Introducing Myself in 10 Books (Part 1)
A few months ago, I noticed a trend in my Twitter feed – many of the people I follow were sending out Tweets with the title “Introduce Yourself With 10 Books,” or retweeting others who had posted the same thing. Generally, this seemed to be the ten books that had most influenced the thinking or shaped the worldview of whoever was sending out the list. Now, I’m always happy to jump on a bandwagon a few months after it’s already passed, and on top of that I tend to do it the wrong way as well. (It’s part of my charm, I tell myself.) I have a slightly different take in mind for this list. These won’t necessarily be the ten best books I’ve ever read, or the ten that most influenced my thinking, or the ten books I think everyone should read, or anything like that. Instead, these are ten books that I would say had an oversized influence on how I read, think, and understand the world, even if they aren’t necessarily top-ten tier overall. The next two posts will be listing out the books in no particular order, and describing why each book was an oversized influence for me.
Long before I read Mike Munger on the difference between directionalist and destinationist libertarians, this book introduced me to the basic idea. The directionalist libertarian supports policies that move in the direction of liberty, even if they are only half measures, while the destinationalist libertarian only supports policies that pass an appropriate purity test. James Oakes describes how this same divide was at play in the careers of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Lincoln, the Republican and directionalist, was willing to engage in compromise and accept half-measures that limited slavery in the United States, even if they fell short of full abolition. Douglass, the Radical and destinationalist, saw things differently. Slavery is an evil and abominable institution, and you simply don’t compromise or negotiate with evil. You eliminate it – end of moral analysis. Still, Douglass found himself struggling with the full implications of his destinationalism, particularly when he and his fellow thinkers found themselves opposing the Missouri Compromise, which would have preemptively banned slavery for any new states in the Union, on the grounds that it did nothing to address slavery in current slave states. The give and take between these two men and the broader movements they represent did a lot to move me more into the directionalist camp. In my younger years, I (like many, I suspect) was far more concerned with ideological purity above all else, and this book was what began to dislodge that idea in my mind.
Black Rednecks and White Liberals by Thomas Sowell
I wouldn’t call this Thomas Sowell’s best work – in terms of pure intellectual achievement, I’d have to put Knowledge and Decisions at the top of that list. However, this was the book that introduced me to Thomas Sowell. I picked it up entirely on a whim, because I thought the title was interestingly provocative. Each of the six essays collected in the book, however, were eye-opening for me, due in no small part to Sowell’s clear, forceful, and jargon-free style of writing. As one example, his essay The Real History of Slavery blew my mind. Before picking up this book, all I knew about slavery was what I learned about it from the public school in the small rural town I grew up in – slavery was something that existed in America, and that it was driven by racial antipathy and a belief that whites were superior to blacks. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that slavery was a worldwide institution, that for the vast majority of its existence it had no connection to race and that its later racial divide was simply due to historical happenstance, or that the moral opposition to slavery was largely driven by developments in Western civilization and forcefully stamped out throughout the world by Western nations, particularly the English. None of this was featured in my public-school education – and it seems even less likely to be brought up now. Insightful and interesting as this book might be, what puts it on this list is that it introduced me to Sowell.
The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke by Conner Cruise O’Brien
I once heard Peter Boettke say that in order to truly understand what someone is arguing you need to understand who and what they were arguing against. This was particularly true for me regarding Edmund Burke and his most famous work, Further Reflections on the French Revolution. I tried reading that book and found myself struggling with it. A major reason for that is the very nature of the book. Unlike many political tracts from those days, Burke was conscientiously writing a commentary on current events, not a treatise on timeless political principles. After reading Connor Cruise O’Brien’s biography, I was able to revisit Burke’s Reflections and, properly understanding the context in which it was written and the people and events it references, I found it to be an engrossing and powerful book. The Great Melody also convinced me that many of Burke’s modern critics, who classify Burke as a reactionary, ultimately root their criticism in a misleadingly literal reading of the Reflections and Burke’s other works criticizing the French Revolution and its aftermath. Because Burke wrote the Reflections as a polemic about ongoing events with the aim of countering or swaying public opinion, he deliberately amped up his rhetoric, overemphasizing some ideas and downplaying others, to create an argument that was targeted to the crisis of the moment. The general lesson I took from this book was the importance of studying ideas in their proper historical context, as well as the importance of studying the biographies of major thinkers.
