One Book to Explain Yourself: What Would It Be?

In the bustling comments section for my last post, on Tyler Cowen, Kathy threw out a question that seemed like it deserved its own separate forum:

Here's a question I've been asking people and they were very interested in the answer - which I do not have. We (liberal and conservative relatives) were discussing the splits in the country and I was saying that we'd do better if we learned the basics of the other side's arguments as presented in the blogs and I thought it was really only ten or twenty books.

So - What are the books powering the blogs in America - the main book, the key book?

For instance, you could understand many conservative or libertarian blogs by reading The Road to Serfdom (Hayek) and Atlas Shrugged (Rand); many environmental blogs by reading Silent Spring (Carson), feminist blogs by reading The Feminine Mystique and one deconstructionist theorizer; return-to-the-classics blogs by reading Shakespeare and a deconstructionist; anti-European blogs by reading The Wretched of the Earth and a deconstructionist. The blogs, to me, apply and develop these basic books.

None of the liberals had ever read or heard of The Road to Serfdom; I have always refused to learn anything about deconstructionists though I recognize the approach when I see it. Anyhow we had some very nice conversations despite radically hostile viewpoints.

They all urged me to develop the list - and so, what do your readers think? List twenty books after which you would understand origin of the thinking on the major blogs. Not the US Constitution or the Communist Manifesto or the Bible or the Koran.

What's more omnivoracious than trying to understand people you (think you) disagree with? It seems like we're doing less and less of it. Our Red-Blue Roundtable back during the last election season discussed that very thing, especially looking at network analyst Valdis Krebs's maps of reading habits via Amazon customer similarities. They show little political cross-reading, with one recent exception: the return of interest in Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, certainly a foundational book for some movements on the left, came about largely on the right, as people either tried to understand (or looked for horror stories about) where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were coming from.

It would be interesting to hear what influential bloggers think are the books that helped formed them, and that you should read if you want to understand where they are coming from, and maybe we could go in that direction too. But for now I'd just love to hear the same from Omni readers: If you could give someone (especially someone who disagrees with you) one book to help explain how you see the world, what would it be? --Tom

P.S. I don't want to hijack the discussion, but just to start things off, my book(s), at least on the political side, would be Taylor Branch's civil rights trilogy: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan's Edge. This isn't a political blog, and I try not to inject my own politics into the discussions here, but these are books, especially the first one, that I think anyone would appreciate: a brilliantly (and complexly) told story of one of the great events in American history. And understanding it goes a long way toward understanding the last 40 years or so of liberalism, for better or worse: the civil rights movement has remained the great template for liberal movements: grass roots activism combined with federal intervention, the opening of the political process to people who have historically been left out, plus various crucial side stories like the connection of civil rights to poverty and foreign wars, skepticism of the FBI and executive power, the importance of the church in making the moral case for civil rights, and plenty more! Well, enough from me. What book would you give someone to introduce yourself (at least your political self)?

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Comments (33)

In my case, Thoreau's Walden, if I had to choose only one. If I could choose a few, I'd add Emerson's Essays, Melville's Moby-Dick, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass (the 1855 edition).

Posted by: Kirk | Thursday May 13, 2010 at 3:40 PM

I would love for everyone to read "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand; I get really upset when people dismiss that book because they hear it's "radical", "controversial", or that it will clash with their belief system. I think everyone can learn something from Rand's epic novel, and the rich character development alone is worth the read. If someone was interested in understanding more about me and what makes me tick, I would give that person "The Meat and Spirit Plan" by Selah Saterstrom, "The Mezzanine" by Nicholson Baker, or "Drown" by Junot Diaz. This is a great blog post, by the way! :)

Posted by: Laryssa | Thursday May 13, 2010 at 3:51 PM

I'd give out Mary Gaitskill's Two Girls, Fat and Thin, in which she writes a fine novel and administers a brilliant Ayn Rand smackdown.

Posted by: Margo | Thursday May 13, 2010 at 4:06 PM

Guy Debord's "The Society of the Spectacle"

"Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: "All that was once directly lived has become mere representation."[7] Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing."[8] This condition, according to Debord, is the "historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life."[9]

With the term spectacle, Debord defines the system that is a confluence of advanced capitalism, the mass media, and the types of governments who favor those phenomena. "... the spectacle, taken in the limited sense of "mass media" which are its most glaring superficial manifestation...".[10] The spectacle is the inverted image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity. "The spectacle is not a collection of images," Debord writes. "rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images."'

Posted by: BruceF | Thursday May 13, 2010 at 4:23 PM

On the political front, mine would probably be Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, which really illustrates the dangers right-wing rule. The most chilling part of it, for me, is that some aspects of the dystopic society in the novel remind me of Iran, where my family is from.

Posted by: PK | Thursday May 13, 2010 at 7:37 PM

Albert Camus' "The Plague" - we create our meaning in life by how we offer ourselves for others needs. A close second would be R.K. Narayan's "The Guide" for the same reasons.

