A Facebook challenge from a friend prompted me to consider my top 10 books. I’ll take that as the 10 books most influential on my worldview that I could also recommend to someone else. The following are those that have been most personally influential, listed in no particular order, and without adequate consideration of the availability heuristic, confirmation bias, narrative fallacy, and myriad subconscious influences.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. Like Clarke, I have found “nothing more precious than Mind.” This is the formative mature sci-fi book for me. After Frog and Toad Are Friends, this defined my childhood. Plus it’s a masterpiece of film by Kubric. Yes, I enjoy the pacing.
Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Value by Robert M. Pirsig. Along with his perhaps more philosophically profound though somewhat less interesting novel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, Pirsig ignited my love of philosophy by opening my mind to a radically different interpretive perspective. Whatever you think of either his storytelling or his philosophy, his works provide an easy entry point to great thinkers of the West and East, whether you connect with the empiricism of David Hume, the pragmatism of William James, or the spiritual poetry of Lao Tzu in The Tao Te Ching.
Sex, Ecology, Spirituality by Ken Wilber. Wilber’s grand synthesis offers an intriguing articulation of an integral framework for organizing and conciliating the breadth and depth of human knowledge that is simply staggering in its scope. In a somewhat similar vein, I liked E.O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, but Wilber works hard at holism and avoids the reductionistism of Wilson’s sociobiological approach. Whether Wilber is credulous or profound for accepting some of the spiritual claims he endorses, I know not, but I agree that “nobody is smart enough to be wrong all the time.”
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett. Countering the speculative philosophical musings of Pirsig and Wilber, I am a fan of Dennett’s grounded (but not “greedy”) reductionism. He’s an engaging writer who takes both science and philosophy seriously, bridging neuroscience, evolutionary theory, and academic philosophy. Consciousness Explained and Freedom Evolved are both worthy reads, but Dennett’s take on evolution by natural selection as a “‘universal acid’ eating through everything we believed and all the ways we look at the world” definitely shaped the way I look at the world. Someday I’ll have to actually read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species to see what all the fuss is about.
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. The long arc of progress is driven by inventing and exploiting positive-sum interactions. Wright’s tour of history makes one a believer in progress. Whether or not you continue to project an arc of progress through some integral spiral to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ultimate Omega Point ala The Phenomenon of Man is a separate question, but in the meantime, let’s keep finding win-win games to play.
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley. I recently listened to this on audiobook and don’t know if it will stick with me, but I’d recommend it as a faster read and more tightly written tome than the similar, if perhaps more engaging, The Genius of the Beast by Howard Bloom, which is brilliant and fun but in need of a ruthless editor. Without resorting to market fundamentalism, both extol the virtue of free market economic exchange as critical drivers of the “nonzero” positive-sum interactions that have produced progress through the course of human history. I’ve slogged through the math in my MBA economics courses, but personally preferred Ridley’s narrative treatment of the enormous benefits created by institutions which have allowed Adam Smith’s specialization / division of labor and Ricardo’s comparative advantage, combined with the power of innovation (see Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Invention by Brian Johnson), to radically improve our lives over the millennia.
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. I can’t say that I’ve yet achieved a Zen-like calm from employing David Allen’s “GTD” time and task management techniques, but as an organization and productivity freak, I heartily endorse his system. It’s the most comprehensive and practical I’ve encountered, a First Things First for the 21st century. I have gotten great benefit from the GTD-inspired Inbox Zero, which I attain regularly, and with the switch to using Asana as my task manager and the addition of some recurring tasks, I’ve even made strides on my previous shortfall on the “weekly review,” though I’m still not to the point of The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. Now if I could only master the other 6 of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. I grew up watching this erudite, inspiring, turtle-necked astronomer and public intellectual explain the mysteries of the Cosmos on PBS. I loved the book of that series, and enjoyed Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space as well as the book and movie Contact, but it is the rigorously skeptical yet compassionate approach Sagan advocates in this book that resonates most with me. Speaking of skepticism, I should not neglect my favorite philosopher of the Western canon, David Hume, whose An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding underwrites much modern skeptical discourse. While I like Hume tremendously, I might actually prefer Kant (or Schopenhauer, for that matter, at least from the secondary literature to which I’ve been exposed), but I keep falling asleep while trying to read The Critique of Pure Reason, so I can’t really tell. I can actually get through Hume’s writing and his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion are also commendable.
Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind And Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson applies current cognitive science to the age-old questions of philosophy. If we accept the best results of our attempts to rationally explain experience, then rationality is the result of an evolutionary process to ensure the survival of a particular species, not a mirror of Truth. If concepts arose to help us negotiate spatio-temporal existence as animals and by virtue thereof appear to be progressively articulated metaphors all fundamentally based on representations of location and motion, what does that mean for all of our beliefs and theories? If Hume’s philosophical skepticism didn’t get you to question your beliefs, then this scientific deconstruction of the concepts on which those beliefs are constructed just might.
Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. There are a number of positive psychology books based on current research that I have enjoyed (The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt and Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert spring immediately to mind, as well as Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar). I love the mechanisms of the mind revealed by these books (and the related pop-psychology literature on human motivation and (ir)rationality’ like Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert. B Cialdini, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, as well as Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, and the Chip and Dan Heath trilogy Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, and Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work). However, none of these how-to happiness and success books have the stark existential impact of Frankl’s logotherapy, rooted in his experience as a Nazi concentration camp survivor. If you can’t feel good about your life after reading Frankl, it’s time to seek professional help.