Some Books that Have Influenced Me during the Past Decade

2021-10-16 • 6 min read

Number fifteen Tamarisk Row, green of a shade that has never been seen in Australia, orange of shadeless plains and pink of naked skin, for the hope of discovering something rare and enduring that sustains a man and his wife at the centre of what seems to be no more than stubborn plains where they spend long uneventful years waiting for the afternoon when they and the whole of a watching city see in the last few strides of a race what it was all for.[1]

– Gerald Murnane

Since 2011, I keep a record of every book that I finish reading. Some of these books were mere entertainment, some were excruciatingly boring (I’m looking at you, Mia Couto’s Sleepwalking Land, and the hours you stole from me that I’ll never get back), some were educational (gold star for Alex Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution which could have been included here) and some of them good and interesting and that’s it. A few, though, I can look back on and see that they have deeply influenced the way I think, write, act and feel. Here are some of those.

Tamarisk Row #

I read Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row (1974) in the summer of 2013. I have written about Tamarisk Row before. It was not the first book I read by the man who is now my favourite writer – that was The Plains (1982) – but it was the first that I really loved and understood. I quickly followed it up with Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs (2005) and Barley Patch (2009) which got me to suspect that Murnane was the greatest prose writer since World War II, and perhaps ever. I still have that suspicion, and if you want an idea of why, try reading his essay on learning Hungarian.

The books are very beautiful. The man knows how to write a sentence. But to me they are also comforting. The comfort comes from Murnane’s narrators’ descriptions of natural landscapes, from their preference for outsiders, exiles and underdogs, from their pointing out the sublime in a race-horse that overtakes its competition in the last furlong and not least from their confidence in following their taste and inclinations wherever they may lead. The comfort is similar to the one I get from reading fantasy. I never took much interest in Robert E. Howard or any of his novels, which the critics label kitsch, anyway – and correctly so, maybe – but I was intrigued when I learned that the famous author of sword-and-sorcery pulp was inspired to create the fantasy land of Cimmeria when he looked out over a hill-country swathed in misty winter rain. Murnane describes a parallel world, too, but, to paraphrase Paul Éluard, it is in this one.

Whenever I doubt that anything means anything, I can go to the place I have accorded him in my bookshelf and look at the spines of his books and know that something, at least, means something. The late polymath George Steiner advised his students – they would be studying to become critics or something like that – that if they didn’t have an author by whom they collected and read everything, even the mediocre stuff, then they should find a different career. For me, Gerald Murnane is that author.

War and Peace #

After a year of reading, sometimes intensely and sometimes lazily, I finished Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) in 2014. That is not to say that it was anything but a pleasure; I have read blog posts that felt more like a slog than War and Peace. Again, this was not the first book I read by the author – that was Hadji Murat (1912). But while I very much enjoyed Hadji Murat, to War and Peace it is as an evening breeze to a hurricane.

I would have been reading quite a lot of radical feminist writing at that time, and I think – though of course Tolstoy was far from feminist, as Andrea Dworkin makes clear – that Tolstoy’s philosophy and the Dworkin brand of radical feminism have in common a sternness, a woundedness, an urgency and a deeply felt compassion that impressed me. In many ways, Tolstoy’s was the opposite of the modern rationalist and effective altruist projects, but he was more flexible than he might have seemed, and he was able, in his novels at least, to pass emotional and ideological Turing tests.

Still, I guess the main thing about the Count is his soul-stirringly clear and beautiful prose, which gives life to everything it touches. After reading War and Peace, I went on to read various short stories, essays and Anna Karenina (1877), as well as Henri Troyat’s magisterial biography.

The World as Will and Representation #

The third book is Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818), which I completed in 2017. I think I was already interested in Schopenhauer by the time I read War and Peace, but coincidentally (or not?) Tolstoy was also at one point an admirer:

Do you know what this summer has meant for me? Constant raptures over Schopenhauer and a whole series of spiritual delights which I’ve never experienced before. […] No student has ever studied so much on his course, and learned so much, as I have this summer.[2]

Like Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, besides being an interesting philosopher, was also a prose stylist without equal. His writing is proof that clarity and poetic beauty are not opposed to one another. It might even be proof that clarity and mysticism can grow on the same patch of land.

I don’t think I ever fully believed all the metaphysical claims Schopenhauer makes, but even if his monism isn’t literally true, in the sense that a metaphysical Will lurks beneath appearances, propelling all change on earth, I still think there is some truth to monism. Only these days I would express it more like Kant’s Formula of Universal Law. When you wrong somebody, in some sense you are wronging yourself. Schopenhauer would say that’s because you and the other are both representations of the same underlying Will; Kant would say it is because you are violating a rule that is there to protect you too.

The astute reader might have noticed that the authors chosen so far have a few things in common. They have all written admirably transparent prose, they have all dealt with the mystical or transcendental and they have all been – maybe with the partial exception of Tolstoy – outsiders in some sense. Many years have passed since I last felt lonely, but I don’t think I will ever stop feeling like an outsider, so it is no surprise that I should have been drawn to these three.

Edge of Irony #

I bought and read Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony (2016; subtitle Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire) after reading Adam Kirsch’s article in The New York Review of Books. I must have read the article in 2017, but I didn’t read the book until 2019. Perloff describes how six authors, writing during the dying gasp of the contradictory and multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire, used irony to achieve their ends. She opened my eyes to the power and pleasure of irony. More importantly, she opened my eyes to some really terrific Modernist writers springing from the Habsburg Empire, foremost among them perhaps Robert Musil, but also Karl Kraus and Joseph Roth among others. I would soon go on to read parts one and two of Musil’s The Man without Qualities, Roth’s The Radetzky March and so on.

Inventing the Future #

In 2019, I read Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work (2015). Srnicek and Williams basically propose a utopian project to implement a Universal Basic Income along with wide-ranging automation in an effort to end the evils of wage labour. Although I have some worries about how a generous Universal Basic Income can be paid for and about how the incentive structure would work out, I still think this is basically desirable and pretty realistic for a utopia.

Funnily, this was, for me, an unintentional precursor of and preparation for rationalism and effective altruism, partly because it argued that what it called “folk politics” – prioritising the local over the global, the tactical over the strategic, the spectacular over the effective, etc. – was ineffective (I agreed), praised the effectiveness of Hayek and his Mont Pelerin Society (I admired their focus on what worked), did the research, cited the sources, argued honestly and clearly, etc.

But it also led me to rationalism and effective altruism in a much more concrete way. Some time after finishing it, I searched the web for reviews of it and found one on this blog called Slate Star Codex. I remember being impressed by how even-handed and clear the reviewer was, how deeply he had understood the source material and how fair his objections to it were, even if he seemed to be of a different political persuasion than I (him being more centrist and libertarian-leaning). This took me on a journey of discovery in which I gobbled up rationalist and effective altruist writings far and wide, and I think as a consequence I have changed my mind and attitudes more during the last couple of years than during the whole decade that preceded them.

Footnotes #

  1. Murnane, G. (2008). Tamarisk Row. Giramondo Publishing. ↩︎

  2. See the Wikipedia article on Tolstoy. ↩︎