Ten Influential Books

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution listed his 10 Most Influential Books and encouraged other bloggers to do the same. Below my list are links for a sampling of those who took the challenge, along with a little listing of the books I’ve read that are on these other folks’ lists (but not on mine).

Here’s my list of ten, in loose order of reading. All of these were revelatory in some way, if to no one but me. (As always, this is my list today; tomorrow or yesterday I might come up with a different one.)

  1. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – Strongest evocation of abundant and accessible love in the universe I’ve read yet, and of the dangers of rejecting love.
  2. A Dictionary of Difficult Words by Robert Hill – I love these words. This book revealed to me that the words most in use were only a small portion of what was available. Why don’t we use these juicy words? I mean, Erebian? jentacular? storge?
  3. The Paris Diary and The New York Diary by Ned Rorem – Devoured these in high school because they opened up whole new vistas  through Rorem’s language, thinking, experiences, relationships.  These are diaries.
  4. Wallace Stevens’ poems – Perfect marriage of intellect and heart. No sacrifice of mind to touch the reader deeply with what’s inchoate.
  5. Shakespeare in the aggregate for the powerful language, the humour, and the recurring themes of rivalry, twins and doubles, resentment, envy, justice, etc. (If I had to choose one play, it would be Measure for Measure)
  6. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton – Reading this led me to the rest of Merton’s works and on to other radical Christian thinkers, especially those whose impulse is to merge Christianity and  Buddhism, and led me away from my previous views of religion.
  7. Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon – Total wanderlust travelogue that provided a view to places I hadn’t been in the U.S. and inspired me to want to see those places and people for myself.
  8. Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin – Gave me a rubric with which to make decisions about what’s worth working (for money) for and what’s worth spending on.
  9. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning by Rene Girard – Probably the most influential book for me to date, along with the rest of Girard’s books and other Girardian material online. Inverted my articulated view of religion and both expresses and challenges my experience of human nature, society, culture, psychology, politics, economics.
  10. The Joy of Being Wrong by James Alison – Alison, like L’Engle, revitalises my faith in abundant, friendly love and reminds me of the fullness of life. He’s also an amazing writer and speaker who manages to say more than what his words alone can convey.

Runners Up:

  • The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce – read in high school and remember it widening my horizons
  • When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron – almost everything Pema says, in books, audio, video, or online, speaks to me
  • Letters Home by Sylvia Plath – very influential when I read it
  • Montaigne’s Essays – I remember feeling a kinship to Montaigne when I read these in college, which surprised me
  • Lying Awake by Mark Salzman – two big ideas here: madness vs. vision, and the perhaps subtle difference between them, and individual freedom vs. community good. Both are important apparent dichotomies to me.
  • The House by the Sea by May Sarton – strong sense of place and person that inspired my imagination for a “good life.”
  • Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie – Personalised history in a way that set me aflame with curiosity and sympathy.
  • Going Crazy: An Inquiry Into Madness In Our Time by Otto Friedrich – another book that was very influential when I read it in high school, with its almost exhaustive study of psychosis in writers, artists, literary characters, ordinary people, etc.
  • The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz – Makes these four guidelines  (don’t assume; don’t take things personally; be impeccable with your word; always do your best) easy to remember. They seem so simple, even simplistic; yet these are four pivotal relationship principles, and failing to follow them leads us continuously to do violence and to experience needless suffering.
  • whatever the first crime novel I read was … And the aggregation of crime novels read in the last 20 years, which have no doubt influenced my anthropological, psychological, sociological, and political views.


Books I’ve read that are on others’ lists (but not mine):

Plato’s Dialogues.

Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (I agree that it’s excellent on interiority, but it didn’t really engage me.) (I think he means Swann’s Way, the first in the 7-book In Search of Lost Time)

Voltaire’s Candide

The Narnia series by C.S. Lewis (though non-fiction by Lewis was influential)

JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien

The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

parts of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, George Orwell’s Essays (and all of 1984).


Other 10 Most Influential Books Lists:

Tyler Cowen

E.D. Kain at the League of Ordinary Gentleman lists books from childhood that influenced him

Jason Kuznicki at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Niklas Blanchard at It Don’t Mean Much, These Seats Are Cheap


Peter Suderman at The American Scene

Bryan Caplan at Library of Economics and Liberty

Arnold Kling at Library of Economics and Liberty

Jenny Davidson at Light Reading

Matthew Yglesias

Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber

The Money Illusion

Jacob T. Levy

Russell Arben Fox at In Medias Res

Whitney G at Yeah Right

Ivar Hagendoorn

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