September 10th, 2014

eyes black and white

10 Books that had a Great Influence on me

Ingrid Spielman challenges me to this "meme" of naming 10 books that helped shape my mental landscape. I'll be verbose, and though I'll cheat and cite more than 10 books, I will distinguish 10 of them indeed. As to propagating the meme and finding people I want to understand better, or people sufficiently similar yet sufficiently different that I may learn something substantial from their answers, yet who know me enough to possibly be influenced by my naming them, I will tag Rebecca Kellogg Rideau, Perry Metzger, David Lubkin, Gavin Peters, Attila Lendvai, Daniel Nagy, Agnes Koltay, Brandyn Webb, Brian T. Rice, MK Lords. But just because I haven't tagged you doesn't mean you can't play.

1- Some unidentified comic book about Space Conquest. I had that book when I was 2 or 3. The first page had been ripped (probably by me) before I was old enough to fixate memories. I suspect it was a French translation of Disney's "Man in Space": the drawing style was very much that of the 1950s and it was discussing a man on the moon as the next step, when that was already a past step in the 1970s; but the ultimate destination was far beyond. Retro-futurism with wild ambitions was already a theme in my life. There were other comics; already, Barbapapa was brainwashing me into the ecologist superstitions; Russ Manning's Tarzan (L'île hors du temps) was also one of my first comic books, a quick graphic walkthrough from prehistory to future history. But that unidentified comic book somehow marked me deeper by the questions it left unanswered. I've always liked 1950s to 1960s style SF ever since. And good comic books.

2- "The hobbit", by J. R. R. Tolkien. My mom used to read us a book before we went to sleep. The ones that I remember most are "The hobbit" and its sequel "The Lord of the Rings" (that my geeky dad had long urged my mom to read), that I would read later as a young adult, in French then in English. It might be categorized as Fantasy, but it exuded a deep sense of Civilization much more serious, real and earnest than found in most books to purport to say something about it (rather than demonstrate it). These days, these books have been made into movies. Poor young people of today, who may miss discovering the books because of that! (BTW, did you know that Tolkien was an Anarchist? I didn't, at the time.) I find that it is also a great complement to all the Mythology books I read when I was young, that also gave me a sense of history and of people's superstition, but were disjointed, whereas Tolkien shows how to weave (in this case fictional) elements of myth into a compelling story and a coherent spirit.

3- "1984", by George Orwell. I read 1984 in 1984, when I was 10. It made urgent in me a quest for Freedom, for the meaning of "Freedom", for the institutions that could preserve such a thing. It set a theme of Language as a tool for oppression or liberation. It vaccinated me against the propaganda of Socialism, though it didn't have anything positive to offer in return, only a yearning for something that Orwell hadn't identified. Much later, I read (in French) "The Gulag Archipelago" by Alexander Solzhenytsin, Varlam Shalamov's "Kolyma Tales", Cseslaw Milosz's "The Captive Mind", Bruno Bettelheim's "The Informed Heart", Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man", Victor Frankl's "Man's Search For Meaning", or "Le voile arraché" par 'Abd al-Rahmâne al-Djawbarî (as translated to French by René Khawam), that would tell me more about the horrors of totalitarianism, Mind Control, and how to survive them. But Orwell's is the book that marked me, deeply.

4- "The Origin of Species", by Charles Darwin, filled me with awe as to what Science could be. A long accumulation of evidence, presented in an earnest way, with both facts and a way to look at them, in a tone of calm and relentless objectivity. That for me set the standard for what Science should be, which made me particularly skeptical of things that only look like Science, and convinced me that I would never be up to these standards as a Scientist (or bored to death trying to do a fraction of what is required to obtain meaningful results). In a similar vein, Bertrand Russell also set high standards for what philosophy could be. Cavalli-Sforza's "Chi Siamo", Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" and "The Extended Phenotype", or Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal" also helped form my understanding of Evolution, but the basic ideas were all in Darwin (I admit to not having read Alfred Wallace or Samuel Butler — I suspect I might have liked them).

5- "Gödel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter. I read this book in my early 20s, and discovered that all my childhood had bathed in poor remakes of parts of that book: such were the articles I liked in the monthly math-and-game magazine "Jeu et Stratégie" to which my father was subscribed. This was even more startling than reading Dickens' Christmas Carol after having seen countless bad remakes of it as features of random US TV series. I had already enjoyed Raymond Smullyan's puzzle books ("What is the Name of this Book?"), or Borges' "Ficciones", but Hofstadter was tying all the themes together, even music. Regarding computation and philosophy, Winograd and Flores' "Understanding Computers and Cognition" may have brought a "Third Wave of Cybernetics" point of view of Heideggerian influence missing in Hofstadter. And amongst Hofstadter's books, many of which I read, and of course, these days, my favorite is his "Le ton beau de Marot". But GEB is the book that marked me — before I even read it.

