my overarching philosophy and those that influenced my ideas and writing on this site. This list also only includes individual books that influenced me. Bertrand Russell has been one of my great influences, but in toto, not with a single work. Same for Langston Hughes.

Without further ado, here is my top 10 list.

1: Abraham Maslow – The Farther Reaches of Human Nature

In 1998 I was a junior in high school and picked this up at a free book fair for the students. I was in AP Psychology at the time and was familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and concept of self actualization, so I was intrigued when I saw this. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature is a collection of essays Maslow compiled himself addressing various topics.

Prior to reading this book I was entirely unfamiliar with Maslow’s education philosophy, but reading his “Education and Peak Experiences” and “Goals and Implications of Humanistic Education” crystallized my own budding philosophy of education. Maslow’s explanation of humanistic education and the critical weaknesses of the traditional education system felt to me as if he had taken all of the embryonic fragments of my thoughts and ideas and comprehensively developed them in a way I could not at the age of 15.

All of his essays have been extremely influential to my thinking, and the same copy of this book that I picked up twelve years ago has always been within arms reach of my bed or desk ever since.

Classroom learning often has as its unspoken goal the reward of pleasing the teacher. Children in the usual classroom learn very quickly that creativity is punished, while repeating a memorized response is rewarded, and concentrate on what the teacher wants them to say, rather than understanding the problem. Since classroom learning focuses on behavior rather than on thought, the child learns exactly how to behave while keeping his thoughts his own.

2: Dr. Robert Cialdini – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Anyone that reads this site regularly is sure to have seen me reference this book multiple times. My younger brother gave me my copy after taking a social psychology class with Dr. Cialdini at Arizona State. I flew through it in one sitting and immediately began thinking about new applications of the ideas in the book. Since my first reading six years ago I have periodically re-read it at least 30 times, and I see something new or think of another application every time.

With the sophisticated mental apparatus we have used to build world eminence as a species, we have created an environment so complex, fast-paced, and information-laden that we must increasingly deal with it in the fashion of the animals we long ago transcended.

3: Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle

Cat’s Cradle was the first Vonnegut book I ever read. His stylistic black humor and irreverence toward ‘taboo’ topics stuck with me. His invention of the fictional religion of “Bokononism” with its unique concepts and vocabulary put a mirror up to not only religion but society as a whole. He took on technology, the arms race, religion, and the human condition in a single broad stroke. Vonnegut was a fearless writer, and I had never seen anyone take on so many important themes in that way before, and come to think of it, since. He showed me that humor can be a powerful tool even when dealing with the most serious issues.

We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kun-kun, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

4: Jessica Stern – Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill

I was first exposed to Jessica Stern’s work in 2002 when I read her contributions to Jonathan Tucker’s Toxic Terror: Assessing Terrorist Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons. In 2004 I purchased my copy of Terror in the Name of God and it changed the way I looked at extremism. Stern is not the kind of academic that stays safely ensconced in an ivory tower. Her hands-on approach to research often took her into territory that is hostile to women and Jews, yet Stern, a Jewish woman, courageously entered that territory and was able to get extremists, who in other situations would have advocated for her death, to openly discuss their beliefs and actions. I was influenced not only by the words on the pages of her book but also by what it took to put them there.

The bottom line, I now understood, is that purifying the world through holy war is addictive. Holy war intensifies the boundaries between Us and Them, satisfying the inherently human longing for a clear identity and a definite purpose in life, creating a seductive state of bliss.

5: Aldous Huxley – Island

I sought out Huxley’s last and relatively unknown novel after reading Maslow’s mention of it in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. While Huxley is better known for his distopian Brave New World, Island is a utopian novel that expounds his ideas on humanity’s potential, society’s ills, and humanistic education. In actuality it is more a treatise on humanism than a piece of literary art. Huxley recognized that the society of Pala that he created is an impossibility, but he designed it as an ideal about values, not as a literal prescription for social planning. To me, Island is the antithesis of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

“So you think our medicine’s pretty primitive?”
“That’s the wrong word. It isn’t primitive. It’s fifty percent terrific and fifty percent nonexistent. Marvelous antibiotics–but absolutely no methods for increasing resistance, so that antibiotics won’t be necessary. Fantastic operations–but when it comes to teaching people the way of going through life without having to be chopped up, absolutely nothing. And it’s the same all along the line. Alpha Plus for patching you up when you’ve started to fall apart; but Delta Minus for keeping you healthy. Apart from sewerage systems and synthetic vitamins, you don’t seem to do anything at all about prevention. And yet you’ve got a proverb: prevention is better than cure.”

