Jonathan B. Wight
Nice selections, Mark. Here are some of mine.
1. Herman Hesse, Demian:
The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth.
This is a coming of age novel and is spell binding reading, particularly
for me as a teenager. The young
protagonist struggles between the world of light (good) and dark (evil). He questions the basis of moral society and the
origins of moral norms. There are no
simple answers but some finely nuanced insights.
2. Ayn Rand, The
Fountainhead. This is another great novel
for a young person. I’ll never think
about the world in the same way after discovering the creative life of an
individualistic architect. While it is a
powerful revelation, I don’t think the book holds up well either as good
literature or good philosophy. Rand’s objectivism
and “greed is good” runs into problems. For
one thing, none of her individualistic heroic characters turns to be greedy! They are self interested, but always have
high ideals and would never use others to get their own way. It remains on my list of favorites.
3. The Bible, particularly the New
Testament. What I sopped up as a
teenager were the pronouncements on economic justice. Throw the money-changers
out of the temple! When Jesus is
confronted with the question of whether it is lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to
a Roman king, he responds with that wonderful line, “Render unto Caesar the
things of Caesar...” Jesus’ ingenuity
and cleverness were easy to admire: after all, don’t teenagers spend most their
time trying to outwit their parents? The
Bible is a profound text because it cannot be read literally.
4. Thomas Merton, Seeds
of Contemplation. Merton lived a
riotous life of debauchery in the U.S. and Europe for about thirty years. He woke up one day and decided to become a Trappist
monk, taking a vow of poverty and silence (for details, see his spectacular autobiography,
The Seven Storey Mountain). He lived and worked the rest of his life at Gethsemani monastery in
Kentucky. Seeds of Contemplation is a compilation of insights into the interior
life. He talks about the ideological “hats”
a monk tries on, and about finding your own voice. I spent a silent retreat weekend at
Gethsemani in the early 1980s.
5. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I came to TMS mid way in my career and quite
by accident. I was in a Borders
bookstore trolling the economics aisle when my eye fell upon this plain
paperback Liberty Fund edition. For
$7.50 it was a deal, and I thought it would make a nice bookend with Wealth of Nations. I got home around 10 pm and thought I would
open the book as a prelude to falling asleep.
(What better sedative is there than reading moral philosophy?) Instead, I was transfixed by the language,
the intensity, and the ideas. It’s been
a wonderful ride since. There’s something new to learn every time you open it.
Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Georgescu-Roegen was a Romanian economist
of astounding brilliance, temper, ego, and rant. This book is a seminal critique of the
methodology of neoclassical economics.
7. James Agee, A Death in the Family. This is an autobiographic account of the
death of Agee’s father when he was six. It
is the most hauntingly beautiful book I have ever read.
8. George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman. This novel didn’t really “influence” me; rather
it pleased the hell out of me. I’ve
never laughed so hard. The protagonist—an
outrageous rouge—happens along to play pivotal roles at the major events of the
19th century, in Afghanistan, Crimea, India and other British
colonial outposts as well as the United States.
Somehow this traitorous, cowardly scoundrel always ends up on top of
things. There are 11 books in the Flashman series. Try the first and go happily on from there.
9. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn. Who can say enough about this spectacular novel? So I won’t say anything....
10. There are too many good last picks: Deirdre
McCloskey’s, Crossing: A Memoir; John
Howard Griffin’s, Black Like Me; The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Ken
Kesey’s, Sometimes a Great Notion; Arnold
J. Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. 1,
and many more. I can’t choose!
Next up (to Mark):
What are your most influential movies?