10 Books That Changed My Life

Finally, a Facebook meme I give a crap about: 10 life-changing books you’ve read. I love books, and books have definitely changed my life, so that’s me all over. Except once I started really thinking about it, I realized that a mere list of 10 books wasn’t enough, that the books deserved an explanation of why they were on the list. Making it kinda long for a Facebook post.

1. How To Do Things With Words by JL Austin

2. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language by VN Volosinov

Language is important to me, as a writer and as a scholar, and Austin and Volosinov shaped the way I see language in a profound and lasting way. Both works look at language through the lens of power, and particularly at how we use language to exert our will – to effect change in other’s “ideologies” (to borrow Volosinov’s formulation, by which he means not just political stance but something more akin to worldview). Language – or signs in general – in Volosinov and Austin’s formulation, are not inert, simply referencing things, actions, and ideas in the world outside of language, but rather active forces in the constructing and reshaping of the world. 

3. Race: Man’s Most Dangerous Myth by Ashley Montagu

This is the book that made an anthropologist of me. Written in 1946 (thus well before the discovery, in 1974, of “women”, after which I’m sure he would have called it “humanity’s most dangerous myth”), Montagu’s book lays out in clear terms a) the lack of any biological basis for the concept of “race”, b) the idea that race is, therefore, a social construction, and c) that it is a dangerous social construction at that. Montagu would go on to head up the committee that wrote the UN Statement on Race in 1951 – which would be considered too radical and sent back for revision by less reality-based folk. A couple years later, Montagu would publish The Natural Superiority of Women (anticipating the discovery of “women” by nearly two decades!) which would cost him his job at Cornell and put him on McCarthy’s blacklist. He never held an academic appointment again.

4. Moonheart by Charles de Lint

5.Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

6. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck

These are three books I read between 12 and 14 that basically prepared me to be an anthropologist. Steinbeck’s book, with its footnotes laying out the tale of his writing of this book as well as the trials he went through after writing Grapes of Wrath was my introduction into a world where myth and legend are taken seriously as literature, as knowledge; de Lint’s book, built around the Irish legend of the bard Taliesin, hooked me on Irish myth; Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy are some of the finest English-language literature ever, and bring her anthropologically-informed eye (her father was one of the founders of American anthropology) to the construction of imagined worlds. I didn’t know it at the time, but these books nurtured in me a latent drive to examine how people make meaning of their lives and world – a drive that kicked in when I discovered anthropology in college.

7. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

About 90% of my ethics comes from Vonnegut (“Goddamit, you’ve got to be kind.”) and this is the book that introduced me to him. I used to pretend I didn’t have my gym clothes so I could sit on the sidelines and read this in gym class (I failed gym class that year….), that’s how engrossed I was. And I think some of Vonneguts weird blend of humanism and misanthropy infects me to this day – I love humanity enough to have dedicated nearly two decades to studying and teaching about it, and loathe it enough to boast of being a “misanthropologist”. So it goes…

8. Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock

This is kind of a weird selection for a fantasy and SF fan to pick from the author who gave us Elric of Melniboné, but this book had a huge impression on me when I read it at age 16. The basic story line is this: devout Catholic returns in a time machine to the time of Christ, finds out young Jesus is a drooling idiot, and takes it on himself to fulfil the Jesus story based on his extensive knowledge of Scripture. Although not very kind to religion as a concept, the book showed me how to think critically about religion – while still respecting the role it plays in people’s lives. It also taught me existential dread – because you know that once the wheel is set in motion, there’s only one way Jesus’ story can play out for the protagonist.

9. Something by Stephen Jay Gould

I don’t remember which book of Gould’s was the first I read, but at some point I read one of his collections of essays and before long I had read all his collections of essays, as well as his monographs. Like Montagu, Gould was a popularizer of science, in Gould’s case paleontology. But Gould is notable not so much for his science as for his humanism, for his explanation of how scientists think and his profound understanding of the relation between the scientist and his or her times. Gould is the benchmark of how I’d like to write.

10. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

It should have been Name of the Rose but this is the Eco I came across first, so this is the book that introduced me both to Eco and to worlds packed to the brim with meaning-laden signs. Although he’s backed off in later years (or become more subtle about it), Eco’s early novels are not just stories, they are exercises in semiotics, the study of signs or, put bluntly, how things mean. Foucault’s Pendulum takes place in a world where everything is a sign, everything has meaning – and not just meaning, but a multiplicity of meanings – and therefore conspiracies mount and divide and multiply and consume the narrative. Good stuff. Kind of explains my love of Tom Robbins, too, now that I’m thinking about it…

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