Ten books that changed my thinking

A slightly more elaborate version of a Facebook meme a few of my friends are doing. Here are ten books, in no particular order and more or less off the top of my head, which have influenced how I think in some important way. In this space, with a little commentary on why and how. With links to the library of your choice.

Voltaire’s Bastards. John Ralston Saul.

  • a series of essays on modern culture and life. It treats everything that has happened since the 18th century as being in the same Enlightenment intellectual space. Which works surprisingly well. High points: Extended comparison of Cardinal Richelieu and Robert McNamara; a reasonable attempt at an argument that Hitler was a predictable consequence of Enlightenment ideas about the State; and an epic rant about the demonstrable futility of military helicopters.

The Prince and The Discourses. Machiavelli.

  • Read this, and his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, for a really interesting angle on ancient Roman politics. And reconsider any ideas you have that the ancient Romans were some different race than modern Italians.

Here Comes Everybody. Clay Shirky.

  • The Internet makes certain kinds of organizations (popular and business) feasible which never were before. Mass movements, niche publishing. The result is delightful forms of culture which used to be too unprofitable to do.

The Bleak Shore” and “Sadness of the Executioner” (short stories). Fritz Leiber.

  • two great pieces of fantasy writing, both involving the Death god of Nehwon. The first includes a two paragraph span which replicates the sensation of time stopping with dread; and the second is a short story that spans twenty seconds–Death has a quota to meet, and it includes the life of two heroes who have been good for business.

Possession. A. S. Byatt.

  • A love story and literary story told in several time periods and with careful attention to very very different worldviews and viewpoints.

Hannibal’s Legacy. Arnold Toynbee.

  • planted the seed that the Second Punic War, in Rome’s golden age, was actually when the wheels started to come off the Republic. Disagreed with this when I read it in grad school. Much less so now.

Strange Victory. Ernest May.

  • An intelligence analyst looks at the intelligence services of Germany and France in 1939/40, and assembles the facts everybody talks about: The French generals were sure they would win if the Germans attacked; and the German generals spent the fall of 1939 arguing with Hitler that if they attacked immediately they’d lose. He says: “What if everyone was right?”. And tosses in that France’s supposed moral collapse was part of Vichy propaganda.

After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. James Davidson.

  • a series of puzzles for history majors. My favorite essay looks at why the US dropped the second atomic bomb and all of the arguments for its possible political purposes, then produces the orders to the commander on Tinian which say pretty convincingly that he was to drop the two bombs as soon as possible. It is horrifyingly plausible that the second bomb was dropped because nobody told him not to drop the second one.

The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire. John Toland.

  • World War II in the Pacific told in the form of oral history from the Japanese point of view. My first exposure to the idea that the Japanese had planned to deliver an ultimatum to the US before Pearl Harbor, were foiled by an incompetent typist at the embassy in Washington, and realized immediately what a horrible mistake they’d made.

Enemy at the Gates. William Craig.

  • my first serious exposure to Russian thinking on World War II, and to the smaller Axis powers like Italy and Romania. Great book made into a pretty but fairly uninteresting movie about one of the several really interesting personal angles Craig includes.
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System requirements for books

A friend posted a link to a review of a really interesting ebook edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. It includes a bunch of extras: a recording of Eliot reading the poem, several versions of the text, including one with comments by Ezra Pound, his editor. It’s by Touchpress, who did The Elements, which was one of the original arguments for buying an iPad in the first place. It’s gorgeous. And it’s a $14.95 app for the iPad. I’m a librarian, I work with the English Department, this would be cool to have. But I don’t have an iPad, and it would be awkward to get onto our departmental one. Which got me thinking about the pros and cons of different formats.

I’m not sure I agree this is what a next-generation classic should look like, because it has a five hundred dollar prerequisite. Touchpress has decided to make the (famously incomprehensible) Waste Land more interactive, and to include a variety of means (audio and text) to help you understand it. This is good.

The Poetry Foundation version, though, comes with the whole web. That is, if you can get to their website you can open another window and easily find Eliot’s audio as well as other readings of it and explanations of the inscrutable parts and the parts in foreign languages. That requires a computer and a web connection, which you could get from your local library if you didn’t have your own.

I also have a copy of it I bought for a dollar on the shelf behind me, the Dover edition. It only requires that I know how to read. I’m not sure that makes it superior, but it does mean that every library can have a copy. And, delightfully, that sometimes stationery stores have a rack of Dover editions as well.

Part of why something becomes a Great Book is that it is widely read and discussed. I tend to think that the web or a cheap printed book are still the ways to reach the largest possible audience.

This Is Not a Book: Thomas Jefferson & Apple’s App Store

This Is Not a Book: Thomas Jefferson & Apple’s App Store – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Ebook vs. app is an interesting conundrum, and the ease of use of Apple’s tools for creation makes a lot of academic projects default to using them. This is a self-limiting flaw, which sometimes creates bizarre situations like this: An app presenting Eliot’s Waste-Land in annotation layers is OK; an app presenting a work by Thomas Jefferson in annotation layers is not.

The web works on everything.