Tyler Cowen lists the books that have influenced him most and encourages other bloggers to do the same. Several bloggers play along. To be meta, here is a list selecting revealing books from other bloggers' lists. Cowen:
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography. This got me thinking about how one's ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime. Plus Mill is a brilliant thinker and writer more generally.
Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. Everybody’s citing it, but you know, that’s the kind of book it is. I remember sitting in a waiting lounge at Dulles International Airport reading this and feeling like I was being personally eviscerated. I was in love for the first time and she was still somewhat involved with her previous boyfriend, who was a lot taller and more athletic than me; that may have had something to do with it. But the idea of examining the value of values, looking at them skeptically as things that had evolved historically for often brute-fact instrumental reasons (i.e. because a certain value was useful to the claims on power of a certain interest group), was incredibly compelling and ruthless. Once you’ve recognized this, you can’t or shouldn’t ever be able to uncritically embrace any kind of “first principles”, ever again, without thinking about who those “first principles” serve and whom they enslave.
Dune by Frank Herbert. The Dune books connected with me deeply as a teenager. They appealed, I think, to the sense that people have profound untapped powers that discipline can draw out; e.g., Mentats, Bene Gesserit. Also, it appealed to the fantasy that I might have special awesome hidden powers, like Paul Atreides, and that they might just sort of come to me, as a gift of fate, without the hassle of all that discipline. I think this book is why I was slightly crushed when I turned 18 and realized that not only was I not a prodigy, but I wasn’t amazingly good at anything. I sometimes still chant the Litany against Fear when I’m especially nervous or panicking about something.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Frank Miller: I got my first copy of this at nine or ten years old, and I literally read and reread it until it fell apart (for a while I held it together with duct tape, but eventually I lost so many pages that it was no longer worth saving). Miller’s fusion of gruff noir sentiment and comic book action helped define the way I think about pop art and genre storytelling; sure, it’s low culture frequently crude and base but it’s executed with such verve that it somehow makes it into the upper middlebrow (or near enough) anyway.
Orwell's essays. I first read them my senior year of high school, and fell absolutely in love with the voice and the mode of analysis. This has never worn off. I associate bits of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars with this period of reading, and both are things I continue to come back to in my reading, teaching and research.
Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man. Folks on the left scorn this book, and it is not without its flaws. But ultimately, I think the left hates Shlaes not for what she gets wrong but what she gets right. What she gets right pokes huge holes in the high school book narrative of the Depression (Herbert Hoover sat back and did nothing, Roosevelt saved the economy). My takeaway from this book is the importance of the battle over historical narrative. We see that today in the determination of the left to blame the financial crisis entirely on "free-market ideology," even though that narrative is not such a good fit for the facts.
Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained: The precise content of Dennett’s ideas about human consciousness aren’t that important to me (though I agree with him), but the practical methods at work are. I’m drawn to Wittgeinstein’s thing about how you need to “show the fly the way out of the flybottle” rather than “solve” these timeless dilemmas, but I find Wittgeinstein almost impossible to read and didn’t understand what he was saying at all when I tried. Dennett I think gave me an example of the shewing.