Posted by: Tess Rooney | Thursday May 13, 2010 at 9:34 PM

I would offer "A General Theory of Love" by Thomas Lewis, MD, et. al. This book merges hard science with a poetic sensibility; published in 2000, the three authors make an indisputable case for loving relation, and why it is the foundation of a sane and ethical life. Everything from attachment theory to neuroscience and literary gems (current and historical) adds to the evidence that without human love, we are lesser creatures ...

Posted by: Jaliya | Friday May 14, 2010 at 12:47 PM


Posted by: macphisto | Friday May 14, 2010 at 4:15 PM

"The Constitution of Liberty" by F. A. Hayek
"The Problem of Pain" by C. S. Lewis

I have to disagree about "The Fountainhead". Rand does make some good points in it, but the story was lacking. (And let's not talk about character development when the point of the story is that the protagonist does not change.) Fiction ought not be boring.

I like to recommend "Starship Troopers" because so many people think they know what it's about, without ever having actually read it.

Posted by: Luke | Friday May 14, 2010 at 4:31 PM

'Free to Choose', by Milton and Rose Friedman.

I drew an assignment when I was a high school senior to contrast and compare 'Das Kapital' with 'Free to Choose'. The Friedmans blew the doors off the loathsome Karl Marx, and I have been a small-L libertarian ever since.

Posted by: John Skookum | Friday May 14, 2010 at 4:34 PM

"Atlas Shrugged" and "Mans Search for Meaning"

Posted by: Roger MacInness | Friday May 14, 2010 at 4:37 PM

John Stossel's "Give Me A Break"

Posted by: BTN | Friday May 14, 2010 at 4:45 PM

"Voyage of the Beagle", by Charles Darwin

Posted by: Teki Setsu | Friday May 14, 2010 at 4:54 PM

The writer who most clearly and forcefully distills the conservative-libertarian fusion that animates the right in America is Thomas Sowell. The book that mines that to the depths is his essay collection titled Black Rednecks and White Liberals. It's challenging, perspective changing, a shot of whiskey, and a slap upside the head.

Posted by: Martin McPhillips | Friday May 14, 2010 at 5:03 PM

Randy Barnett's "The Structure of Liberty" and "Restoring the Lost Constitution" would be a good way for progressives and conservatives to begin to understand libertarianism. John Rawles' "A Theory of Justice" and Amartya Sen's "Development as Freedom" would be a good way for conservatives and libertarians to begin to understand progressivism and social democracy. I can't personally recommend any conservative books, but I guess if you want to go to the source it would have to be something by Edmund Burke, whom I haven't read.

Posted by: Tedd | Friday May 14, 2010 at 5:12 PM

Nobody has mentioned Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis.

Posted by: jj | Friday May 14, 2010 at 5:13 PM

How about "Down and Out in Paris and London" and "Homage to Catalonia"? Both by George Orwell.

Posted by: tim maguire | Friday May 14, 2010 at 5:27 PM

Ha, I created a whole dating site based on defining yourself by your books:

My picks are The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, and Stuff White People Like. :)

Posted by: Matt Sherman | Friday May 14, 2010 at 5:33 PM

"The Moon is a Harsh Mistres" by Robert Heinlein. It's a great story and introduced me to TANSTAAFL ('there ain't no such thing as a free lunch'), a concept that informs all of my thinking about politics and economics.

Also, "Starship Troopers" by Heinlein.

For non-fiction, "Orthodoxy" and "The Everylasting Man" by G.K. Chesterton and "Basic Economics" by Thomas Sowell.

Posted by: PackerBronco | Friday May 14, 2010 at 5:37 PM

The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith.
Thrity years after publication still about the best political novel depictinig a society both adult and free.

Posted by: Charles Fuller | Friday May 14, 2010 at 5:55 PM

"Time Enough For Love" by Robert Heinlein. The "Notebooks of Lazarus Long" are right in the middle of it, fer goshsakes. If we continue to progress as a species, libertarianism is our final destiny.

Posted by: Mike M. | Friday May 14, 2010 at 6:04 PM

Funny you should ask. I just hit the publish button at for "Individuals, Journalism, and Society" on the final draft.

The blurb says, "Individuals, journalism, and society are like concentric circles. That matters because politics, philosophy, art, history, and literature in the 20th century didn’t live up to the promise to help improve society. With the world at risk, it’s up to us to salvage character, sense of purpose, and the trajectory of society. Live one day in the life of a newspaper publisher to discover why." Oh, it's by Stephen B. Waters.

Come back next week for it to be available to the public.

Posted by: sbw | Friday May 14, 2010 at 6:22 PM

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

Posted by: PeterM | Friday May 14, 2010 at 6:48 PM

I'm hip to the Heinlein AND to the Taleb. But mine is a Heinlein as well. It's hasn't been mentioned yet , and being somewhat of the secretive sort (and don't really know you people) I'm not gonna say ;-)

Posted by: SMSgt Mac | Friday May 14, 2010 at 7:11 PM

"Saint Maybe". Maybe even "Til We Have Faces." Not, obviously, the actual story, but the principle.

Posted by: Mark Paquette | Friday May 14, 2010 at 7:25 PM

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