The first in an occasional series in which MercatorNet contributors discuss some of the books which have changed the way they see the world.
Compiling a list of books which have changed the way I see the world is a tough assignment. A comprehensive list calls for more honesty and a better memory than I can muster.
I won’t include the Bible, because we can take it for granted in our culture. Other books have also become so deeply embedded that I have forgotten them. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a Sixth Grade Reader, or even the White Pages have probably shaped my values and perceptions. The written word is a pebble cast into a pond whose ripples end up God knows where.
With that introduction, here are ten books which have become part of me, not in any particular order. As I read them over again, it is a very odd collection. Does that say something about me? I fear it does.
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The Short Stories of Saki. I am afraid that repeated reading of these delightful tales set in Edwardian England has permanently warped my sense of humour. Saki’s real name was Hector Hugh Munro; he was born in 1870 and was killed on the Western Front in 1916, like so many other talented writers of his generation. Most of his tales are macabre, cynical, and morose and revolve around his pet hates: aunts, bores, and advertisers. I couldn’t get enough of his witty epigrams. “The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” Or “She frowned at a piece of toast and ate it very slowly, as though she wished to convey the impression that the process hurt her more than it hurt the toast.” Or “We all know that Prime Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other married couples they sometimes live apart.”
St Josemaria Escriva, The Way. This is a collection of 999 spiritual maxims by the founder of Opus Dei. I was floored by its challenge to lead a deeper and more sincere Christian life when I first read it as a university student. Over the years, it has only grown in my esteem, although I have yet to live up to point number 5, “Get used to saying No.”
Sears & Roebuck catalogues. Honesty compels me to acknowledge how formative this book was in my youth. It was the quintessence of consumerism. After browsing for hours through the toys, you could start to hanker after stuff you could never, ever, use, but would be super to own. It was an introduction to economics, retailing, style, and acquisitiveness which has never left me.
Thuycidides, The Peloponnesian Wars. A thorough reading of this contemporary history of the wars between Athens and Sparta for mastery of Greek cities and colonies scattered across the Mediterranean makes subsequent study of politics and history almost unnecessary. Here you can read about imperial overreach, betrayal, courage, the folly of ambition, the cruelty of conquerors, the hysteria of crowds… all set down in Olympian detachment by a participant in the drama. Thuycidides’ narrative of Athens’s mad attempt to conquer Sicily is a lesson in folly which Napoleon, Hitler or even George W. Bush should have read before packing their bags. But the best feature is the speeches — 2400 years ago, men were disputing public policy with arguments which could have been made in yesterday’s Parliament.
James R. Newman, The World of Mathematics. There are three kinds of people: those who can count and those who can’t. I belong to the latter, but in high school I acquired a fondness for elementary number theory and purchased this four-volume anthology of cool stuff about mathematics: literature, biographies of great mathematicians, explanations of non-Euclidean geometry, classic texts, puzzles and what-not. I read everything that did not require calculation. Did it do me any good? Probably not, but it convinced me that there were patterns and structure in the world around us. I have always remembered an anecdote about the Indian mathematician Ramanujan. He was dying of consumption, but when his friend G.H. Hardy said that his taxi’s licence plate has been a boring number, 1729, he instantly responded, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.” So obvious, eh? But it just never would have occurred to me.
Thomas Keneally, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. This is an Australian novel about a half-Aborigine, half-European young man who marries a white woman. Pushed over the limit by white sneers and prejudice, he goes on an insane, savage rampage. He flees into the bush and survives by virtue of cunning and bushcraft until he is finally captured and hanged. Yes, it is just as bloody as it sounds. Perhaps more so. It was based on a real incident and made into a famous film. The action, though, is not what touched me. It was Keneally’s lyrical passages depicting Aborigines’ culture as a vibrant connection with the environment. Uprooting them, destroying their culture, forcing them into a sordid existence on the fringes of white society was also a crime, one which turned Jimmy into a vengeful savage. It is a novel which made me think about what civilization really is.
Dudley Cook, Keeping warm with an ax. Thoreau wrote a memoir like this and called it Walden. This more contemporary book is also about life in the wilderness but much more practical. My father loved trees and axes and this is his summary of the lore and science of the woodcutter: the single-bitted axe, the double-bitted axe, swinging an axe, hanging an axe, sharpening an axe, felling trees, limbing trees, bucking trees, splitting wood, stacking wood, burning wood, along with three chapters on saws. But the real message is backwoods Yankee care for little things, hard work, frugality, and good workmanship, features which emerge in the interwoven stories. A klutz like me obviously didn’t learn much from the book, but I learned a lot from the author.
Jacqueline Kasun, The War Against Population. Who knows? Perhaps if I had never read this searing critique of government-imposed limits on population, MercatorNet would never have existed. First published in 1987, Kasun’s research demolished the ludicrous arguments of Paul Ehrlich and his miserabilist myrmidons and showed how fear of growing population leads inexorably to abuses by benevolent social engineers. It was a wake-up call to defend life.
Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience. As a “bear of very little brain”, as Winnie-the-Pooh (on the formative influences short list) described himself, I didn’t understand much of this magisterial account of philosophical mistakes when I read it the first time, or the second time, or the third time. Nonetheless, I will still list it as “one of the most luminous books that I have ever read”, in the words of one critic. At the risk of oversimplifying, the message is: garbage in, garbage out. The first steps of a philosophy are the critical ones. If the foundations are not sure, a philosopher builds the leaning tower of Pisa, not the Burj Khalifa.
Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. This is not a book for the squeamish or for those who think that gentlemen with good manners, PhDs and suburban families are incapable of nameless horrors. Lifton is a Jewish psychiatrist who interviewed some of the surviving doctors who worked in extermination camps. He wanted to fathom how they could have abandoned their vocation as healers and became soulless agents of Nazi barbarity. A straight line leads from sterilisation and euthanasia of disabled Germans to the elimination of “racial undesirables”. Science alone affords no protection against deadly ideologies.