6- "I, Robot" by Isaac Asimov. My father had a collection of SF books (in French, mostly), and Asimov was my favorite author there. Though it's not the first I read, I chose "I, Robot" as the representative book here, because somehow I remember enjoying how he illustrated the principle of equilibrium and displacement of equilibrium with a robot circling around a place to go to or not go to according to contradictory orders (reinforcing one leading to a circle of a different radius). Fun literary pieces to illustrate actual scientific concepts. Of course, if my dad's library had carried Heinlein, THAT would probably have been my favorite, what with "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" or "Stranger in a Strange Land" — much more stimulating books. But it's Asimov who initially got me hooked into SF (though I've recently discovered that one SF book that marked me in Junior High was actually Heinlein's "Star Beast"; meanwhile another book that marked me as the only remotely realistic description of the alien invasion of Earth was "The Genocides" by Thomas M. Disch).

7- "The Road to Serfdom" by F. A. Hayek. I went to school expecting my Philosophy professor to at least have some recommendation as to which Philosopher might have something relevant to say about Freedom. But she was all marxism and bullshit, and I left high school believing that no Philosopher had ever written anything good on the topic. The closest thing to a liberty-minded author who was nameable in French philosophical circles was John Stuard Mill, and though there obviously was a wind of Liberty behind him, there weren't clearly formed concepts. What a happy surprise, thus, when my mom acquired a copy of "The Road to Serfdom", and it had exactly the kind of cybernetic argument I had been looking for all along. Though Hayek's book contained no attempt at a general theory, it convinced me that, if not philosophers, maybe some classical "economists" had something good to say (previously, TV had convinced me, like my dad, that "economics" was a combination boring statistics and meaningless words of propaganda).

8- "Complete Works" by Frédéric Bastiat. Hayek was ultimately unsatisfactory, but led me to Turgot, and eventually Bastiat (once again, through my mother, who had read in "Le Monde" (of all places!) Philippe Simonnot's review of Rothbard's History of Economic Thought and its telling of Bastiat's Broken Window Fallacy, the argument of which I had reinvented and been explaining to a former school comrade just a few weeks before). Bastiat was exactly what I was looking for: on the surface, humor used to identify and dissolve fallacies; but deep down, a profound sense of the harmony of the universe. I put as many of his works as I could online on Bastiat.org, long before WikiSource.org. Through Bastiat, I met Jacques de Guenin, who became my mentor in things Libertarian, introduced me to many authors (including Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand) and people (including Christian Michel, who turned me an Anarchist). Sure enough, I loved "Atlas Shrugged" that made me feel like it ought to have been written if not yet — but I preferred Rand's non fiction, and as a Libertarian philosophical novel, I prefer Paul Rosenberg's "A Lodging of Wayfaring Men". But Bastiat is what gave a new turn to my life.

9- "A Guide to Rational Living" by Albert Ellis. I'm not sure which book by Ellis (probably in a French translation) I had randomly picked in a second hand bookstore, so I'm writing down this one. Of course, at about the same time, I found many hints by other authors or online acquaintances converging towards the cognitive behavioral emotional therapy of Ellis toward improving on one's irrational fears. When you are ready to see, you see what there is to see; and what there was was his ABCDE method. Later, "How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World" by Harry Browne also brought me a much needed understanding of what and how to improve. I could probably cite some books on Procrastination, on (Seduction) Game, or some Dale Carnegie's classic, but unhappily that's unfinished business. And so I'll leave a book by Ellis as the one that first influenced me out of my childhood-grown mental jails.

10- "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" by Betty Edwards. Back in school, I always wanted to draw, but was always amongst the worst in my class, year after year. Because I was always engaging the "Left Side" of my Brain, the symbolic, cause-and-effect planning modules (whether physically on the left or not). This book taught me how to engage the "Right Side" and how to draw at all. From stick figures and ugly contours to shades of grey triangulated into position, in just a few hours. Now I know I too can draw — though to do it well would I would have to take a lot of time exercising. And it's not just about drawing. Being able to stop interpreting is important. So is realizing that you can still learn new skills. And so I'll give a well-deserved place to this book.