Daniel W. Drezner

The ten books that influenced me

So I see the blog meme of the month is Tyler Cowen’s "the top 10 books which have influenced your view of the world."  All the old cool bloggers are doing it.  The hard-working staff here at the blog likes to keep up with all the latest internet traditions.  Having read and watched High Fidelity, I’m ...

So I see the blog meme of the month is Tyler Cowen’s "the top 10 books which have influenced your view of the world."  All the old cool bloggers are doing it

The hard-working staff here at the blog likes to keep up with all the latest internet traditions.  Having read and watched High Fidelity, I’m keenly aware of all the ways I’d be tempted to go all obscure-y in my references.  So, here are my "gut response" books, in roughly the chronological order I encountered them: 

1)  Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition.  My 11th grade U.S. history teacher assigned this book in addition to the standard textbook.  It certainly provided a more nuanced view of certain historical figures than you got in the textbook.  More importantly, Hofstadter knew how to write well.  This was the first book I ever read where it occurred to me that nonfiction could be as interesting to read as fiction. 

2)  Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation.  I didn’t know anything about game theory before reading this book for a summer school course.  After reading this book I was fascinated by it. 

3)  Douglas Adams, The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  A sense of whimsy, of intellectual play, is a necessary condition for staying sane in the universe.  Douglas Adams is Whimsy 101 through Advanced Theory of Whimsy.  Plus, when I grow up I want to be Oolon Colluphid.   

4) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A lot of people have put Genealogy of Morals on their lists because Nietzsche was the first person they read who pointed out that morals might have an instrumental and particularistic motivation.  I’m not sure Kuhn is completely correct in his vivisection of how science works, but it was only after reading this book that I began to recognize the instrumental, cognitive, and sociological dimensions of scientists.   

5)  P.J. O’Rourke, Holidays in Hell.  Click here to see why O’Rourke’s first collection of essays was partly responsible for my decision to get a Ph.D. 

6)  Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.  Everyone focuses on the end of this book, with the exaggerated statements about U.S. "imperial overstretch."  What hooked me was the first 95% of the book, in which Kennedy went through 500 years of history to demonstrate the essential link between economic power and military power, and the ways in which hegemonic actors ineluctably overreach and overextend themselves.  The first chapter, which discusses why Europe and not China rose to global dominance from 1500 on, was what turned me onto economic history.  From here I went to David Landes’ The Unbound Prometheus, Rosenberg & Birdzell’s How the West Grew Rich, Joelk Mokyr’s Lever of Riches, etc…

7)  Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker.  Lewis has expressed befuddlement that people still wanted to go into finance after reading his book — which makes me wonder if he read what he wrote.  True, Liar’s Poker is not exactly a paean to finance, but the book does capture the raw energy that comes with the good and the bad of financial innovation.  For my own intellectual development, the book was also surprisingly useful:  I’ll now always be able to say that I got an A+ from Joe Stiglitz  for a game-theoretic explanation of some of the phenomena Lewis talked about in the book.  The lesson I drew from that; inspiration can come from even the most popular of books. 

8)  Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations.  This was Olson’s sequel to The Logic of Collective Action, and basically argued that over time, political stability breeds interest group capture, which breeds economic sclerosis.  I don’t quite buy the argument in the same way that I did when I first read it.  What was appealing about the book, however, was the elegance of the argument and evidence.  It’s just a great, simple argument

9) Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War.  In the early nineties I spent a year in eastern Ukraine, where sources of entertainment that did not involve vodka were extremely scarce .  So I brought two books that I knew I had to read at some point but had yet to finish:  the Old Testament and Thucydides.  The first one had a great beginning, but I confess that I got bogged down in Leviticus.  The second book has held my attention ever since.  It’s analytical history rather than political science, but the entire tapestry of human behavior is on display in that book.  Far, far too many people who consider themselves experts in international relations have read nothing from Thucydides except the Melian Dialogue — and they are poorer for it. 

10)  Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty.   I’ve mined Hirschman throughout my own professional career, and I could have put at least four of his books on this list.  This one makes the list for three reasons.  First, it’s Hirschman’s most wide-ranging in terms of its applicability — it can apply to any organization at any level of society.  Second, I relied on it heavily when developing the domestic politics portion of All Politics Is Global.  Third, it’s a great example of an idea that was simultaneously original but, once you thought about it, became completely intuitive. 

Looking at the list, I notice three trends:  1)  a lot more nonfiction than fiction; 2)  all of these books have clear prose styles — they are accessible to both scholars and non-scholars; and 3) the books that captured my attention were interesting for their intellectual style as much as their content. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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