The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East by Abraham Rabinovich
I picked up this book shortly after it was released, because I was trying to better understand the history behind the seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East. While the book presents a very detailed account of how the conflict played out, hour by hour, what puts it on this list for me was the lesson it taught me about the politics of war. Two key points come to mind. The first nicely connects with Scott Sumner’s recent post on why it’s important to keep strategic intentions clear. While it’s often said that Israel was caught completely off guard by the Yom Kippur war, Abraham Rabinovich shows that isn’t quite true. While the Israeli government was very slow to realize an attack was coming, they did realize it a few days in advance. This was far too late to mobilize the troops and equipment they’d need to create an effective front line against the invasion, but they did have the opportunity to launch first strikes with bombers and long-range missiles on the enemy lines. This was overruled by Golda Meir, who believed that when the invasion came Israel would need support and supplies from the United States, and if Israel pulled the trigger first, they wouldn’t receive that support. Later, Henry Kissinger confirmed to her that she was correct, and that if Israel had fired the first shot, they would not have received “so much as a nail” from the United States. The other point that stuck with me is how negotiations to end the conflict were carried out not between the countries that were fighting each other, but between the United States and the USSR. Rabinovich describes how Kissinger, when traveling to the USSR to begin the negotiations, stipulated that no negotiation would take place until after he had landed and had an opportunity to get a full 8 hours of sleep. Ostensibly this was because he didn’t want to negotiation while sleepy or jet lagged. In reality Kissinger had correctly intuited that the tide of the war was turning, that Egypt and Syria had lost their initial momentum and Israel quickly gaining the upper hand. His insistence on that extra time was to give the Israeli forces more time to further gain the advantage – at which point, just as the invading forces were about to be fully routed, he’d have the strongest hand to negotiate. While that might seem like a masterful move of negotiation, I (a lowly Lance Corporal in the Marines at the time) couldn’t stop myself from seeing this from the position of the people on the ground – the kind of person I would be as well. For those additional hours, people were continuing to experience the terror of combat, being maimed and killed, very likely seeing themselves as fighting for their respective causes, when in reality their fate was being dictated by high level politicians from other countries. These kinds of policies look very different when you’re the kind of person who would be on the ground fighting and dying.
Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer
I picked up this book because I had become aware of Peter Singer entirely from the controversy surrounding him and his views. I couldn’t quite believe that anyone really held the views being ascribed to Singer – ideas like failing to give away money to charity in order to save lives was morally no different from actively killing people, yet at the same time, literal infanticide was not morally wrong. This book contained a series of small essays and papers where he lays out arguments for these and other views. Yet I was forced to concede upon reading this book that Peter Singer is not some kind of madman or ogre. I believed – and still believe – that he is very wrong about many issues of great importance. Nonetheless, his arguments were stronger than I expected, and he has changed my thinking along the margins of many issues. While I disagree with Singer far more often than I agree with him, I gained respect for him as a thinker. And the lesson I took from this book that puts it on this list is the importance of seeking out and reading books and arguments written by people with whom you strongly disagree. Most importantly, you might conclude you were wrong about something, which is always a win. But even when it doesn’t change your mind, it’s important to understand where these ideas come from, to see how conclusions with which you strongly disagree can be held by people who are smart, well informed, and well intentioned. Far too many people these days act as though contrary views can only be motivated by bad intentions or sheer stupidity – and Peter Singer helped me realize that even views that were extremely contrary to my own need not be rooted in either.