10 Books That Have Stayed With Me

There’s a meme going around Facebook where people list 10 books that have stayed with them over the years, but why put it on Facebook when I put it on the blog and provide links to all the books and reach more people? So here goes, my list of books, in no particular order.

1. Mencken Chrestomathy (Vintage) by HL Mencken. I’ve read this book, or portions of it, so many times that I’ve worn out two copies and am now on my third. Mencken was one of America’s greatest wordsmiths. And while some of the language and attitudes may seem dated, his analysis of what is wrong with America politically and culturally is often painfully accurate.

2. Free Speech for Me–But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other by Nat Hentoff. Another book I’ve read so many times that I’ve had to order new ones after the old ones have worn out. Nat has some beliefs that make me cringe, but on free speech and the Bill of Rights there’s no one better. Had a big influence on my thinking.

3. United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal. Around the same time that Mencken died in the early 50s, Gore Vidal began writing essays and proved Mencken’s equal as a wordsmith. This is a collection of essays he wrote between 1952 and 1992, ending thankfully before he slid over the edge and into the abyss of conspiracy theories and self-parody. There are so many essays in this collection that will challenge the way you think about the country.

4. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins. This is Dawkins at his very best, explaining the science of evolution with remarkable clarity.

5. DARWIN’S DANGEROUS IDEA: EVOLUTION AND THE MEANINGS OF LIFE by Daniel Dennett. This book, for me, picks up where Dawkins’ book above stops. Dennett provides a number of crucial concepts, like the difference between skyhooks and cranes, to help us understand how natural selection operates as a sort of “universal acid.”

6. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I recommend this book so often to so many people that I’m in danger of becoming a bore about it, but it’s difficult to overstate how much it has helped me understand how human beings, myself included, think. This book is absolutely crucial for understanding why we should remain skeptical even, perhaps especially, of our own beliefs and opinions. It helps us understand who easily we all fall into cognitive traps and fool ourselves through the use of cognitive shortcuts, false assumptions, tribal thinking, confirmation bias that make us defend false beliefs even in the face of clear evidence. An absolute must-read book for any person who wants to think more rationally.

7.The Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novel by Tom Wolfe. This is not a light read, nor is it likely to leave you very hopeful. Every single character in the book is loathsome, but in entirely mundane ways. They aren’t openly evil, they’re selfish and interested only in how they can benefit from a tragic situation. Another book that will give you insight into human nature that you’d really rather not be true. Also, the only novel on this list.

8. The Age of Reason (Optimized for Kindle) by Thomas Paine. One of the true classics of the Enlightenment, written by the only man to play prominent roles in two major revolutions, American and French.

9. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. I have always found the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to be utterly fascinating. They wrote the Declaration of Independence together and helped create the nation, then became bitter rivals politically. But after both retired from active public life, they began a remarkable friendship through letters sent between 1813 and 1826, when both died on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the official adoption of the Declaration. This book also includes letters sent to and from Abigail Adams, John’s absolutely brilliant wife.

10. On Liberty and Other Essays (Oxford World’s Classics) by John Stuart Mill. This book really shaped my thinking on the question of the freedom and self-determination that every person should have and the proper limits of state coercion. A true classic.

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  • aziraphale

    Reason (Optimized for Kindle)?

    I suppose that means your arguments don’t belong to you, and Amazon can invalidate them whenever it wishes.

    I’ll take the print edition, thanks.

  • rabbitscribe

    My well-worn copy of A Mencken Chrestomathy entered a well-earned retirement when Library of America published Prejudices 1-6 complete in two volumes:


    They’re my favorite books these days- check them out.

    So, speaking of “remain(ing) skeptical even, perhaps especially, of our own beliefs and opinions…” any thoughts on the dumbest lawyer in America cleaning the NSA’s clock in federal court, winning the civil liberties case of the decade, and making headlines nationwide? πŸ˜‰

  • Larry

    My list

    1. Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey

    2. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

    3. Hawaii – James Michner

    4. Beyond the Hundredth Meridian – Wallace Stegner

    5. Men to Match My Mountains – Irving Stone

    6. Two Years Before the Mast – Richard Henry Dana

    7. Rendevous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke

    8. Ringworld – Larry Nivan

    9. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown

    10. Barbarians at the Gate – Brian Burrough/John Helyar

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Mencken Chrestomathy to you too, and best wishes for the new year.

  • erichoug

    7. Rendevous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke

    Seriously?! – Possibly the most overrated Sci Fi Book I ever read.

    Check out Ship of Fools, by Paul Russo. Truly enigmatic and bizarre first contact story.

  • Michael Heath


    I think many of your readers would appreciate an update on your reading the Mark Twain autobiographies. I recall you looking forward to those volumes being published. That’s make for a great weekend post.

    My favorite book on evolution, which is ready-made for re-referencing since it’s in a text-book format, is Carl Zimmer’s Tangled Bank. I’ve read a slew of books on evolution, seven alone during the 150th anniversary year after some Darwin milestone I’ve since forgotten. All were great books, but Zimmer’s is a broad review and ready-made for reference. It’s one of my most treasured personal possessions, even when considering items that aren’t books.

