Monday, March 22, 2010

Challenging the premise of "the books that have influenced me the most" meme

Ezra Klein challenges the premise of the "books that influenced me" blog meme (which I picked up today), saying books haven't influenced him much:

I've written this sort of thing before. The mainstays on my list are John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," Tom Geoghegan's "Which Side Are You On?," Abraham Joshua Heschel's "Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity," Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" and maybe a handful of others.

But I always feel like a fraud.

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking -- particularly in my current thinking -- than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that's consistently present in my approach to new issues.

Much of my emphasis on the institutions of American government and the processes by which they work (or don't) came from my relationship with Mark Schmitt, first through his blog and then through his editorship at the American Prospect. . . .

So much as I love my favorite books, the biggest influences in my thinking have been the continuous intellectual relationships I've had with blogs, periodicals and other people.
One of the very bloggers Klein cites as an influence, Matthew Yglesias, responds:
[I]f I look back at my list of books that influenced my thinking . . . these aren’t books that influenced my thinking “on the issues” the way blog posts and magazine articles do nearly so much as they’re books that influenced my thinking about my thinking. Like: What’s important? What’s it worth doing in life? What questions are a waste of time? What kinds of mistakes have I been making?

I feel like this is going to be the kind of thing books are still important for, simply because they’re more intense experiences. A solo encounter with a major work is a big deal in a way that sporadic engagement with blogs isn’t. Which is just to say that I hope and think digital media will mostly crowd out relatively low-value book-reading experiences and still leave room for some of the big deal reads.
I definitely agree with Yglesias rather than Klein on this.

Klein seems to want to extend his reach as little as possible. Klein, Yglesias, Schmitt, and Drum share similar vocations (journalist-bloggers) and the same time period (right now) and similar worldviews (mainstream American liberalism). (He throws in the libertarian Cowen for good measure.) It may be comforting to draw your influence from this close by, and it hasn't stopped him from writing a top-notch blog. But his attitude seems cramped and (inadvertently) a bit sad.

It's not that I'm surprised that Klein would have been more influenced by blogs and magazines than by books in writing his Washington Post blog about economic policy. But the meme isn't "books that influenced my blog"; it's "books that influenced me." There should be more to who-you-are than economic policy. It's important to not just be your blog or your job but to be a complete person. That's hard to do if you're not willing to immerse yourself in worldviews that are far removed from your own.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"...books that influenced my thinking about my thinking...."

These responses are all about thinking. But as you say in a later post, what about books influencing who one is -- books about being (And I don't mean "Being and Nothingness.")

Or maybe I'm asking too much. Maybe the intellect is what books most legitimately influence. Being emotionally influenced by a book can be a big mistake. Untold numbers of smart people have been led into misery or delusion by great writers: Kafka, Dostoevsky, Salinger, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung...and on and on.

By not by Shakespeare or Chekhov!

John Althouse Cohen said...

I don't know that "who one is" actually denotes anything beyond one's thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

The writers you cited concentrated almost entirely on the intellect and, more narrowly, on public affairs, not the private individual.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Do you mean the writers in my list or Klein's or Yglesias's?

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Yours, plus some I glanced at from theirs. I did see one respondent who mentioned "Dune" -- a dreadful novel.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Oh, but the authors in my list don't concentrate on "public affairs, not the private individual." That's why I thought you might have been referring to the bloggers/journalists who influenced Klein.