Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Ten books that influenced me most

Tyler Cowen was prompted by a reader question to offer his ten most influential books. He challenged other bloggers to do the same, so here are mine (as for Tyler, this is my "gut list" though informed by a pleasant half hour looking through my bookshelves to prompt my memory). It surprises me how few economics books are here - but then I didn't do much formal economics study at the time of life that one chooses influential books:
  1. Easily at the top of the list is Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach - An Eternal Golden Braid. The first book that started me exploring the mysteries of cognition and consciousness - and a book of such beauty, grace and depth that my life's work would be complete if I could write anything like it. Most of his other books are excellent too.
  2. Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language. Gives another insight into where abstract patterns can be found in the world - this time in the architecture of cities, buildings and rooms.
  3. Steve McConnell, Code Complete. A brilliant insight into the practice of software development - which, although it's a field I now have a little less practical involvement in, was my route into the modelling of firms and economic systems. McConnell provides a masterfully pragmatic look at how to do software, rather than the traditional computer science theory of how software can be structured. His other book on a similar subject, Rapid Development, is also excellent. Along these lines also is The Pragmatic Programmer
  4. Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! Awoke in me the joy of physics and science in general more than any other author. I don't do much physics now, but what I learned about it informs deeply my approach to other disciplines. Feynman's more technical Lectures on Physics are rightly famous too.
  5. Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots. This book is a placeholder for a wide range of discussions and readings around the nature of stories; they play a deep role in cognition and how we value things in the world. Some people don't like the book itself but it is great at drawing you into the ideas (from Jung) of the roles stories play for us.
  6. Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational. Having developed in unformed fashion a range of my own ideas on value, perception and economics, it was a revelation to discover that there was - sort of - a whole field already out there exploring the same thing. I do have some issues with this book, as I do with the field of behavioural economics as practised, but it's a popular book and communicates the concepts well.
  7. Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist. This book came along at just the right time for me - when I had had some time out of economics, focusing on business and software, and had developed a stream of ideas which were ready to bring back to the tools of economic analysis. The book (along with Tim's columns and lots of reading from The Economist) helped retrain me in the concepts I needed to get ready to start this blog. Tim's own top ten books are here.
  8. Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, Peopleware. Although it's about how to manage people who develop software, it's also about the psychology of being creative.
  9. Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month. A classic about how people can collaborate to achieve big things. It would be very interesting to do an economist's analysis of this book, as it has a completely different philosophy of incentives and information - from the point of view of a management practitioner - than that of the economics tradition.
  10. Martin Gardner, Mathematical Circus, The Ambidextrous Universe, and many others. Any child learning mathematics should learn it from these books. They simultaneously teach some quite deep maths and instil a love of puzzles, numbers and patterns that is essential for anyone who will engage with mathematical ideas in their future. Most of his books are collections from his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. By the time I read the books he had retired from this position and handed over to - if I'd only known at the time - Douglas Hofstadter. He anagramatically renamed the column Metamagical Themas - which, returning to the top of my list, became the title of another of Hofstadter's books.
I realise there is no fiction in this list. When I think back on the fiction that has inspired me, the pickings are thin. Though there are many I've enjoyed, have any of them had an impact on me like those above? Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; Joseph Heller, Catch-22; Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth; Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea; Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita; Michael Moorcock's Elric series; Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase; Magnus Mills, The Scheme for Full Employment; in earlier years, Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; and lots of inspiration from Martin Amis, The War Against Cliche.

Then there are still some important science, economics, philosophy and business books, though they didn't come to mind in my first ten: four that I now think of are Thomas Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehaviour; Geoffrey Moore, Crossing the Chasm; Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel and Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct.
    This is a revealing exercise and I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in the history of their own thought.

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