Writing That Influenced Me

1) A Homage to Catalonia, Shooting an Elephant, Politics and the English Language, and other non-fiction by George Orwell. He confronted the most important issues of his time – imperialism, fascism and communism – with an acute moral compass remarkable because it guided him past even moral pitfalls that typically ensnared his fellow socialists.

How did he managed to avoid so many orthodoxies of thought that his ideology made him particularly susceptible to? As a young man, Orwell noted that he had a great facility with words and an ability to confront uncomfortable truths, even those inconvenient to his worldview. Years later, when he penned Politics and the English Language, he explained how those talents are inextricably related:

It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts…If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

That ethic helped Orwell to oppose fascism, communism and imperialism as effectively as any writer then or since. And his mistakes, most notably his support of socialism, are of little consequence, indeed barely remembered, because a man who strives to present his ideas in an intellectually honest fashion does all he can to mitigate the harm done when he errors by advancing a wrongheaded cause. However imperfectly, I’ve tried to avoid the mistakes cataloged in Politics and the English Language, to attack falsehoods and intellectual dishonesty even when it is perpetrated by folks “on my own side,” and to write intellectually honest prose — and I tend to admire and associate myself with writers who operate in the same spirit.

2. The Sun Also Rises. This is one of my favorite novels, both because there is something to be learned from the way that Jake comports himself while living out a tragic life, and because it’s the novel that made me want to study abroad in Spain, a decision that significantly improved my life for reasons I explain here.

3. The Bible. I’ve never actually read it cover to cover, but after 13 years of Catholic school, I’d familiarized myself with a lot of its passages, and its ethic infused the schools I attended until college. The good book didn’t turn me into a practicing Catholic. Often I’d read passages in the Bible and say things to my religion teachers like, “So Jesus had dinner with his friends and followers, served bread and wine, said ‘do this in memory of me,’ and I’m supposed to believe that the modern Catholic mass somehow fulfills that request?” Truth be told, I also doubt the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, and especially transubstantiation. But the preaching found in the Gospel is powerful stuff infused with wisdom that is perhaps unequaled. It certainly informs my morality and attitudes about life, and I wish I were better able to live up to its messages. Finally, knowledge of the Bible has always made me suspicious of most organized Christian religions and ever Christian political group. Almost inevitably, I see their claims, reflect on what I take the Bible to mean, and find little overlap.

4. Atlas Shrugged. So many people raised on Catholic education are riddled with guilt. And so many who take Ayn Rand as their gospel lack it entirely. Like a graduate student who drinks coffee to finish a paper and balances it with a glass of wine to take off the edge before bed, I took from the gargantuan novel a new awareness of how people use guilt to manipulate others — never would I date a Lillian Reardon or be manipulated by a James Taggart — without becoming a sociopath. I also gained an understanding of how rewarding it can be to do even mundane, entry level jobs exceptionally well.

The philosophy presented in Atlas Shrugged is flawed in many ways. And really, Dagny, you’d rather be with John Galt than Francisco D’Anconia? Have you no appreciation for wit, humor or brevity? Still, I found it so stimulating as a sixth or seventh grader to read a forceful, uncompromising challenge to conventional morality and social norms. That I didn’t adopt all of Ms. Rand’s beliefs as my own doesn’t mean that certain insights, assertions and critiques weren’t worth assimilating into my worldview. I’d still recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read it. Just skip the John Galt speech — you’ll know when you come to it.

5. The Road to Serfdom and Free to Choose. Obviously it is oversimplifying to characterize these books as the practical and the moral case for the free market, but on first reading the texts, that’s what I took from them. In hindsight, it’s Hayek’s work that I’ve found far more valuable, because the arguments it makes about the nature of power aren’t at all obvious, it seems that they should’ve been in hindsight.

6. The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. This was my introduction to The New Journalism, and it blew me away. I’d never imagined a non-fiction writer could do stuff like that. The New New Journalism by Robert Boynton. I suppose this book showed me that lots of non-fiction writers are doing stuff as impressive now. It opened my eyes to a whole new cannon of non-fiction writing, the Gay Talese interview taught me never to be embarrassed of any writing method that works, and indirectly, the book led me to living legends like John McPhee, perhaps the best non-fiction stylist ever.Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Joan Didion is the reason I hedged that last sentence — her reported essays are majestic. And The Atlantic archives. I spent many a late night holed up in a small room within the magazine’s offices at The Watergate, reading old issues, marveling at some of what I found, and remarking to myself that James Fallows has written a superhuman number of cover stories.

7. War and Peace. Tolstoy has no equal. His insights into human life are too numerous to mention — and it is impossible to say whether I gleaned more from this book or Anna Karenina, especially the storyline about Kitty and Levin. But the single thing that stands out most from either book is Pierre’s line about how men of ill will join forces to accomplish there ends — and so men of goodwill must do the same to oppose them. I love the Brothers Karamazov too, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I think Tolstoy is better than Dostoevsky, even though both are better than everyone else.

8. Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean. Wouldn’t it be crazy if understanding it is the surest path to flourishing?

