Book Lists and Signaling
By Arnold Kling
Cowen’s Influential Books Game gave bloggers an excuse to promote themselves by composing lists designed to excite the maximum of reader admiration. Which is not to say that any lists were insincere: on the contrary, the top bloggers ended up sounding all very smart and thoughtful precisely because they really are just the sort of people whose lives were changed by reading Nietzsche.
When I came up with my list, I knew that this was the sort of thing that could be a signaling game. But I tried to play it straight. As others’ lists came out, my inclination was to view as a poseur or self-deceiver anyone who listed a major work of philosophy. I have nothing against philosophy. It’s perfectly fine stuff. But the way I see it, learning from philosophers is a function of grinding your mind against them, like sandpaper, rather than a matter of having the scales fall from your eyes because you read one great philosophical work.
I take exception to Bramwell’s implication that I have not learned from the other side. First of all, I was on the other side for many years, so my libertarianism is learned–although learned as much from experience as from any books. Second, the very first book I cite is by Halberstam, who is very much on the other side. One can trace my Break up the Banks thinking to that influence.
I guess the bottom line is that, as I said in my original post, I do not view books as my top influences. My top influences would be people (my father, Bernie Saffran) and experiences (interning in the office of Senator Hubert Humphrey, working at the Fed, working at Freddie Mac, launching an Internet startup where I ultimately partnered with someone whose highest educational attainment was a high-school equivalency GED, etc.)
No matter how broad or extensive your reading, if the top influences in your life were all books, that would strike me as kind of sad.