15 February 2014

Six Influential Non-Fiction Books

Recently I have used Goodreads to organise my reading habits. I browsed the site and found a list of Most Influential Books, which users can add to. The listopia criteria are quite personal: select ‘[b]ooks that have most opened your mind to new ideas or ways of thinking’. I explained there, and copy here, why and how each addition influenced me. In no particular order, the following lists six books that I can identify as having shaped and informed my thinking.

1. Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness

Bertrand Russell evaluates common assumptions. The main essay in this collection conforms to that paradigm. It is, I think, among if not his best. He iterates a thread oft heard in radical education theory by for example Ivan Illich, Matthew Crawford, and Jerome Bruner: time and quiet are required for creative advances. Idleness--apparent or real--provides that freedom. Russell writes with a buoyant wit and clarity that ensures his work rises in competing discourses.

2. Ronald Dworkin, Law's Empire

Ronald Dworkin’s reconstructive approach to legal theory illuminates flaws that were otherwise invisible before his seminal contribution. He extends and consolidates jurisprudential trends to overcome theretofore inhibitive problems that are now surmountable--even if still contentious.

3. Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere

The subject of my LLM dissertation. Thomas Nagel thoughtfully investigates objectivity and subjectivity; he explores their relationship in a lucid, incremental, and academically honest fashion. His ideas are well-developed and provided me with the critical tools to evaluate many concepts in philosophical, scientific, and legal epistemology that I struggled with before his insight.

4. Peter Medawar, Pluto's Republic

Peter Medawar popularises Karl Popper's epistemological methodology. Popper's ideas are simple notwithstanding they demand patient scrutiny. Medawar reformulates Popper's formulaic complexities in lighter prose. Medawar also uses the scientific methodology to tackle ideas prevalent in, for example, psychoanalysis. He writes persuasively with integrity. This collection is influential because it presents a style and rigour worth emulating.

5. FILM CRIT HULK, Screenwriting 101

Hulk's style is wonderful, critical, and polite. The perspective taken in this book, as in Hulk's other criticism (on filmcrithulk.wordpress.com and badassdigest.com), is so respectful of others' craft, art, and cinematic and literary constructions that it sets a high benchmark in pedagogical writing monographs. This book--which referenced here reflects a broader acknowledgment of Hulk's other writings--has had a profound influence on the way I view film, narrative, writing, and criticism, and also on the way I write (including my non-fiction).

6. Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education

Bruner considers and expands upon four themes that emerged during a conference about how to teach science and maths. The result is a stunning collaboratively-founded text that introduced me to several pedagogical concepts. The book has inspired many of my ideas for education reform. Although I enjoy his other work (including Minding the Law, with Anthony Amsterdam), I explored his other work because I was so impressed by this one.

7. Conclusion

Of course, this list does not suggest that I have no other influences. But I can follow and trace each book/author to a formative and definite perspective-change. This and similar lists are often problematic and contentious. They presume earlier textual influences had lesser effects: can I attribute as much to these books as, for example, fiction read as a child or whatever I read during the run up to my initial application to university?

However much those texts influenced me-back-then, they cannot fully account for me-today. This assumes we are different people at different times. Although the idea feels intuitive, is it accurate? Can today’s developed personality be strictly divided from yesterday’s? Regardless, the above six books are worth reading carefully, more than once.

Created: 15 February 2014. Version 1.0.

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