Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

10 Books that influenced me most

Whenever I’m at someones house, I always like to sneak a peak at their book shelf. Which books take pride of place, which lost on a bottom shelf with a book mark 1/5th of the way in, and which do they seemed to have read again and again till the bindings have fallen away. So I’ve enjoyed the posts by Yglesias and Cowen on the 10 books that have influenced their thinking the most. Given that our politicians have started to reveal their reading lists, here are my 10, and hopefully other Australian bloggers will give this a whirl: (Update: Andrew Norton and Ben Jones have posted their lists. Let me know if you post yours/know of other Australian bloggers doing so.)

1. John Stuart Mill – On Liberty : The first time I read Mill’s harm principle, via a dog-eared 2nd hand copy on a bus home was a lightning strike moment. Where I had trended social-democrat, my thinking suddenly coalesced to liberalism. The clarity, the reasoning, the humanity, both in a call for freedom & the responsibility to use that were breathtaking. One of my most treasured possessions is a large, 8 volume collected works of Mill, and while his autobiography is a gem (esp on the development & change of ideas one *should* have over a lifetime) the 130 or so pages of On Liberty are unbeatable.

2. Don Watson – Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: Watson’s book unleashed the passion for politics that has dominated the last decade of my life. His insider account showed politics as both ideas and personalities. The flaws and the opportunities. He made the distant world-commanding figures on the TV seem normal, and reachable. It’s also a beautifully written portrait of the job of trying to communicate a grand vision to the Australian public, both Keating’s attempt’s and his own as speechwriter.

3. Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil I’m in something of a Nietzsche revival at the moment, and all his books have had some effect, but Beyond Good and Evil was the first I read and the power and energy of the book still resonate. Nietzsche’s work is life affirming like no other, where others say ‘just be yourself’ he argues ‘become who you are’. Every single aphorism is a challenge, a thought experiment, combining brilliant insight and a vibrant call to re-think the established order and make of your life what you can. Ironically Nietzsche detested Mill, but I can’t help but see in them a joint project of social and individual development within a free realm.

4. Friedrich A Hayek – The Constitution of Liberty I’ve always been interested in the idea of freedom. I did my Honours thesis on the way different conceptions of freedom affect policy choices (in a case study of Iraq), and in examining the issue one of the best and clearest voices was Hayek’s. Likewise, his description and understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of market systems is very accessible and significantly enhanced my willingness to defend market based systems. Like Adam Smith these ‘paragons of the market’ are often much more centrist and sensible than their so-called defenders like to make out.

5. Michel Foucault – Order of Things : To be honest I havn’t actually finished this book. But as a demonstration of the study of how ideas shape and change the way we understand the world there’s no better. One reason I find myself so removed from most Conservatives is their insistence that there is a ‘natural order’ or eternal order to how the world is and is seen. Leaving aside Foucault’s concern that the contest of ideas is a contest of power, in Order of Things you see clearly how the very way humans understand both what it is to be human, what and how to organise our knowledge, and what we mean by certain terms shifts and changes throughout human history. What applies across history also applies across culture, which helps explain why getting agreement on how best to organise societies is so difficult.

6. A.B Facey – A Fortunate Life There’s no great philosophical view in this book, and Facey’s life and times in early 20th century Australia are quite removed from my own. But to have such a hard and miserable life, to suffer so much and yet still title your autobiography ‘A fortunate life’ says much about the Australian character and optimism that I find so appealing. The Australian character (somewhat like the Yanks) is optimistic by nature and the growing cynicism of this society disturbing. A small, remote country, we can only make our way in the world through force of character and hard work. At times when I start to think things are too tough, or the task too big, the optimism of this book helps remind me to keep struggling.

7. Plato Dialogs – All my knowledge of philosophy is self-taught, and began with Plato. While I fundamentally reject his totalitarian vision for society (Popper’s Open Society & its Enemies Vol.1 is the best take down), reading the dialogs of Plato plays you learn the importance of reasoning, clarity of language and an appreciation for the beauty of ideas and philosophical debate as a joy in itself. To pick specifically probably the Apology or Crito(covering the trial and last moments of Socrates), though I couldn’t be a good political scientist if I didn’t give The Republic a plug too.

