The "five books" meme

Ideas and other rhetorical gestures spread quickly through the densely interconnected network of the blogosphere. These "memes" (the term arises, I believe, from Richard Dawkins' effort to port/translate evolutionary logic into the sphere of "ideational" phenomena; I am not using it in his sense, which I think is largely silly because it overstates the logical coherence of publically-disseminated rhetorical commonplaces) travel over the myriad ties connecting each of us as nodes in the 'Net, made even easier by the ready availability of the "forward" function in e-mail programs and the daily routine of reading through one's blogroll (which I maintain as a list of bookmarks on my own machine; haven't gotten around to adding it to my blog yet).

So here's an example: dormgrandpop recently resurrected an oldie-but-goodie, the "five books that changed my life" meme being an academic, of course, he couldn't confine himself to five books, and in fact listed ten: a top five with brief explanations, and a further five without supplementary notes. He then briefly comments on emergent patterns derived from viewing the list as a whole. I'm going to take that one step further: first the top five with explanations, then the next five with briefer explanations, and finally five "novels" (loosely defined as a text that a) has a plot and characters and b) presents itself not as a work of scholarship or of philosophy, but as a story). [Arguably the last category, the novels, are the books that really changed my life, not in the least because they prepared the ground for me to be influenced by the other works.]

Two more prefatory remarks. This list includes the works that appear at the moment to have been the most central and influential to my life and work. Given the retrospective character of self-narration, it is entirely possible that a future me will decide that these books weren't so central to my life and work after all. Also, I am choosing to regard "changed my life" as different from "central to my work," although some books occupy both categories simultaneously.

Enough preliminaries. Here's the list, in chronological order:

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (trans. Walter Kaufmann -- accept no substitutes)

I had read excerpts from this masterful demolition of Enlightenment rationalism before entering college, but I purchased my first actual copy of the text with a gift certificate that I won in an essay contest during the first week of my first year in undergrad. It took me approximately until I finished the first chapter after the prologue -- "On the Three Metamorphoses" -- to realize that I had found a philosopher who could give voice to inchoate things that I had been wrestling with for years. The celebration of the creative, form-giving aspect of LIFE (which in my own work I now generally refer to as "agency"); the merciless critique of our smug triumphalist sense of our own election; the posing of the choice facing us as one between the Last Man and the Overman: positively awe-inspiring.

2. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (trans. Stephen Kalberg, although like everyone else I first read the vastly inferior Talcott Parsons translation first)

As a freshman I asked several of my professors to recommend some summer reading for me; Weber's masterpiece was on the list. Perhaps because of my prior conversion (so to speak) by Nietzsche I never really saw in Weber the "bourgeois Marx" that others cling to. Rather, Weber to me always exemplified how to do social science: give up the notion of absolute truth, concentrate on historical processes that alter the framework of what we take to be "real," break large concepts like "capitalism" down into more manageable empirical pieces, and perhaps most importantly pay close attention to how social arrangements grow out of and give rise to yet other social arrangements. As soon as I finished the book I wanted to write something like it of my own, and this desire only grew stronger as I read better translations and the German original. Time will tell whether anything I produce can hold a candle to this fabulous piece of scholarship (even if many of its "facts" are rather problematic…).

3. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, although I hear that the Stambaugh is very good too)

As a senior in undergrad I picked up Heidegger's dense and weighty tome looking for an approach to ontology that would address some of the problems posed by quantum mechanics for our commonsensical substantialism. Although we experience objects as solid and stable, quantum theory tells us a different story, and suggests the need for some other account of how and why we experience the world in the way that we do. Heidegger's meticulous analysis of Dasein -- that aspect of us that makes us human, and enables and underlies the courses of action that we undertake -- provides a radically different way of approaching these questions, one that places our historical character at the center of things. Arguably other, later works by Heidegger present the implications of this position more succinctly (notably his "Letter on Humanism" and the lecture-series What is Called Thinking?) than Being and Time does, but these later statements remain, to my mind, elaborations of and glosses on BT.

4. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (trans. Charles Francis Atkinson; read the full two-volume edition, not the condensed/brief edition)

It took me several years to locate copies of both volumes of Spengler's audacious attempt to predetermine the course of world history. I had been searching for copies ever since I heard Werner Dannhauser and Francis Fukuyama sparring about Nietzsche and Spengler at a conference when I was a sophomore, and I finally located copies when I moved to New York to begin working on my Ph.D. I have fond memories of sitting in the park behind Grant's Tomb, which was across the street from where I was living, devouring Spengler as something of an antidote to the stuff I was reading in my considerably more neopositivist and mainstream graduate courses. Spengler bequeathed to me three things: an account of "science" as a cultural phenomenon rather than a procedure for disclosing trans-cultural truths; an appreciation for the importance of form in conducting social analysis; and a sense of the weight of history that remains implicated in the smallest details of everyday action. I later re-discovered these things better articulated and more systematically discussed in other authors, most notably in Weber's methodological writings, but reading Spengler set me on the path to appreciate them.

