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My favorite books -- or not

Matt Yglesias, Tyler Cowen and an array of other bloggish luminaries are running through the lists of books that most influenced their thinking.

I've written this sort of thing before. The mainstays on my list are John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," Tom Geoghegan's "Which Side Are You On?," Abraham Joshua Heschel's "Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity," Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" and maybe a handful of others.

But I always feel like a fraud.

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking -- particularly in my current thinking -- than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that's consistently present in my approach to new issues.

Much of my emphasis on the institutions of American government and the processes by which they work (or don't) came from my relationship with Mark Schmitt, first through his blog and then through his editorship at the American Prospect. That was cemented, of course, by reporting deeply on health-care reform, which is an opportunity that TAP gave me but that few other outlets would've been even mildly interested in letting me pursue. I consider reading the blogger Demosthenes use the word "props" in relation to politics as something near to an epiphany; it was the first time I realized that I could speak about Washington in a language I recognized.

Going forward, I wonder how common canons like mine will become. Twenty years ago, someone with my interests would've spent a lot more time reading books because blogs simply didn't exist yet. Magazines were around, but the advent of the Web led to daily content, so I've also spent more time reading those. But I can't deny it: So much as I love my favorite books, the biggest influences in my thinking have been the continuous intellectual relationships I've had with blogs, periodicals and other people. Books aren't even that close.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 19, 2010; 12:46 PM ET
Categories:  Books  
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Comments

"Practical Ethics", 2nd ed.

Posted by: AZProgressive | March 19, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Yep, I'm the same way. I spend at least 2-3 hours a day reading blogs, newspapers, and magazines, and I read probably 3-4 books cover-to-cover on policy/politics throughout an entire year. That said, notable books (Nudge and The Coming Generational Storm come to mind) have certainly shifted my views more than any single blog post, newspaper article, or magazine article.

Posted by: al444 | March 19, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

good to know who to blame :-)

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 19, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

a good list to be sure, but where are your favorite female bloggers, ezra?

Posted by: alessandra_barbadoro | March 19, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Funny how, despite all those fancy liberal books the elitists pretend they "like", the rednecks keep outsmarting them at the polls.

For me? Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Don't need anyone or any book to teach me how to think or be compassionate. I just want entertainment.

Posted by: Lomillialor | March 19, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes Stephen Holmes, Cass R. Sunstein

Posted by: donhalljobs | March 19, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

--"But I always feel like a fraud."--

You are a fraud, Klein. You're a lightweight hoodwinked by his own stupidity.

Posted by: msoja | March 19, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Stay classy, msoja!

Posted by: CatfishHunter | March 19, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Timely that the issue of "books" is here today. Just yesterday I found myself wondering if you plan to write a book some day (I think you should) about the trials and tribulations associated with the passage of HCR. Personally, I found this entire year-long process to be fascinating from so many perspectives (policy, psychology, human behavior in the social environment, institutions and governance, history), but primarily the politics.

At the very least, or in addition, I think you should write a "Guide to the Health Care Reform Act", a simple, straightforward explanation of what's in the Law, which would be bought and distributed by the Government, once the bill is enacted, so that citizens can better understand and navigate the new system.

Posted by: onewing1 | March 19, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

--"Stay classy, msoja!"--

I could never fall to the level of an ignorant propagandist like Klein.

//cite
Democrats removed the so-called doc fix from the reform legislation last year because its $371-billion price tag would have made it impossible for Democrats to claim that their bill reduces the deficit. Republicans have argued for months that by stripping the doc fix from the bill, Democrats were playing a shell game.

“Most health staff are already aware that our health proposal does not contain a 'doc fix.' … The inclusion of a full SGR repeal would undermine reform’s budget neutrality. So again, do not allow yourself (or your boss) to get into a discussion of the details of CBO scores and textual narrative. Instead, focus only on the deficit reduction and number of Americans covered,” the memo, sent Thursday to Democratic staff, said.
“As most health staff knows, leadership and the White House are working with the AMA to rally physicians for a full SGR repeal later this spring. However, both health and communications staff should understand we do not want that policy discussion discussed at this time, lest (it) complicate the last critical push to pass health reform,” according to the memo.
//end cite
http://www.politico.com/livepulse/0310/EXCLUSIVE__Democrats_plan_doc_fix_after_reform.html?showall

Posted by: msoja | March 19, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I agree, blogs are fantastic. As I wrote in a comment on another blog:

Another great thing about blogs I'd like to note is that they have tremendous power to de-bunk and teach. Before, if someone said something that was false, or a bad argument, it often was not debunked publicly. Paper newspapers have little space and journalists are not analysts and specific experts in areas. Columnists can only publish once or twice a week and have very small space limits, like 300-500 words. On TV news, they usually only give enough time for sound bites, often not nearly enough time to show the flaws in an argument.

