Books That Changed Me

For any thinking person, there are bound to be a handful of books that had such a powerful impact on them that they have returned to them again and again throughout their lives. I thought it would be interesting to hear what books my readers would identify for them, so I’ll start by reposting something I wrote a few years ago on the subject at my old blog, with a few updates.

A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing by HL Mencken. I recently had to reorder a new copy of this book as the old one was so worn out from reading and rereading. It’s a book that I still return to again and again and continue to find new insight in. Many of the things he wrote about America nearly a century ago are as fresh and accurate today as the day he wrote them. Mencken may well be the single finest wordsmith this country has ever produced. Like Christopher Hitchens, he was capable of producing a staggering amount of work in a very short time frame, each sentence absolutely perfect, with not a word out of place.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. The book that shaped my political views more than any other. The book that gave me the single axiomatic core of my entire view of the world, both morally and politically — the notion that we must protect for others the very liberty that we cherish for ourselves and that it is profoundly immoral to do otherwise. If this heathen felt the need to have an equivalent to the Bible, it would be this book.

Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other by Nat Hentoff. Another book I have returned to again and again — and another book that has helped form the very core of my political beliefs. I was lucky enough to have Nat on my radio show twice, once talking about the Bill of Rights and once talking about jazz. At the end of the second show, he called me his “soul brother.” Nat has his heresies that leave me baffled (he is anti-choice on abortion, for example), but few have done as much to the meaning of the Bill of Rights to life over the last six decades plus.

These first three books all have something very much in common, of course, and it is from them that I derive my overriding passion for human liberty. When I first read this passage from Mencken, I felt as though I had finally found the perfect expression of my own views:

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