6: Urvashi Vaid – Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation

I first read Virtual Equality in 2003 when I started working on LGBT issues at Arizona State University. It is one of, if not the most, honest and comprehensive analyses of a contemporary social movement by one of its members. Reading this book has deeply influenced how I look at the progressive and youth movements and is one of the reasons I am willing to be publicly critical of these movements when necessary. There are myriad lessons to be learned from Vaid regardless of your specific cause, and it continues to be an invaluable resource to me both as an organizer and a writer.

Our failure to turn a personally oriented experience of discovery into a movement for political reform, much less fundamental political change, is a critical barrier to gay political progress. On any given Saturday night, the people in the bars, nightclubs, and discos of one major city would far outnumber the members of gay political organizations. Thus, the primary locus of the gay community in every part of the country remains the gay and lesbian bar, not the gay community center or the gay political organization. In midsize or small cities, the disparity is even more noticeable: a handful of political activists run the all-volunteer political group, yet hundreds of politically uninvolved gay and lesbian people gather weekly at social events, sports leagues, church services, or other community events.

7: Sinclair Lewis – Elmer Gantry

Lewis is one of the greatest American writers at using fiction as a cutting social commentary. My first experience of Lewis’ writing was his novel Arrowsmith, but Elmer Gantry is my favorite of his works. It led me to seek out all of his books and Richard Lingeman’s excellent biography. This book is not only frequently banned by conservatives, but at the time of publication led Christian fundamentalists to actively call for Lewis’ execution. It served as a clarion call warning us against the danger and hypocrisy of radical religion, a harbinger of the Christian Right of today.

“So you’re a bunch of Erasmuses! You ought to know. And there’s no hypocrisy in what we teach and preach! We’re a specially selected group of Parsifals–beautiful to the eye and stirring to the ear and overflowing with knowledge of what God said to the Holy Ghost in camera at 9:16 last Wednesday morning. We’re all just rarin’ to go out and preach the precious Baptist doctrine of ‘Get ducked or duck.’ We’re wonders. We admit it. And people actually sit and listen to us, and don’t choke! I supposed they’re overwhelmed by our nerve! And we have to have nerve, or we’d never dare to stand in a pulpit again. We’d quit, and pray God to forgive us for having stood up there and pretended that we represent God, and that we can explain what we ourselves say are the unexplainable mysteries!”

8: Arthur Schopenhauer – Essays and Aphorisms

Sure, Schopenhauer was frequently the guest of honor at his own pity parties, but when he wasn’t busy feeling sorry for himself he could be pretty insightful. His philosophy is pessimistic, but there are glimmers of hope in human intellect and art. It was my first exposure to a philosophy based not on the divine but on human will. To read Schopenhauer is to get a glimpse of human suffering and an understanding of how people attempt to assuage that suffering.

Poverty and slavery are thus only two forms of — one might almost say two words for — the same thing, the essence of which is that a man’s energies are expended for the most part not on his own behalf but on that of others; the outcome being partly that he is overloaded with work, partly that his needs are very inadequately met.

9: J.D. Salinger – Franny and Zooey

For most people Catcher in the Rye is the Salinger title that speaks to them. While I certainly count Catcher in the Rye as one of my favorite books, Franny and Zooey had a much greater influence on me. Growing up in a Hollywood family and ending up in the political world, Franny’s breakdown in reaction to ego and empty affectation resonated with me, as did her feeling “sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” Salinger evokes the importance of genuine human connection while maintaining the importance of being true to one’s self.

But the thing is, you raved and you bitched when you came home about the stupidity of audiences. The goddam ‘unskilled laughter’ coming from the fifth row. And that’s right, that’s right–God knows it’s depressing. I’m not saying it isn’t. But that’s none of your business, really. That’s none of your business, Franny. An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.

10: Thomas Paine – The Age of Reason

I’ve pretty much been agnostic since I was 5, when my Sunday school teachers could not answer my questions and treated the asking of such questions as an affront. I’m the only agnostic in my family and it wasn’t until late in high school that I met others (at least others who were open about it). Going through school the rejection of organized religion seemed like a rare abnormality. You never read about people not being religious in classes. It was not until my first year of college that I heard that Thomas Paine wasn’t just the author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man, but also of a tract that was extremely critical of dogma and organized religion. Written in a blunt style I often find myself unconsciously emulating, The Age of Reason attacks religious conventions systematically and without mercy. Such views coming from one of the heroes of American history was a refreshing validation for me. I only wish that I had discovered it sooner.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

Honorable Mention: Honore de Balzac – “El Verdugo”

This is actually a short story, and there is not much for me to say about it other than it has haunted me since the day I read it.

So 2,200 words later there is my list. Who’s next?