Five? Tell you what, I’ll do my best to keep it under twenty.
1. Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes; Gary Larson, The Complete Far Side
Comic strips, however brilliant they are, don’t “influence” us in a didactic way. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that these two masters of the form have shaped the way I see and think about the world, even if I couldn’t pinpoint how they did it. All I know is that more than two decades after they both retired, I still constantly recall their work in response to all sorts of experiences. If I wanted to look impressive, I’d claim that studying existentialism and reading Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Camus taught me about the absurdity of life, but honestly, Larson had already done that, and his version at least was hilarious — none of the morbid, angsty ennui necessary to mark one as a deep, serious thinker. Yes, life is often a senseless, twisted joke, but you can still laugh about it.
As an adult, on an intellectual level, I’m in awe of the unshakable confidence and self-assurance Watterson had to fight for his artistic vision, even to the point of refusing marketing deals that would have garnered him hundreds of millions of dollars. I suppose I could name him as an influence based on that alone. But purity of idealism aside, Calvin & Hobbes ultimately represents the childlike enthusiasm of imagination, presented sophisticatedly enough for adults to enjoy.
2. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Lila
We talked often about Zen… in Philosophy 101, so I bought my own copy shortly after that semester. As it happened, Lila was published only a few months later, and I bought that too. Both of these inspired my first attempts to philosophize, in my ungainly, adolescent way. I was already delighting in the effort of grappling with the big questions of life, however easily they were able to pin me down in those days.
3. Alan Watts, Buddhism: the Religion of No Religion; Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking; The Philosophies of Asia; The Culture of Counter-culture
There’s no point in trying to define “Buddhism” in a rigorous way. I’ll just say that as a quadragenarian American, the version of this ancient, constantly-morphing philosophy that resonates with me is the one promulgated and practiced by other Anglo-American Westerners. Steve Hagen, Stephen Batchelor, and Brad Warner are all favorites of mine, but in this case, Alan Watts is far and away the biggest influence I can name. He wrote more than twenty-five books in his lifetime, and his son Mark has compiled a similar number since then from his notes and lectures. All of them, especially the lectures, orbit the same themes of “Eastern philosophy and religion,” if we must give it a label, so no matter where you start, you’ll find something rewarding. These four were all published around the same time, so I don’t recall which one of them I technically picked up first.
Watts “solved” the problem of religion, atheism, and metaphysics for me, not in a logical, argumentative way, but by giving me such a clear, different perspective on the whole argument that it just lost all relevance, like a balloon being deflated. It was as if I had been worrying for years over whether colorless green ideas slept furiously or not, and he came along and cheerfully disentangled the conceptual knot my thoughts were in. Twenty years after discovering him, his writing remains as fresh and stimulating as ever — I say this having just the other day finished the most recent of his/Mark’s posthumous books. There are certain ideas I learned from him, but most of all, he is for me one of those rare authors who completely change the way you see the world. Many authors will rearrange your mental furniture; he shifted the entire foundations of my house.
4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols/The Antichrist
I bought this shortly after encountering him in philosophy class as a callow teenager, though it would be years before I’d have enough contextual understanding of his thinking to get the most out of it. Where would I even begin? What about him, exactly, has influenced me so much? The exquisite prose, in which it’s impossible to tell where philosophy ends and poetry begins? The revolutionary use of brilliant aphorisms as opposed to long, dry, scholarly arguments (“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book — what everyone else does not say in a book.”)? Even the famous, dangerous ideas themselves — the will to power; the Overman; the anti-Christianity, anti-pity preaching; master vs. slave morality — are less important than the effect of thinking through them in his company. I disagree with the particular content of his thoughts often, but never will disagreement be so useful and productive as in in the presence of such a mind. And while the development of his thought almost requires a reader to engage with it as an organic whole, rather than as a Whitman’s sampler, I might still name Daybreak as my slight favorite of all his books, if I were forced to choose one. As risky as it is to try to identify a center of gravity in his thinking, this one seems to capture something like his essence, in my opinion.
5. Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism; Against the Current; The Crooked Timber of Humanity; Three Critics of the Enlightenment
Berlin wrote very little during his lifetime with an eye toward publication; Henry Hardy did the heroic work of collating his voluminous notes and lectures into book form, published in multiple volumes by Princeton University Press. Again, I’m not sure which of these four I read first, and I probably bought them all around the same time. Berlin made the “history of ideas” come to scintillating life for me, long before I knew that there even was such a thing in academia. A lifetime spent studying and explaining the historical ground from which influential ideas grew, while tracing the course of their development, seems like the sort of project which could keep one happily occupied for a lifetime. He was probably my first exposure to what I think of as the tragic vision of life, an outlook more commonly associated with conservatism, though Berlin himself was more of a Cold War liberal.
6. Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands
Michael Oakeshott wrote about conservatism as a disposition — a personal inclination to prefer “the familiar to the unknown…the tried to the untried…the limited to the unbounded…the near to the distant, [and] the sufficient to the superabundant.” Oakeshott also said that the two things that made for this disposition were a passionate interest outside of politics, and a strong sense of mortality. Check, and check. To this root note, the British philosopher Roger Scruton added a complementary fifth in the form of his paean to conservatism as an attitude of love and gratitude, a love for what actually exists, rather than abstract, utopian fantasies, and as a heartfelt appreciation for people, places, and things, despite, or even because of, their imperfections. This particular book is an updated and revised version of the original, which made Scruton persona non grata in academia when published thirty years earlier. Out of his dozens of books, there are many which elaborate upon his “positive” philosophy, but this one is primarily an attack on the various types of pseudo-radical gibberish and nonsense passing itself off as the liberal arts these last few decades. Unlike most other books about academia written by disgruntled conservatives, though, Scruton goes after the biggest game there is, the celebrity philosophers like Lukács, Althusser, Sartre, Deleuze, Gramsci, Badiou and Zizek, on their own turf. The result is not just a satisfying flensing of the aforementioned charlatans, but a masterclass of witty rhetoric. His devastating metaphors repeatedly made me laugh out loud, no small accomplishment given such a potentially dry topic.
7. Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia
This book made it inarguably clear to me that leftism is an exhausted and hopeless ideology, stuck in a holding pattern for decades, aimlessly going through the radical motions. It was all the more powerful coming from a heterodox leftist.
8. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture
This is a brilliant demonstration of the extent to which virtue-signaling and status competition comprise most left-wing political stances, making them even less effectual than they would otherwise be.
9. Anthony Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life
I loved this book so much I wrote to Kronman to tell him so, and to my great surprise, he wrote back the very next day, despite being on vacation, to graciously thank me. This book was the first to suggest to me a vision in which individual professors set themselves to the task of being caretakers of beauty and wisdom, as opposed to the research-driven university model which seems ill-suited to a study of the humanities. This vision, which I’ve since heard echoed by other writers, obviously sounds a few conservative notes without forming an overtly-political marching theme — the attraction here is to the humility, the gratitude toward cultural and intellectual predecessors, the sheer pleasure in an erudite life, rooted in a sensibility which recognizes that the geniuses of the past offer us the best guidance we’ll ever have in this imperfect world to satisfactorily answer the question of how we should live. Of course, I’m not a professor, but I try to cultivate this ideal in my own life. Arts and letters are what matter to me, not politics. Culture and art are the things which nourish and sustain us over a lifetime, not rationalism and policy wonkery. It just so happens that the exemplars of the arts-and-letters ideal whom I most respect are nominally “conservative” in the sense that they shun academic radicalism and strive to conserve the best which has been thought and said, in Matthew Arnold’s famous phrase, and pass it on to future generations.
10. Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses; Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
Technically, the first book of Dalrymple’s I read was Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy, a bold flouting of the conventional wisdom surrounding the “disease” model of drug addiction, informed by his work as a doctor in prisons, mental hospitals, and the slums of post-industrial England. But these two collections of his essays from his columns in the magazine City Journal deeply impressed me with their elegance and erudition. They changed the way I both read and write, serving as a model for the type of essayist I’d like to become. His own writing often serves as a springboard for my own thoughts, and I can see his influence in my own voice and phrasing sometimes, though I hope to get better at hiding it.
11. John Gray, Straw Dogs
In terms of both style and content, Gray has been one of my biggest influences. The first book of his I read was Black Mass, but this unique, aphoristic work was the one that really seized my attention. Somewhat of a political and philosophical chameleon, one of his recurring themes is a skeptical questioning of moral and political progress. Like his mentor Isaiah Berlin, he elucidates a tragic vision of human existence without being predictably dour or pessimistic. He’s one of my favorite people to “think with,” even when I disagree.
12. Sam Hamill, Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry; Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God; Robert Haas, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa
Poetry is the music of language. When done well, it provides an almost-religious ecstasy, seeming to somehow penetrate closer to the mysterious heart of things than any straightforward prose can ever do. If I had the ability to express myself in verse, I’d probably never bother writing prose again. And yet, the ROI on reading poetry is pretty poor to me, I must admit. Very few poets, in my experience, have the shamanic ability to consistently venture into mystical realms and return with songs and chants capable of casting a spell on the reader. Sam Hamill, an American Zen Buddhist poet, has done so, especially with his translations of ancient Greek and Chinese masters. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy captured an otherworldly beauty in their translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. In general, though, most poets, even the acknowledged greats, only have a handful of truly magical poems to offer. Still, when it happens, when you find one of those rare gems, it makes all the searching worthwhile. I know nothing about Linda Pastan, but her poem “November” will stay with me my whole life. Humble as it may seem, for what it expresses, it’s perfect.
Once again, it’s hard to articulate how poetry “influences” me in a way that a well-written, informative non-fiction book doesn’t. I can only repeat: at its best, poetry puts the reader in touch with something deeper, more essential, about life, something that changes the way life feels. It resonates like wisdom, not information.
13. Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
I had already read Montaigne’s Essays, but Bakewell’s wonderful biography humanized him and brought him vividly to life as a role model, in both character and literature.
14. Shelby Steele, The Content of Our Character
Steele’s books present a compelling psychological conservatism, if I can call it that. His nuanced and penetrating observations on the state of race relations and racial awareness are unlike anything you typically hear in the clichés of punditry.
15. Jeremy Campbell, The Liar’s Tale
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche taunted moralists with the suggestion that “it might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things — maybe even one with them in essence.” In this book, Campbell sets out on a fascinating exploration of the countless ways in which deception, dishonesty and ignorance are inextricably intertwined with the noble elements of life, from the lowly biological level all the way up to the rarefied life of culture and the intellect. Falsehood is an integral element of existence.
16. David Berreby, Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind
A salutary reminder that the absolute easiest thing for human beings to do is divide up into groups and go to war with other groups over even the flimsiest reasons, and the hardest thing is to retain intellectual and moral integrity when tribal loyalty comes calling.