    Disappointingly, I’ve yet to read a great book on AGW. Given the level of the threat, you’d think there’d be a plethora of books both explaining the science along with books by economists and other social scientists reporting the implications of AGW. And while I’ve read a number of these books, I’m reading Overheated now, all were fundamentally flawed in some manner. The best I’ve read is Archer and Rahmstorf’s The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change; however I found that effort also fundamentally flawed. It’s out-dated now given the new IPCC publications whereas this was the 2007 reports. My review here: http://goo.gl/BN9lyo

  • eric

    A couple of mine (no time to give it serious thought):

    Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority.”

    Keelyn’s “War Before Civilization”

  • wscott

    “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)” would definitely be on my list as well. The only book I refer people to more often is probably Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels Of Our Nature,” and only because I read it more recently.

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller–after reading it, I understood gummint.

    Another vote for “Bonfire of the Vanities.” My wife hated it, but it is an amazing portrait of the banality of evil.

    “The Plague,” by Albert Camus. This book is the only reason why I hold out any hope that we will emerge on the other side of the climate change catastrophe with anything resembling a civilization.

    “Probability: The Logic of Science,” by Ed Jaynes.

    “The Civil War,” by Shelby Foote.

    “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” by Edward Abbey.

    “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by Jared Diamond.

    “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” and “Dark Sun,” by Richard Rhodes

    “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, ” by Anne Tyler, which made me understand my family

    My Abnormal Psych text–which taught me how to deal with my fellow physicists

  • Sastra

    Stayed with me over the years? Hmm. Off the top of my head and in no order:

    1.) Uncommon Sense: the heretical nature of science by Alan Cromer

    2.) A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester

    3.) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dewnnett

    4.) The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

    5.) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

    6.) The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

    7.) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – by Betty Smith

    8.) Innocents Abroad — by Mark Twain

    9.) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

    10.) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    If I think about it any more I’ll probably change it. It’s a bizarre assortment. But these are books I find myself thinking about when I’m not thinking specifically about books.

  • Robert Parson

    Minor error in #8: Paine was not the only person to play major roles in both the American and French Revolutions; the Marquis de Lafayette was the leader of the National Guard in the latter. He was also involved in the Second French Revolution (1830.)

  • mobius

    After you tweaked my curiosity, I went to Manybooks.net to see which if any of these were available there. For those that don’t know, Manybooks is a site that provides downloads of out-of-copyright books in quite a number of e-book formats. Most of the books come from The Gutenberg Project.

    Sadly, the Gutenberg Project providing free downloads means they don’t have any budget for editing. They seem to mostly run the print books through an OCR and just use the file that emerges. This means that there can be some annoying aspects to the e-book that results. I always feel, though, that I can always delete an overly annoying text. Most of the ones I have read have been acceptable as far as I am concerned.

    While I did find a number of books by the authors you listed, including seven early works by Mencken, the only one of your books available was Mill’s Age of Reason…which I promptly downloaded along with a couple of other of Mill’s works.

  • typecaster

    I’d add The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, and de Toquebille’s Democracy in America. I’ve lost a number of copies of the first from loaning it out; and have a copy of the second in it’s unedited version, which isn’t the one most commonly available.

    And Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid for reasons having nothing to do with politics.

    Check out Ship of Fools, by Paul Russo. Truly enigmatic and bizarre first contact story.

    I had a rather different reaction to this one – it hit the wall at high velocity. The human ship you see originally is fascinating, both in culture and history, and the characters were compelling. But the aliens they meet are just stock horror-story monsters, who have no motivation shown for their malevolence, and just seem to be there to jump out and kill people for no particular reason. Because they’re, y’know, aliens! Monster killing spree stories are fine, if one’s taste runs that way, but the lead up to meeting them promised so much more. De gustibus.

  • freehand

    1. Stranger in a Strange Land – Heinlein

    2. The True Believer – Eric Hoffer

    3. Pudd’nhead Wilson – Mark Twain

    4. Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin

    5. The Wisdom of Insecurity – Alan Watts

    6. Sun and Steel – Mishima

    7. Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

    8. Steps to an Ecology of Mind – Gregory Bateson

    9. Ever Since Darwin – Stephen J. Gould

    10. The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan

    Subject to change upon further consideration, and only from the first 30 years of my life. Books which introduced an idea to me had more effect than later ones covering much the same ground. For instance, Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” is better than anything by Gould, but Gould introduced me to the wonder of real evolutionary thinking.*

    * And he wasn’t a bad writer, despite his attachment to punk-eek and liking baseball. I grew up wondering if I would ever be truly literate – when I read the classics in various fields I was totally lost in references to Proust and Balzac and such. But when I read “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Gould used Baby Boomer references, and I knew what he meant with each of them. I realized that literary metaphors and other illustrative comparisons were largely a generational thing.

  • barry21

    The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins

    Letters to a Young Contrarian – Christopher Hitchens

    The Brothers Karamazov – Theodore Dostoevsky

    Life of Pi – Yann Martel

    Faust in Copehnagen – Gino Segre

    Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

    1984 – George Orwell

    The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene (regardless of the veracity of string theory, it’s fascinating)

    Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

    I’m having a hard time choosing one best book about ancient Rome, but The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar is always a great look into his thoughts.

  • Taz

    I’m trying to think of the ones that most influenced me growing up. I’m sure I’m forgetting something:

    Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

    Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

    Animal Farm – George Orwell

    Time Enough for Love – Robert Heinlein

    To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

    The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

    Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972 – Hunter S Thompson

    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown

    Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut

    Not a particular book, but short stories by Edgar Allan Poe from various sources.

  • Taz

    And I immediately remembered:

    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn