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10 books

March 23, 2010

A recent blogging trend going around the last few days has been for bloggers to compile lists of 10 influential books in their lives. I was reading some of these lists with interest, then remembered that I am now a blogger and perhaps should write my own.

But when I started, I soon realized that there wasn’t much there. I think I’m reasonably well-read, but I’ve read very little philosophy, never did much work in the humanities, am a pretty slow reader – and I’ve been bombarded by information from so many sources that I don’t even know if books have had that big an influence on me compared to other media.

In the end, I had to compromise and call this a list of 10 most influential/important books:

The Bill James 1991 Baseball Book/The Historical Baseball Abstract (Bill James) – I bought and read the 1991 Baseball Book when I was about to turn 16. I’m not sure that it’s remembered as one of Bill’s best books*, but whatever; it was still unlike anything I had read before, and from then on I read anything of his I could get my hands on.

I think I can honestly say that, during my five years of high school, Bill James taught me more about how to think than anyone else. Bill himself might be embarrassed by that statement, and in hindsight it’s really more of a comment about the disappointment that my high school education was, but there it is.

A couple of years later, I borrowed the Historical Abstract from a friend of mine – we then graduated, and I never gave it back. Andrew, if you’re reading this, I still have it.

* It does, however, contain my all-time favourite Jamesian phrase:

Jose Mesa, Baltimore

Can he pitch in the major leagues?

Can a bear perform heart surgery? I guess you never know unless you give him a scalpel and stand back.

A Farewell To Arms (Ernest Hemingway) – I worked my ass off my first two years of high school and won various scholarly awards. But as already mentioned, I wasn’t all that happy with the classes I was taking, and in Grade 11 English I tried something new – I didn’t bother doing the major assignments. I still got an “A” for the course. As soon as I realized that I was going to get an “A” regardless of whether I did the work or not… well, I took advantage of that.

I also, up to this point, read mostly science fiction. I gave Hemingway a try when I was 17, and realized that even if I didn’t do any work in class, there was still some serious shit that I needed to read.

Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut Jr.) – I wrote about this a short time ago. I’m not even sure it’s the right choice; it’s the book that introduced me to Vonnegut, and it’s a great deal and I admire it a great deal. But there was something about Cat’s Cradle that really appealed to me on another level; I re-read the former because I plan to re-read the latter and compare the two, and to see if I can get at what that something is.

The Unconscious Civilization (John Ralston Saul) – I don’t know if the book, as a whole, had a great influence on me – but it has two parts about Canadian society that make my blood boil everytime I think about them.

One, our political leaders’ addiction to obsolete jobs – or more precisely, jobs that keep the monthly employment numbers looking nice, but are doomed to become obsolete. Canadians are terrible at innovation; we’re manufacturing society, and we build shit that other people invent. That worked well when the auto sector provided high paying “lifetime” jobs, not so much now. But rather than give our workforce the general knowledge they need to adjust with a rapidly-changing job market, we train them to do one specialized thing – and five years later, they’re obsolete and have to be trained again.

I made a lot of terrible decisions when I was in university, but I was saved by one real smart decision – I ignored the politicians, and learned as many things in as many different subject areas as I could.

Second, the “Freedom of Information” Act, an extraordinarily Orwellian piece of legislation that has put an insanely high price on the cost of information.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Flannery O’Connor) – Not a book, just a short story. But it’s my favourite. My post-secondary career was mostly a disaster; I began with a computer science scholarship, but dropped out and spent 2½ years taking courses here and there, without much idea of where I was going.

I wasn’t a very good English student – I didn’t “get” what was required in an essay. But this story, more than anything else, convinced me to stick with English. I eventually “got it” and wrote a couple of good essays in my final term – not enough to boost my final grade average, but today it’s hard to remember a time when I cared about grade average. It was the experience of going from “clueless” to “getting it” that was important.

Anything by Isaac Asimov – I have no idea what the first Asimov story was that I read, but for two years (Grades 7-8) I was basically consumed by Isaac’s massive bibliography (well, I found time to read Dune and some other things, but it was basically Asimov who got me interested in science-fiction, the dominant genre of both my adolescent and teenage years).

Yeah, he wasn’t that good of a writer, but at the time it didn’t matter. It was the ideas that mattered.

The Elements of Style (Strunk & White) – My mother had a dusty old copy of this that I read as a teenager, and I’m not sure if it had any influence on me at all. But two years ago, due to a strange set of circumstances, I was offered a job as an editor, despite not having any experience or training. It was either that, or start a new career entirely from scratch.

So I bought an old copy of The Elements of Style, and read it cover to cover. I’ve survived; there have been a few hairy moments when I’ve had to get some raw, nonsensical copy online real quick, and I really didn’t feel as though I knew what I was doing. But at least I can say that I’ve tried my best – and I read my Strunk & White, goddamn it.

Humboldt’s Gift (Saul Bellow) – This list is short of non-fiction, and is desperately short of philosophical works. But so far as ideas go – Humboldt’s Gift is more chock full of ideas than any other book I’ve ever read, fiction or non-fiction. For over 400 pages, Bellow just piles on one observation after another about human nature, almost every one making me think ‘Yeah, I get that’.

For Whom The Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway) – The best book I have ever read. I don’t know what influence it’s had on me; but reading this book was like watching Pedro Martinez pitch. There’s great, and then there’s really great – and then there’s Pedro.

Catch-22 – I enjoyed the book when I read it, but when I finished I doubt that I would have put it on this list. I lent my copy to a friend, and he returned it with a broken spine and the pages falling out. So it goes (to be fair, he gave me some other books as compensation).

Anyways, the book was lying in pieces on a table, and as an experiment I picked up one of the pages and started reading it out loud. And I started laughing out loud. I then picked up another page, completely at random, and started reading out loud. Same result. And then another. And another. And yet another.

I am now convinced that pretty much every page of Catch-22 – and my paperback copy has more than 400 pages – is laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s almost impossible to believe that any book – especially one almost 60 years old – could be that funny.

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