5. John Shotter, Cultural Politics of Everyday Life

My stumbling upon Shotter is a testimony to serendipity and synchronicity: one day I was renewing books at the Lehman Library at Columbia University, and my eye lit upon a book in the "recently returned" stack that was adorned with a large picture of Jupiter's Great Red Spot. I picked the book up and placed it in my stack for check-out. On the train home I flipped through the book, noted that it looked interesting but not so important that I needed to read it now, and when I got home it went into a stack of "read eventually" books. About a year and half later I was puzzling through an article by Harrison White about temporal switching dynamics and found a reference to that very book, together with a blockquote excerpt about order emerging from chaos that seemed tremendously insightful. When I got home I pulled Shotter's book out of the stack and began reading. There was a footnote in the Introduction that -- much as Nietzsche had done for me some years before -- put into clear text a series of issues I'd been wrestling with involving both my fascination and my frustration with postmodern anti-scholarship. Suffice to say I was hooked, and a quotation from Shotter -- alongside one from Nietzsche -- adorned the frontispiece of my dissertation:

"Are there any such structures, really? And, given the historical character of the enablements and constraints clearly operating in our communicative activities, is that how they are best characterized?…In other words, do we require an ontology of already existing things, or an ontology of ethically significant, developmental activities?"
Words to live by, I think, and I have tried to do so ever since.

The next five:

6. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans. Alan Sheridan)

A brilliant presentation of an approach to the social construction of knowledge that avoids the reductionism associated with either the "history or ideas" or with naive materialism.

7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (trans. Anscombe; bilingual is best if you read German)

I had read this in undergrad, but didn't really come to appreciate how profound it was until after I read Shotter. The demolition of the notion of a "private language" is, I think, one of the two or three most significant things to happen in twentieth-century philosophy.

8. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (trans. Hong and Hong -- again, accept no substitutes)

Faith as grasping the thing that cannot be spoken. The inescapable burden of decision. Reason as a barrier to our apprehension of the world, even as the rational remains equal to the ethical…what's not to love?

9. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America (all English editions of this one are the same)

"Did Cortes conquer the Aztecs by means of signs?" Perhaps the most impressive exploration of "first contact" written outside of the genre of science fiction.

10. Andrew Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines

One of those books that brought together a lot of threads for me: the indexical character of social labels; the importance of local context ("all social life is local"); the inseparability of destinations from the paths used to reach them; and the value of spare processual and relational analytic.

Looking over the list I note that: a) unlike dormgrandpop, only one of these books was written by anyone I have ever met, and I took pains to meet Shotter after reading his book; b) almost none of these books were originally written in English, and half of them were written in German; c) without exception they all concern themselves with the status and production of knowledge; d) not a one of them is an "IR" or a polisci book in the conventional sense, even though that's what my degree and my job title say that I do for a living. Curious.

And then the five novels, which are arguably even more central to myself as a person than the books on the above list:

5. Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

Probably not Moore's best book; Watchmen takes that prize. But when I think about myself a teacher and am honest about my models, V's extended dealings with Evey (mutatis mutandis) spring to mind.

4. Richard Bach, Illusions

I seem to have been pre-programmed to be a social constructionist, apparently…

3. Madeline L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

"Science" as a creative endeavor through which people fought off lurking evil, and thus more akin to art than to, say, bureaucratic administration or mindless number-crunching, always made infinitely more sense to me.

2. Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

"…the universe is just a little thing we whipped up among us the other night for our entertainment and then agreed to forget the gag."

1. cheating a little bit, but the entirety of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (two trilogies, six books); if I had to pick just one, it would be The Wounded Land, the first book of the Second Chronicles. Donaldson's exploration of faith, reason, the importance of contradiction and alloys, the inadequacy of "reality" and "fantasy" as descriptions of anything, and the paradoxes of power is probably my favorite fictional series ever, even counting The Lord of the Rings and Iain M. Banks' Culture novels and Asimov's Foundation books (all of which would certainly be near the top of my list of such series). I try to re-read it once a year. [I'm curious to see where Donaldson is going with his recent "last chronicles" series; personally I thought that White Gold Wielder wrapped things up as well as they needed to be, and I'm not convinced by The Runes of the Earth that there's much left to tell. But I'll give him enough rope to hang himself -- three books' worth, in fact, since the "last chronicles" are supposed to constitute four books in total.]

Enough of that. I'm off to Hawai'i for the annual ISA conference.

[Posted with ecto]

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