Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Books of Influence

     My daughter Karen recently asked me to list my 5 "favorite" books.  She explained further "I don't mean just the books you enjoyed reading the most, but those that had the most influence on your life.  I think it may tell me something about who you are."
     I thought this would be a quick, easy task, but that was a serious underestimation; I have read many, many books, and as a person I am clearly still a "work in progress,"  so picking out the most personally influential books took a lot of thought. 
     Here is the result of my considerations with commentary and with links (in blue) to the Amazon description should you want that information.  It's actually 5 books plus 6 more . . . sorry about that Karen.
     There is little fiction here, but my view of the world has undoubtedly been influenced by novels such as  Moby Dick, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Grapes of Wrath and Doctor Zhivago, all which I read in Junior High School.  Also, I should note that this is a snapshot in time.  If I had done this list a year ago or if I should do it again in a year, it would likely be somewhat different.  JLF

The Prophet - Kahlil Gibran
Among the first philosophical writings I experienced, I was introduced to Gibran by Barbara when she suggested some of his writing be integrated into our wedding ceremony.  The Prophet is Gibran's poetic distillation of his philosophy, economically worded and grouped as commentary on love, friendship, marriage, giving, etc.  I still quote him:.  For example, "Grieve not when you part from your friend, for that which you love in him most may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain." The Tao Te Ching  by Lao-Tzu, which I read at about the same time, I found a little more distant for me, personally.

Humanist Anthology: From Confucius to Attenborough - Margaret Knight (Editor)
The Anthology has been around for years, first published in 1961, but unfortunately not discovered by myself until years later.  Had I stumbled across it as a high school student in '61, my younger days would likely have been substantially changed.  In essence, it is a series of ancient, recent and contemporary essays that as a collection illustrate the constancy of humanism over many centuries and document it as a well developed philosophy rather than a recent reaction to organized religion.  Albert Einstein, Robert G. Ingersoll, Umberto Eco, Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens are simply the most recent in a very, very long line of humanist following in the footsteps of Confucius, Thucydides, Epictetus, Epicurus and Spinoza.

Practical Ethics - Peter Singer -
I always assumed that I was raised with "ethics," but this was my first organized review of "ethics" as a philosophy. Practical Ethics was, and still is, a compact introduction to the thinking by which one begins to understand the processes we might apply in making the decisions we face moment to moment through our lives.  I read this 20+ years ago, but in the latest revision Singer has apparently updated and expanded his original treatise.

Why I am Not a Christian - Bertrand Russell - 
As a philosopher, mathematician, educator, social critic and political activist, Russell authored over 70 books and thousands of essays and letters addressing a myriad of topics, but this very short essay is likely his most widely read work.  I suspect that is because it speaks so effectively to those reared as Christians but questioning personally this faith.   Why I am not a Christian is a brief essay initially published in self-defense as a response to wide, public criticism by churches, politicians, and media (mostly in the U.S.) of Russell's lack of professed Christian belief.  (The link here is to the essay itself, not

The Denial of Death - Ernest Becker -
"The essence of normalcy is the refusal of reality." I read this  psychology text about 7 or 8 years ago with a specific purpose to contemplate and consider my mortality, but I am sure I did not understand in depth the underlying psychological foundations for his work.  Becker, an American Cultural Anthropologist, published Denial, won the Pulitzer prize for the book, and died of cancer all in the year 1974 at the age of 50. The thesis of his work was that individuals live in terror of their own mortality and thus seek to find ways to deny it.  He ask how can we, as human animals, relish day to day life, explore the cosmos in theory and reality, plum the depths of human psychology, and yet at the same time live with our impending death?  He then suggest that the most common reaction is the denial of this reality and argues that as this fear of death is denied and repressed, it then comes out in predictable patterns, particularly in the development of culture and the monuments we build--financial, literary, intellectual--to reassure ourselves of our immortality, or to gain, in Becker's words, "symbolic immortality."   He is fairly kind to religion, seeming to me to suggest its prevalence is perhaps because of its success as a means of dealing with the conundrum. For those who have made the decision to tackle this "urgent" issue, Becker's book is an important read, and will likely become a "re-read" for many of us. An award-winning film that is an extension of this book has been produced: Flight from Death is available via netflix and iTunes.

- Additional books of significance -

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl 
Search was composed in Frankl's mind (no access to writing materials) while a prisoner in the Nazi death camps, principally Auschwitz, and placed in print shortly after the war.  The first half is his personal narrative of the camps, uniquely told from the perspective of the psychiatrist he had been, and the second half is his reflection on how one must find "meaning" in life, even in the face of incredible suffering, and how he uses meaning in his field of "Logotherapy."

The Grand Design and also A Brief history of Time -  both by Stephen Hawking -
One should be able to appreciate the wonders of the cosmos, whether you believe it is the creation of God or actually did arise from nothing (by dividing into (simplistically) "matter" and "antimatter" which together have a sum mass/energy of nothing.)  Hawkins atheism should not prevent anyone from enjoying this discussion of our fascinating universe in physics terms that most of us can grasp with a little effort.  Design is a followup to Time  should you want to read them consecutively, though Design stands perfectly well on its own.  Along that same line  Cosmos was the stunning 1980 TV series by Carl Sagan that introduced millions of people, including me, to the scientific cosmology of our universe.  (His fiction book "Contact" reveals much of his thought on religion and philosophy.)  Neil deGrasse Tyson has picked up the standard as the premier scientist-educator of our time, but it was Sagan who first made it respectable for a scientist to talk science to the common folk.

The Battle for God (Originally subtitled "The Role of Fundamentalism in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity?) - Karen Armstrong -
I have read many of her books, including her biographical The Spiral Staircase and Through the Narrow Gate. Perhaps more than any other book, Battle gave me an insight into religious fundamentalist, among which are some personal friends. Be it Islam, Judaism, or Christianity, there is a dangerous tendency to lose the compassion that is at the core of any authentic religion, and to degenerate into "a theology of rage and hatred."  But at the same time, secularists and people with more liberal notions of faith need to recognize the real fears that fundamentalists face, and deal with the problems that spawn those fears. "Fundamentalists are not going away. We need to understand them."

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Prisig -
 Zen  has to be on the list as having influenced me early on; I read it for the story, but the philosophy lingered on.  I was living in England and spending most of my time working, traveling, and marveling over our second child (Karen herself) when I first read this book, which contains little about motorcycle repair and even less about Zen Buddhism, at the age of 30 in 1975.  It is a road trip story used as the framework for philosophical musings.  Some of my favorite quotes from this remarkable book:

"The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there."  

"We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone. " 

"The pencil is mightier than the pen."  

"When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion." 

"We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no
artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all,
and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly."