For any thinking person, there are bound to be a handful of books that had such a powerful impact on them that they have returned to them again and again throughout their lives. I thought it would be interesting to hear what books my readers would identify for them, so I’ll start by reposting something I wrote a few years ago on the subject at my old blog, with a few updates.
A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing by HL Mencken. I recently had to reorder a new copy of this book as the old one was so worn out from reading and rereading. It’s a book that I still return to again and again and continue to find new insight in. Many of the things he wrote about America nearly a century ago are as fresh and accurate today as the day he wrote them. Mencken may well be the single finest wordsmith this country has ever produced. Like Christopher Hitchens, he was capable of producing a staggering amount of work in a very short time frame, each sentence absolutely perfect, with not a word out of place.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. The book that shaped my political views more than any other. The book that gave me the single axiomatic core of my entire view of the world, both morally and politically — the notion that we must protect for others the very liberty that we cherish for ourselves and that it is profoundly immoral to do otherwise. If this heathen felt the need to have an equivalent to the Bible, it would be this book.
Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other by Nat Hentoff. Another book I have returned to again and again — and another book that has helped form the very core of my political beliefs. I was lucky enough to have Nat on my radio show twice, once talking about the Bill of Rights and once talking about jazz. At the end of the second show, he called me his “soul brother.” Nat has his heresies that leave me baffled (he is anti-choice on abortion, for example), but few have done as much to the meaning of the Bill of Rights to life over the last six decades plus.
These first three books all have something very much in common, of course, and it is from them that I derive my overriding passion for human liberty. When I first read this passage from Mencken, I felt as though I had finally found the perfect expression of my own views:
What do I primarily believe in, as a Puritan believes in Hell? I believe in liberty. And when I say liberty, I mean the thing in its widest imaginable sense – liberty up to the extreme limits of the feasible and the tolerable. I am against forbidding anybody to do anything, or say anything, or think anything, so long as it is at all possible to imagine a habitable world in which he would be free to do, say and think it. The burden of proof, as I see it, is always upon the lawmaker, the theologian, the right-thinker. He must prove his case doubly, triply, quadruply, and then he must start all over and prove it again. The eye through which I view him is watery and jaundiced. I do not pretend to be “just” to him – any more than a Christian pretends to be just to the Devil. He is the enemy of everything I admire and respect in this world – of everything that makes it various and amusing and charming. He impedes every honest search for the truth. He stands against every sort of good will and common decency. His ideal is that of an animal trainer, an archbishop, a major-general in the Army. I am against him until the last galoot’s ashore.This simple and childlike faith in the freedom and dignity of man – here, perhaps, stated with undue rhetoric – should be obvious, I should think, to every critic above the mental backwardness of a Federal judge. Nevertheless, very few of them, anatomizing my books, have ever showed any sign of detecting it…
For liberty, when one ascends to the levels where ideas swish by and men pursue Truth to grab her by the tail, is the first thing and the last thing. So long as it prevails the show is thrilling and stupendous; the moment it fails the show is a dull and dirty farce.
The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins. Since reading this book, I have met Dawkins several times, shared amiable conversation and had a dispute or two. But this book remains as one of the best books ever written on the subject of evolution and common descent.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. One of the best popular treatments of science and rational thinking ever written. And even before that, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science had a similar influence on me.
Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James Randi. I read this not long after seeing Randi on the Tonight Show exposing Peter Popoff as a fraud. It was already several years old at the time, but this was my first real introduction to skepticism.
Okay, your turn.