There’s a meme going around Facebook where people list 10 books that have stayed with them over the years, but why put it on Facebook when I put it on the blog and provide links to all the books and reach more people? So here goes, my list of books, in no particular order.
1. Mencken Chrestomathy (Vintage) by HL Mencken. I’ve read this book, or portions of it, so many times that I’ve worn out two copies and am now on my third. Mencken was one of America’s greatest wordsmiths. And while some of the language and attitudes may seem dated, his analysis of what is wrong with America politically and culturally is often painfully accurate.
2. Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other by Nat Hentoff. Another book I’ve read so many times that I’ve had to order new ones after the old ones have worn out. Nat has some beliefs that make me cringe, but on free speech and the Bill of Rights there’s no one better. Had a big influence on my thinking.
3. United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal. Around the same time that Mencken died in the early 50s, Gore Vidal began writing essays and proved Mencken’s equal as a wordsmith. This is a collection of essays he wrote between 1952 and 1992, ending thankfully before he slid over the edge and into the abyss of conspiracy theories and self-parody. There are so many essays in this collection that will challenge the way you think about the country.
4. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins. This is Dawkins at his very best, explaining the science of evolution with remarkable clarity.
5. DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA: EVOLUTION AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE by Daniel Dennett. This book, for me, picks up where Dawkins’ book above stops. Dennett provides a number of crucial concepts, like the difference between skyhooks and cranes, to help us understand how natural selection operates as a sort of “universal acid.”
6. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I recommend this book so often to so many people that I’m in danger of becoming a bore about it, but it’s difficult to overstate how much it has helped me understand how human beings, myself included, think. This book is absolutely crucial for understanding why we should remain skeptical even, perhaps especially, of our own beliefs and opinions. It helps us understand who easily we all fall into cognitive traps and fool ourselves through the use of cognitive shortcuts, false assumptions, tribal thinking, confirmation bias that make us defend false beliefs even in the face of clear evidence. An absolute must-read book for any person who wants to think more rationally.
7.The Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novel by Tom Wolfe. This is not a light read, nor is it likely to leave you very hopeful. Every single character in the book is loathsome, but in entirely mundane ways. They aren’t openly evil, they’re selfish and interested only in how they can benefit from a tragic situation. Another book that will give you insight into human nature that you’d really rather not be true. Also, the only novel on this list.
8. The Age of Reason (Optimized for Kindle) by Thomas Paine. One of the true classics of the Enlightenment, written by the only man to play prominent roles in two major revolutions, American and French.
9. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. I have always found the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to be utterly fascinating. They wrote the Declaration of Independence together and helped create the nation, then became bitter rivals politically. But after both retired from active public life, they began a remarkable friendship through letters sent between 1813 and 1826, when both died on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the official adoption of the Declaration. This book also includes letters sent to and from Abigail Adams, John’s absolutely brilliant wife.
10. On Liberty and Other Essays (Oxford World’s Classics) by John Stuart Mill. This book really shaped my thinking on the question of the freedom and self-determination that every person should have and the proper limits of state coercion. A true classic.