But on a blog, you can respond to false or flawed arguments instantly, and take as much space as necessary to show the flaws. And there's not the severe limit to the number of bloggers that there is to columnists in a paper newspaper. Trusted experts and specialists in any field can have a blog, or post comments, or guest posts, or emails, and be extremely capable of debunking false arguments in their area. This clearly has not been kind to the Republicans.

at: https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=7658874470833994309&postID=1510216479458420244

But, for comprehensiveness, thoroughness, and depth on a subject, books can be much better. To really get better on economics, aside from texts and classes (if you can justify the time some time in the future), I strongly recommend Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman's books for laypeople -- extremely intuitive and clear. I would start with Peddling Prosperity, and The Conscience of Liberal is a fantastic piece of economic history and political economy.

I also strongly recommend Harvard's Elizabeth Warren's, "The Two Income Trap" and "All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan", which I think is by far the best personal finance book today (I assign it to my students at the University of Arizona cover to cover). These books will really help you understand the plight of the middle class today, what's went wrong, and how to fix it.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | March 19, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

@RichardHSerlin:

You make excellent points about blogs v. books. I agree with you 100%. And thanks for the reading suggestions. I'll add these to my list of books to read this summer.

Posted by: onewing1 | March 19, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Most books influenced me by elaborating a hunch that mathematics can't describe the entire universe and that it is not necessary for all science.

My basic bibliography is way down the left side of this page: http://www.youtube.com/leearnold

I couldn't get it down to fewer than eleven here. The last three are narrative inventions which taught me to gather the nerve:

Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature -- a textbook really, with new definitions of "information" and "mind" leading to a list and discussion of the elementary principles of mind, ecosystems, learning and evolution.

Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power, and Society -- flow-charts applied to energy flows in ecological and social systems; print precursor to Ecolanguage.

Erich Jantsch and Conrad H. Waddington, editors, Evolution and Consciousness: Human Systems in Transition -- rather a grab-bag collection about self-transcending systems, hierarchy, dissipative structures, autopoiesis, spontaneous order, scientific method, global complexity and cultural change. Yet nothing remotely as interesting or inclusive has appeared since.

Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition -- epistemology of self-construction by organisms. Crucially inverted all previous ideas about the nature of "information."

Anthony Wilden, System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange -- overview of structuralism applied to ideas of self-consciousness in systems, circa 1970. A book that influenced me for what I was unable to conclude from it.

Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory -- history of an ancient mental technique for orators, up to its graphical importance for pre-science in the early modern period.

Lewis S. Feuer, Einstein and the Generations of Science -- Kuhnian history of the social roots of the physical theories of relativity and quantum theory. Gave me the distinct feeling that ideas are pattern-shapes with recurring internal dynamics.

Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Pathways Through to Space -- greatest 20th-century U.S. mystic describes the personal intellectual process to higher consciousness.

Alfred Jarry, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician -- short, profound, hilarious entertainment and an astounding conception. Also an anticipation of all the 20th century's thematic and narrative developments, written in 1895. (Origin of the fun-word "pataphysics," the "science of imaginary solutions" or the "science of exceptions to the rule." E.g. "John was quizzical, studied pataphysical science in the home" from the Beatles song, Maxwell's Silver Hammer. McCartney was into Jarry.)

Jean Cocteau, Opium -- short and indelible diary of his cure in a clinic, with line drawings.

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake -- greatest writer in English since Shakespeare and Milton, secured his position by creating something very rare in any artistic medium: a new audience effect.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | March 19, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

msoja:

If you feel like that, why do you bother?
When I feel a site is useless, I just stop going there. My time is too valuable. Like I stopped going to Politico unless I want to know what the wingnuts are saying... the ones who can string three comprehensible sentences together.

Again, why bother?
Just curious.

Posted by: grat_is | March 19, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Abso-frickin-lutely. There's a list of books that I would consider great reading- "The Elegant Universe" for phyics, "The Language Instinct", "The Rise and Fall Of Great Powers," "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" - seriously good stuff.

But blogs are responsive, which is brilliant. To add to RichardHSerlin's point, I think the value of blogs is that you get to see first-hand the evolution of thought. Think of the insight you'd gain if you could watch Newton think from day to day, or listen in as Watson and Crick struggled with the double-helix . Blogs aren't just about noting the failing's in the arguments of others - they're about responding to your own.

I'm not saying that the current crop of bloggers are the level of genius in the prior paragraph - but who cares? Maybe someday they will be, and that would be better for society all around.

