Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ten books

Blame this on Tyler Cowen, who started the whole thing over at Marginal Revolution. (Others have responded by posting their own lists.)

Ten books that changed my life, not necessarily in order of importance:

1) J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. The ultimate book about life, the universe and everything. Good, evil, hope, struggle, redemption, and loss. What else is there to say? But no sex.

2) Michael Harrington, The Other America. I grew up in a very conservative, very conventional household. Everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds, or so we were encouraged to believe, and damn the reality in which we lived (genteel poverty in Indianapolis). Then my second cousin pressed me to read Harrington’s analysis of contemporary American society, and things were no longer so comfortable. The book that led me to study economics—why poverty in the richest country in the world?

3) Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night. Yes, even more than Slaughterhouse-Five (but it is on the list). A man betrays his country, escapes immediate punishment, but is brought to trial, a couple of decades later. But he didn’t. He was working for his country, and the one man who knows has sought him out, in prison as he awaits trial, to offer to testify for him. What is truth? What is loyalty? What is the worth of having suffered, having lived one’s life to hide a life people will call wicked, for the purpose of hiding one’s real life? To my mind, Vonnegut’s greatest work.

4) Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. Step by step into the fog and into the muck. America as an amoral wasteland long before Mario Puzo even dreamed of Don Corleone. And the importance of keeping your moral compass, however shaky the hand that holds it.

5) Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon. All of which could also be said about Hammett’s masterpiece. Together, these two books deconstruct the American Dream.

6) J. M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. I read this in 1972 when I should have been preparing to take my prelims in my Ph. D. program. Oh, sure, we’d been taught “Keynesian” macroeconomic theory, largely starting with John Hicks, “Mr. Keynes and the Classics.” But the depth and subtlety of The General Theory astounded me…of course, I read it just as the profession was turning away from Keynes (and toward such things as rational expectations theory). It led me to A Treatise on Money, which is also astounding. And Axel Leijonhufvud’s On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes, which led me to...

7) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Which led me to Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method (which I concluded was a detour, but no matter. What Kuhn had to say about the way scientists actually work turns out not necessarily to have been accurate, but the general point—that even scientific knowledge is socially constructed, even when it is objectively true—remains a focal point of my approach to what I do.

8) Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five. “I’m a fat old fart who smokes too much…” The author’s description of himself. A searing, troubling look at America at war, something my high school (and college) history courses hadn’t bothered to tell us about (and in my recent American history course in college we spent two weeks on dropping the bombs on Japan). And the fantasies one told one’s self to avoid crumbling under the strain of feeling responsible for what had been done on our behalf.

9. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And the movie was also amazing. A vivid, visceral presentation of the impact of totalitarianism and its essentially random impact on people. Even more of an impact than The Trial or Darkness at Noon.

10. J. D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction. If I had made this list at age 18, I would almost certainly have included Catcher in the Rye. These two extended stories, however, are things I keep returning to. “Roof Beam…” takes place largely in the narrator’s apartment, with three other people, following a wedding that didn’t happen—the groom (who is narrator Buddy Glass’s brother Seymour) didn’t show up, because he was too happy to get married. I don’t know how to describe the story, though. “Seymour” pretends to be about Seymour and his importance in Buddy’s life. What it actually is, is Buddy’s going through something of a nervous breakdown (finally) as a result of Seymour’s suicide years before. (It took me a while to figure that out.) The conclusion is almost exhilarating.

Close, but no cigar:
Albert Camus, The Plague
Martin Buber, I and Thou
Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Franz Kafka, The Trial
Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
John Balaban, Locusts at the Edge of Summer
Bernard Fall, Hell in a Very Small Place
Michael Casey, Obscenities (o.p., but available)
T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland and Other Poems
Langston Hughes, Montage of a Dream Deferred (available in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, not readily available separately)

I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised that these are almost all still in print.


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