I’ve dreaded the thought of being challenged to list the books that have meant the most to me through my life or that have stuck with me. Like many, my reading habits were shaped in high school. It’s when my addiction to news and history doused whatever small flame of interest I had in fiction. It’s when my habit of 2-3 newspapers a day and all three weekly news magazines started. To my regret, that news and current information habit hasn’t been broken, as anyone who has seen my Twitter “follows,” or Facebook pages periodicals I’ve “liked,” or my sixty Feedly subscriptions will vouch. A couple of years ago, I posted a list of my news and periodical intake; it deserves to be updated, but is still directionally correct.
The book reading I’ve done over the last few years has been dominated by first person accounts and analysis of the financial crisis or in preparation for the Ethics in Financial Markets classes I’ve taught. So when the challenge came (thanks, Dennis), the thought of exposing my rather pedestrian list left me intimidated.
I have what has been referred to as “one of America’s great collections of unread books.” I love having books around; real ones, with pages and bindings. The used bookstore and I are quite well acquainted. Despite what you’ve read above about my non-fiction habit, I often buy fiction–I just don’t read it. I know I should. The books that I pull down are skimmed them here and there for sections on something specific (see? all non-fiction), going back and re-reading sections in the way that I watch only selected scenes from the endless cable airings of Forrest Gump or Caddyshack.
I know there are more than ten items listed. I’m terrible at following directions.
Here we go (in no particular order after the first item):
Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
While not technically a book (it’s an essay that appears in a collection of essays called “Why I Write,” among other places) it is the single most important piece of paper in my life, next to my birth certificate and marriage license (which I show to my wife periodically to remind her that she’s stuck with me and it’s legally binding). Without being too dramatic, it changed the way I think about politics, those who run for office, government, and generally the way people speak to one another. I find myself reading it about once a year and several times a year during presidential election cycles. People who know me well and are familiar with the work will recognize that much of my commentary on politics, political advertising and the messages delivered by those who seek public office is driven by this piece.
Golf My Way by Jack Nicklaus
I read this nearly book every day in high school study hall, which explains both my golf practice habits and poor academic performance. I was so obsessed with it–it’s the single best, most accessible golf instructional book ever produced–that when someone else would take it off the shelves, the Librarian would ask, “Does Mark know what you’re doing?” I still use it and think about its lessons.
The Modern Fundamentals of Golf by Ben Hogan
Originally five articles for Sports Illustrated, this exquisitely illustrated work is something of the Rosetta Stone for golf. It took me at least five readings to really start to grasp it. Unlike the Orwell article, those who know my golf game will argue that I still don’t get it. I agree.
The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate by Dan Jenkins
Also a series of Sports Illustrated articles accumulated in book form, Jenkins is among my favorite writers about anything, but his golf work is extraordinary. This book is doubly special for me because it provided me with a chance to meet and spend an hour with one of its subjects, Dave Marr, when he was broadcasting the US Senior Open, shortly before he died. I asked Marr to sign the book and we had a lovely visit. It was unfortunately back in the days before cell phone cameras. It’s a memory I treasure. I was also able to get Jenkins to sign it.
Brave New World by Cliff Huxtable
1984 by George Orwell
A great one-two punch on the post 9/11, Internet “future” that we’re living today. An eerily accurate view of our current time from 50+ years ago. Security theater and cameras on every street corner on one side, distracted driving and texting the person sitting next to you on the other.
I love Orwell’s work. One of the many reasons I have loved the work of Christopher Hitchens was his deep admiration for Orwell. Hitchens cranked out essays and books about Orwell that enhanced my appreciation for the work. New Yorker writer, George Packer also a Orwellian (!), produced two works of Orwell’s work: “Facing Unpleasant Facts” and “All Art Is Propaganda.” They are among one of America’s great collections of unread books. Spend an hour with two Orwell scholars here.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
It’s entirely possible that this is on the list only because of the joke: “At halftime, the score is Slaughterhouse 5, Cows 0.”
The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
I really like Niebuhr. I think I found Niebuhr after the running joke on Night Court about “what kind of name is ‘Reinhold'” led us to talk about the unusual name and someone mentioned Niebuhr. This is a little bit like how I discovered opera through Bugs Bunny. Kill the wabbit.
The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
I don’t know why I liked this book so much. Probably the words. I take that back. I know why. Though written in the 1950’s, it describes modern American in a profound way. It makes a nice companion piece with Neibuhr.
The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill
Part one of Churchill’s five-part history of the Second World War, it is possibly my favorite history book. The period between the wars has always fascinated me and taught me much about diplomacy, realpolitik and the relationships that govern the world in which we live today.
Corduroy / Dandelion / Norman the Doorman (or anything by Don Freeman)
Brief children’s books, full of charm, burned into my memory from hundreds (thousands?) of readings with our kids who delighted in the stories.
All the President’s Men by Woodstein and Burnward
It could only have been better if it were a novel.
Anyone sense a theme yet? Orwell, Huxley, Neibuhr, Steinbeck, Woodward/Bernstein?
Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler / The Elements of Style by Strunk & White / A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Garner
I love words.
The Complete Collection of Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson
In terms of contributions to my intellectual life, this is high on the list. A wise-beyond-his years 6-year old and his foil, a stuffed tiger, their names chosen completely at random, of course (not). If there were Bugs Bunny books, they’d be listed here, too.
The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Meltdown
It reads like a crime novel. Oh. Wait.
Any list of books needs to include my brilliant and award-winning brother-in-law, Richard Powers. He’s a genius and has the paperwork to prove it!
So there it is, narrow as a two-lane road without a shoulder. There’s much I’ve left off that I’d love to add–books about Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, books by Calvin Trillin and David Sedaris among many others, but I will leave those for others to mention and discuss.