9. Trinity by Leon Uris. I’m named after the protagonist, which led to a lot of reading and reflection as a kid.

10. East of Eden. John Steinbeck did such a beautiful job in that novel capturing the sublime rewards one can glean from curiosity and wonder, even in a life as difficult as the ones led by Sam and Lee.


15 Responses to “Writing That Influenced Me”

  1. ncfrommke Says:

    re your #1 choice: Agree. Agree. Agree.

    re your #6:
    Q: What’s the difference between “The Lord of the Rings” and “Atlas Shrugged”?

    A: One book can delude impressionable young readers into a lifelong belief in a fantasy world populated by mythical creatures. The other involves Hobbits.

  2. qabal Says:

    I just finished reading Anna Karenina for the first time in my mid-thirties. I’m awfully glad I waited until now to read it, because had I read it as a younger man, I would not have had the life experiences that I do now that mirrored so much of what the characters in the novel experience. It’s truly an amazing work, one of the best I’ve ever read (and I’ve also read Brothers Karamazov, but not War and Peacee (yet)). Tolstoy hits pretty much every major experience in life, from marriage and divorce to children, death, love, despair, on and on, and it has one of the most moving and compelling transitions from unbelief to faith of any character I’ve ever read.

    Suffice to say, I’ll also be taking a look at some of these other authors you’ve mentioned that I’m not familiar with.

  3. brick60 Says:

    how men of ill will join forces to accomplish there ends

    —-> correction “their ends”

  4. sconover Says:

    “1) A Homage to Catalonia, Shooting an Elephant, Politics and the English Language, and other non-fiction by George Orwell.”

    More or less my #1’s too. You’re certain to enjoy this:


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  6. johnmcg Says:

    Just skip the John Galt speech — you’ll know when you come to it.

    I always found it ironic that a book with a theme of not being guilted into doing anything expected the reader to indulge a 60-page speech.

  7. abnobel Says:

    “It would be possible to determine two patterns, two types among men’s souls, the one inclined toward the spirit of Tolstoy, the other toward that of Dostoevsky.” – Nikolai Berdyaev

    I’m also for Tolstoy in the end, mostly because I like to think that suffering, despair and redemption (a la Dostoevsky) aren’t the only paths to significance and meaning in life. Tolstoy, I think, shows that it can be found in the smallest, most (seemingly) insignificant moments too.

  8. Freddie DeBoer Says:

    And his mistakes, most notably his support of socialism, are of little consequence, indeed barely remembered, because a man who strives to present his ideas in an intellectually honest fashion does all he can to mitigate the harm done when he errors by advancing a wrongheaded cause.

    The worst part is, I know you aren’t saying this with any irony, or self-awareness.

    Jesus, Conor.

  9. iamsparky Says:

    As a former Atlantic intern from the late 90’s, I wholeheartedly agree with how amazing the archive is. One of the many lowly intern duties included responding to requests for back issues and articles–this was, of course, before the electronic archive. What should have been a 5 minute photo copy job would inevitably end up as an hour spent on the couch exploring insightful articles from 20 years earlier. Similarly distracting was the filing of author correspondence. Seeing notes to/from some of the greatest writers of the 20th century (along with a curt rejection of my favorite high school English teacher) was an education in and of itself. Of course I had the opportunity to do all this in the cozy North End digs with a mind blowing cannoli only blocks away.

  10. pietr Says:

    If this is the best list an intellectual of your generation can produce: the dark ages are coming.

    The Bible, Ayn Rand, and something about Aristotle? WTF, have you actually ever read a book or did you and a committee from Mensa select books that would impress a 16 year old hoping to get into Radcliffe (arcane reference).

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  12. Steve McNally Says:

    Thanks for this backgrounder to your weltanschauung.

    w/r/t The Sun Also Rises, that’s blown me away on a few levels – from initial reading of it to the several subsequents. The scenes with Bill Gorton are incredibly funny and tender. The Jake/Brett relationship and Brett’s relationship with and awareness of herself has been instructive.

    Hemingway’s been out of popularity – has been specifically un-popular as a chauvinist, racist, anti-Semite – in circles throughout my experience. The merits of those discussions are out of scope here. Regardless, it’s another reason your inclusion is an interesting move.

    Before first reading of Acid Test, I’d already been a big fan of Kesey, Cassady, Thompson, the Dead. Wolfe’s painting of the whole scene – the fun and the manipulations, the love and infidelities – was eye-opening. That he came at it as a “straight-man” was something I didn’t appreciate until later. Only later, still, came the appreciation of “The New Journalism.”

    As for the Bible, it’s another courageous inclusion. I’ve got 16 years of Catholic education; in high school, it was the Marianists and college, the Irish Christian Brothers – for the less-initiated, there’s not much of a bloc of uniform “Catholicism” taught. The Bible’s divisive enough within and outside the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions; it’s not much less so within Catholic sects. It can be a “silly” book – especially as it’s posited to grammar schoolers – getting perspectives on it and the systems that informed it and were informed by it has been, IMO, valuable to forming and appreciating additional perspectives and belief systems.

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