Posted by: strawman | March 19, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

msoja: It's times like this I can only reference Patrick O'Brien. "Never has someone derived so much pleasure from such a small stream of wit."

Posted by: strawman | March 19, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

--"unless I want to know what the wingnuts are saying"--

The perversity that that represents amazes me. Including its own case in point, too. Klein has been lying for months about the CBO scores, never once that I know of questioning the probable reality that will render worthless the carefully crafted numbers and all his arguments, and a news site comes up with a memo exploding the lie behind one of the biggest purported savings, and your first instinct is to hide your head in the sand because of what amounts to dim bigotry and bias. You can't face the truth. Klein can't face the truth. The Politico, GASP! LIES! LA LA LA LA LIES!

Klein's reading list underlines what his months of postings irrevocably demonstrate: He's a liar and cheap propagandist, and has no understanding or respect for the idea of freedom, or of any of the other grand ideas that humanity has dogged across the ages. As he himself says at the top, his character is of the depth of a glossy magazine, and that's about it.

"Grapes of Wrath"??? That's the one the girls fall in love with in college, innit?

Listen, I've got a large number of Steinbeck's works on the shelves here, including "Grapes" and "Eden", and I like Steinbeck swell, particularly "Travels with Charley", "Tortilla Flat", "Cannery Row", and "The Winter of Our Discontent", but he's hardly earth shaking. Unless he's written the thickest book you're forced to read to satisfy some bare English requirement, I guess.

Posted by: msoja | March 19, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

Ha! And the Politico memo was a hoax! Or was it? And whose hoax? No one is saying.

And yet, if it was fake, was it accurate, too?

Today, the AMA endorsed the Dem's latest gambit, but with the strong promise to work on exactly that which was the memo's subject.

Does anyone really believe the AMA would endorse such a big boondoggle and NOT expect to have a the SGR carbuncle removed from its nose for the trouble? Of course, I've long contended that doctors are political morons.

p.s. Decades ago, I had a sign in my business that read, "If you want lower prices, stop electing lawyers and doctors to the legislature." These days, I would throw in Insurance Salesmen, too.

Posted by: msoja | March 19, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Hi Ezra-
I think a great list would be "blogs that influenced the books that influenced my thinking". I get so many ideas of what books I have missed that are worth going back for and books coming out that I should make time for from the blogs I read. Ok, and the Daily Show.

Posted by: cminmd1 | March 20, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Word.

Posted by: bruinseattrojans | March 20, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

msoja opines
Most health staff are already aware that our health proposal does not contain a 'doc fix'

Well, since the Dems passed Pay-Go, if they are going to have a "Doc Fix" this year, they'll have to find revenues or cuts to offset the expense.
The argument doesn't have anything to do with the HCR since it's goal wasn't to enshrine yearly pay raises for Doctors.

Posted by: dijetlo | March 20, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

msoja- "..but he's hardly earth shaking." How does this prove anything? Literature is a subjective medium, and yes many are first introduced to Steinbeck as required reading but this doesn't diminish his impact on his readers or the point "Grapes of Wrath" set out to make. Steinbeck is not one of my great favorites either but neither is Dickens, for example, who some consider to be a genius. If you wanted to complain about the Healthcare bill, there are plenty of other blog posts on which to do it. Attempting to demonstrate what an intellectual shell Mr. Klein is by slighting his taste in literature is weak.

Posted by: SashaAriane | March 22, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Currently getting my MPA and I have always been fascinated with policy but before that like you Ezra I liked politics. It’s interesting to watch pundits or politicians and breakdown what they are saying because now I am familiar with the process and policy. One book that really helped me with the policy analysis is Debora Stone’s Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making great read.

Posted by: SD619 | March 22, 2010 11:59 PM | Report abuse

I'm really surprised to see someone make this sort of admission in print. Wasn't Klein only recently walking around a college campus somewhere as a student? Did he not read anything that was assigned or make any effort to explore even the more user friendly section of the western canon? To discuss this so candidly seems to indicate he doesn't see his lack of learning as a problem.

Magazines and blogs are fine but only as a companion to things of greater depth and importance. You'd think he could name at least some basic works of history or literature that shaped his views on public policy. Or maybe something in political science or philosophy. He's essentially admitting he has developed no intellectual foundation beyond what he has picked up from opinion journalism he found interesting.

I must say I will keep Klein's admission in mind each time I hear him attempt to discuss policy. I'll probably remember that college freshman have opinions too and that, after they, you know, read stuff, their opinions carry considerably more weight. This is the reward that comes with developing some critical thinking skills.

Posted by: jsloan1 | March 23, 2010 1:12 AM | Report abuse

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