Saturday, April 3, 2010


What quickly became notable, however, was the scarcity of fiction. To a degree, this was determined by Cowen’s original list, but as the subject spread, the focus stayed relentlessly on non-fiction. Gradually, bloggers began to acknowledge the formative literature they had enjoyed as youngsters, so Tolkien and Asimov began making some appearances, as did the likes of Orwell and Conrad. Drama, meanwhile, was largely limited to Shakespeare, predictably enough.

If this trend had spread among literary bloggers rather than social scientists, of course, that would likely be reversed, but the trend was noteworthy all the same. One of the most animated conversations followed the list created by Kieran Healy, an Irish sociologist at Duke University who is a member of the academic supergroup blog Crooked Timber. “Everyone else is doing it, at least for ‘American/ white/ politics/ economics/ mostly libertarian type guys’ values of ‘everyone’,” he wrote, and his terrifically diverse list, which features works by Clive James, Pierre Bourdieu and game theorist Thomas Schelling, as well as books on biomechanics, the collective dietary habits of ravens and power dynamics in medieval German society, led to a long and engaging discussion about what it is to be shaped and influenced by books.

But the underlying premise that went largely unquestioned, the notion that books play a predominant role in shaping our intellectual outlook, was roundly rejected by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who came up with a non-list instead: “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. Books aren’t even that close.”

Davin O'Dwyer (Irish Times) discusses responses to Tyler Cowen's 10 Most Influential Books post, the rest here.

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