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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Keeping the Top Ten Ball Aloft

Tyler Cowen started this a couple weeks ago, listing the 10 books that influenced him the most. And he asked other bloggers to join in. So here goes (not necessarily in any order):
1. Ain't Nobody's Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in a Free Society by Peter McWilliams.
This book changed everything for me after I read it in my early twenties. I'm not going into much detail because the title speaks for itself, I think. I am the cranky libertarian I am today thanks to McWilliams's book.
2. Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball by George F. Will.
This book made me a baseball fan.Before reading this, I had never thought of sport as being a cerebral endeavor. I started to see baseball as something I can think about. And I never stopped thanks to....
3. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James.
I became a sabermetrian after reading this and I never looked back.Thinking critically about baseball has made it so much more fun for me, that I pity those who just don't get that. It's a version of the rainbow problem; some believe that knowing that they're 'just' refracted light a couple feet in front of you makes it impossible to appreciate the beauty of a rainbow. Not me. Knowing more about something allows me to enjoy it more. And Bill James's great writing helped show me that.
4. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
This is the first classic I ever read that I actually liked. (Full disclosure: I have since gone back and reread many books I was forced to read in school and enjoyed many of them.) Thanks to Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, I learned to appreciate classic literature.
5. Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith.
I grew up in a Catholic household and was never encouraged to think about my religion, but that didn't stop me. When I was 18 I stopped going to church, and then 2 years later, I realized that I did not believe in the supernatural and let it all go.This book didn't make me an atheist, but this make me feel a little less alone about being an atheist by helping me realize that I could use reason to fill the hole that was once filled with superstition.
6. Kingdom Come by Mark Waid, Alex Ross and Todd Klein.
I was a big ol' comic book nerd in my youth and I quit sometime around 1987 because they stopped being fun and I was getting too old (or so I thought). About 10 years later a buddy of mine lent me his copy of Kingdom Come and I realized how fun and cool and grown-up comics could be. And I'm back to being a big ol' comics nerd.
7. Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov.
I'd read Shakespeare before (for school), but was never a huge fan. I was, however, a huge fan of Isaac Asimov (see below) and the completist in me jumped at the chance to buy this book. And I have never read the bard the same way again. Every Shakespeare play or film I've seen since is informed by Asimov's analysis.
8. On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
This was the first great book I ever read about the craft of writing. (Don't blame Zinsser for any missteps I've made in this post.) Since then, I keep the lessons from this book in mind every time I sit down to write. I've read many other books on writing since, and some, like Strunk and White may do a better job. But Zinsser was first.
9. Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge by William Poundstone.
I read this in college, when I was, basically, still learning how to think. Poundstone introduced me to many intellectual concepts--the use of paradox, induction vs. deduction, what it means to know something etc.--that are still in my toolbox. And it's a great read.
10. Isaac Asimov's Essay Collections.
Not a single book, but a series of sorts. I read a ton of these essays as a kid and from these I learned to love reason and logic (Hello? The name of the blog?). I learned to love science. I learned to love great writing. These are mostly science essays, but their subjects are all over the place, history, literature, etymology, politics.... Much of the science is dated by now, but I don't care; the writing is as crisp and lively as ever and Asimov manages to explain tricky concepts without being condescending or going over the reader's head. But more important, he infuses his topics with such humanity that it made me want to learn as much as I could. And I've never stopped. Thanks, Isaac.