Lists always provoke a response. Here, then, are the five books that I would list as my greatest influences. Shockingly, given that I don't read fiction, some fiction books make the list, but I note with some regret that they are both books I'd read before I turned 18.
- Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is underrated and this is his least-appreciated book. I think it is stronger than Slaughterhouse-Five: there is no question about the reality of the plot within the confines of the novel, for instance, and the agency of the main character is the crux of the book instead of being assumed away. In other words, in Mother Night unlike many of Vonnegut's other books, the protagonist is a villain as well as a victim. (To be fair, many of Vonnegut's characters have some degree of choice, but the overriding theme from Sirens of Titans forward is that we are helpless before the sea of troubles. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the finest book about Indiana, was a close call for this slot.)
- A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller. I find the notion of original sin compelling. It seems to fit the individual-level evidence rather better than the alternative hypothesis. Consequently, Miller's meditation on politics and faith squares with my firm skepticism about the extent of civilizational progress. Miller's book is part of a small but almost uniformly excellent tradition of Eisenhower-era Catholic science fiction; James Blish's A Case of Conscience springs immediately to mind as a challenging novel in this category. I might also mention the (hardly Catholic) 334, by Thomas Disch, as well as any number of Dick novels, but the nearest competitor to this choice was On the Beach, which is the Calvinist version of Miller.
- What is power, who uses it, and how does it transform both the objects of its action and the wielders of its force? In an almost novelistic chronicle of the career of Robert Moses and the development of the modern bureaucratic state, Caro addresses questions fundamental to our notions of what is acceptable and what is intolerable in a democratic polity. I say "novelistic" both because that is the nature of the book's writing but also because more recent accounts have stressed the elements that Caro left out of his story; this is a common knock on Caro, especially by those who have troubled to look up more balanced views of Coke Stevenson, LBJ's opponent in 1948. But if we consider this as an argument and not a strictly factual account (and it is factual enough, anyhow), then Caro's deep concern about whether government can be made accountable to anyone but itself becomes all the more evident.
- Like many people, I enjoyed a long flirtation with the classics of libertarian thought throughout my teens, but Sen and others (especially, and obviously, including Nussbaum) finally put paid to those dalliances by demonstrating the inextricable link between political and economic freedom and satisfaction. Although I think it would be premature at the very least to say that Sen offers a fully developed way forward, he and others in the capabilities framework offer much more plausible solutions to a realm of problems that most Western (and certainly most right-of-center) thinkers do not take seriously, from acute famine to routine deprivation. Sen's discussion of the relation of political freedom to freedom from famine in the Bengali context (although not new to this book) is a challenge to other, less inclusive definitions of freedom.
- This is certainly the least expected book on my list, and it stands in for many others. Tanizaki's explanation of the cultural and aesthetic assault of Westernization and modernization on his experience of Japaneseness forced me out of any sort of complacent, Galbraith-style optimism about the inevitability and the desirability of modernization as a totalizing force. Tanizaki explores what happens when modernization comes not as a natural outgrowth of existing social structures (although, as Polanyi and others have noted, that can be plenty disruptive enough) but as a foreign-led imposition on a way of life that has its own internal logic. Reading this, and many, many other books, it becomes possible for even the densest, stubbornest reader to comprehend why colonialism and other forms of paternalism (including those, like Japan, undertaken by indigenous elites) were so alienating.