8. Albert Camus – The Outsider. I had thought of putting in Satre’s Nausea or even Being and Nothingess, but The Outsider by Camus is the best description of existentialism as lived, and existentialism is nothing if it is not a philosophy of living. Short, concise and beautifully written, The Outsider is the perfect introduction into a complex, but important attempt to rebuild a philosophy of life after the collapse of the Christian theological one in the west (In many ways we’ve simply decided the project too hard and pluralism and capitalism cover over most of the cracks). I’m not sure if I’d call myself an existentialist, the label seems…unhelpful, but the philosophy is still fascinating and exciting.

9. John Ralston Saul – Voltaire’s Bastards Admittedly its a number of years since I read this, but where many great philosophers have shown the shortcomings of reason, Ralston Saul shows it in practice. None of this ought indicate I am anything other than a worshiper at the feet of reason, but like a drug the warm positive influence sometimes leads us into absurdity and inhumanity. The irony of the book in many ways is that we dont reason enough on some things (that Australian office workers wear suits designed for a cold northern hemisphere climate, while working the daylight hours of said climate is utterly illogical), but because reason drove the organisation of the military through to the bureaucracy we are governed and dominated by these reasoned ideas about society. Sometimes Saul goes too far, but he seems to understand the west before anyone else, even if not too prescriptive of where we go from here.

10. David McCulloch – John Adams This is a really enjoyable and entertaining book, but its place here is somewhat of a placeholder for all the great figures in history whose lives have done more to inspire and influence me than any written word. Cicero, Aurelius, Jefferson, Adams, Disraeli, Churchill, FDR, Curtin, these are the names whose acts guide my thoughts more than any philosophy. I’m currently devouring Teddy Roosevelt’s autobiography and feel sure his charge to that list is undefeatable. The lives of great men (and to date they have all been men) have done more to influence me towards how to live, how to see the world than any book, but I can’t identify one above all the other. Cicero’s oratory is matched against Disraeli’s oratory & love of politics, against Curtin’s oratory, idealism and patriotism. Deciding between these great figures is impossible, but my debt to them is even deeper.

If there is a theme here amongst these ten, one that impossibly ties Mil, Nietzsche, Foucault and Facey, it is the importance of the ‘vigor of life’. That freedom is our priority and inheritance, and yet it places upon us a great responsibility to make something worthy of that life. To become who we are. I’m not anywhere near there yet but I’m having a hell of a good time trying.

6 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Good post Andrew – very interesting.

    The politcal philopshy book that most influenced me when I was in my late teens at uni was Michael Walzer’s Sphere’s of Justice.

    The other politics book (because it really broadened my knowledge of global politics) was Stephen Ambrose’s Rise to Gloablism – a great history of the Cold War that doubles as a damn good read.

    But I would have to say the political texts that have influenced me the most are the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister Diaries by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay! 🙂

  2. JC

     /  March 20, 2010


    I presume Hayek influenced you the least?

  3. #4 may be a little high, but there’s a rough order there. And I’m measuring influential by how much they have changed my thinking rather than reflect my thinking. I don’t entirely agree with Hayek, but often find him very compelling and have learnt much from him. Like Hayek I think there are some areas where markets don’t properly function (health insurance is one) but duel systems as in Australia are a pragmatic solution, otherwise then the market is our best choice.

  4. Kate

     /  March 23, 2010

    Yay Nietzsche! Certainly up there with my most influential as well. On the weekend I found myself at a pub in the Snowy’s chatting with a German biogeochemist about the life affirming nature of Nietzsche and Palahniuk.
    What about B. Russell?

  5. It’s interesting how commonly Nietzsche features in the various lists of people who blog. I guess his desire to see the motivations behind the positions we take (whether political or moral) inspires the arm-chair psychologist that all bloggers play out.

    Russell was one I wanted to list, both for his own work on power, scepticism and his history of western philosophy, but ultimately couldn’t find a place for him. He is too close to Mill in political philosophy to have changed my views, though I would certainly count him amongst those I have learnt the most from.

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