The ten books which influenced me the most
Aka the meme Tyler Cowen kickstarted:
- Star Wars: A New Hope. Not a book, but it influenced more than anything on the rest of this list. I saw it several times when I was five years old, and I've been in a science fiction frame of mind -- by which I mean a sense that things could be different, that anything was possible -- ever since.
- Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Dungeons Master's Guide. The first edition, Demon on the cover version that Gary Gygax wrote. This may be the first book I read that was way above my grade level; I think it was aimed at college kids while I was maybe eight when I first read it. There is a temptation in such situations to believe that the glimpse of the adult world you get is much more representative than it really is; all the more so if what you are reading is a book on world building. More than anything else, this book taught me to view the world generatively: whenever I learn a new fact, there is still some part of my brain that thinks, "How can I use this to be a better DM?" (Which these days another part of my brain translates into "How can I use this to sample from the space of possible worlds more accurately?") On the negative side, my writing style never really recovered from the exposure to all those Gygax-isms (i.e. and e.g. most especially).
- Commodore 64 Programmer's Reference Guide. This first hard thing that I learnt entirely on my own was 6502 assembly language, and I learnt it from this book.
- The Closing of the American Mind. These days I have no patience at all for the sort of cultural criticism done in this book, or really for any kind of cultural criticism at all come to think of it. However, this book was undoubtedly influential on me when I read it back in high school (it came out in 87, but I bought it on discount at Crown Books many months after that), in that it caused me to read a lot of classical philosophy.
- Godel, Escher, Bach. I liked this book, and definitely went through a period where I saw recursion in everything. But it is on this list mainly for the other, better books it caused me to read: Metamagical Themas, for one, but also The Mind's I, which then caused me to read all of Daniel Dennett's books. Which are all awesome.
- Chaos: Making of a New Science. The prologue of Chaos describes Mitchell Feigenbaum at Los Alamos, experimenting with 26 hour sleep schedules, working and waking whenever he wanted, getting paid to think deep thoughts. I read it and instantly knew that that is what I wanted to do when I grew up. This book also introduced me to Barnsley's "Chaos Game" algorithm for generating a Sierpinski Gasket, which led me to very successful science fair project and the joys of mathematical research.
- Michael Barnsley, Fractals Everywhere. This is the book that I know better than any other book. (Marsden & Tromba's Vector Calculus comes in second.) I know the answers to all the exercises, I read all of the references, I can tell you how many pages each section is. I can still remember buying this from the UC Berkeley bookstore while visiting the campus my senior year of high school; it cost what seemed at the time to be the ungodly amount of $40. Of my own money, even!
- The Mathematical Experience. My high school math teacher Doug Hazlett gave me this book as a graduation present, and while it would be overstating the case to say that it made me want to become a mathematician -- at the time, my preference was for cognitive science -- it definitely planted the seed in my mind. Which is slightly ironic, given that I'm fairly sure one of Philip Davis's aims for this book was to demystify and deglamorize what mathematicians do.
- Free to Choose, Milton & Rose Friedman. Believe it or not, my political views were mostly liberal through high school. For the 1988 Constitutional Competition, for example, I remember defending a quite expansive reading of congressional and judicial power, as long as they were used "in the public good". (I was always something of a contrarian, though, and pretended to support Reagan in 84 so as to horrify my friends.) Reading Rand didn't make me a libertrarian, and neither did reading Nozick. (That said, I am in the small minority who thinks Anarchy, State and Utopia is a better piece of political philosophy than Rawl's Theory Of Justice.) This book's calm, relentless and empirical arguments did.
- Richard Posner, Sex & Reason. A revelation; it changed the way I think about sex and human behaviour in general.
- Judith Harris, The Nurture Assumption. I'd probably parent in mostly the same style that I do now had I not read this book, but I'm grateful for whatever the extent that it has shifted me away from trying to mold my child and towards simple kindness.