How a literary list sparked an online craze


A US academic blogger has started an ‘intellectual arms race’ by nominating 10 books that influenced his view of the world, writes DAVIN O'DWYER

WHEN A viral craze spreads across the internet, it usually features cute cats or embarrassingly bad singing, or a combination of the two.

Last month, however, a new idea caught the imagination of a certain corner of the web, and it was as far from feline karaoke as is possible to imagine. Tyler Cowen, the intimidatingly erudite US economist whose blog Marginal Revolution has become massively influential in recent years, started it all when he replied to a reader’s suggestion to list the 10 books that most influenced his view of the world.

Cowen, who writes his blog with fellow George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok, duly obliged with a predictably eclectic list. Plato’s Dialoguesrubbed shoulders with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Pastand Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae, and while Cowen’s economic principles are decidedly Chicago School, it was Keynes who made the list ahead of, say, Milton Friedman. He affirmed his free-market beliefs, however, with the inclusion of books by Friedrich von Hayek and that great libertarian heroine, Ayn Rand.

This particular post was in keeping with Cowen’s usual standard – thoughtful, insightful, a touch idiosyncratic – and given that Marginal Revolution can go from a microeconomic explanation for Scandinavia’s poor Olympic figure-skating record to discussing the opportunity cost of parade watching, it was probably more “on-topic” than usual. The original request would more than likely have been limited to Cowen’s list, except that Cowen concluded by encouraging, or perhaps challenging, other bloggers to do the same. Within days, dozens of America’s top blogging economists, political scientists, sociologists and pundits were busy composing lists of the books that influenced their thinking, and the conversation spread and spread.

As an exercise, this was all quite instructive for readers, but it also served as a kind of intellectual arms race, with each blogger establishing their credentials via their chosen books. The competitive element was unmistakable, or in economics’ parlance, there was a lot of signalling going on. Many of the lists were almost comically esoteric, as if to prove the individualism behind the intellectual journey.

The libertarians stuck doggedly by Hayek and above all Ayn Rand, despite brickbats from plenty of sceptics, while there were plenty of mentions for Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach; Adam Smith, unsurprisingly; Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy; Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons; Nietzsche; Hazlitt (economist Henry rather than essayist William); Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time; various books by Richard Feynman; and dozens more.

What quickly became notable, however, was the scarcity of fiction. To a degree, this was determined by Cowen’s original list, but as the subject spread, the focus stayed relentlessly on non-fiction. Gradually, bloggers began to acknowledge the formative literature they had enjoyed as youngsters, so Tolkien and Asimov began making some appearances, as did the likes of Orwell and Conrad. Drama, meanwhile, was largely limited to Shakespeare, predictably enough.

If this trend had spread among literary bloggers rather than social scientists, of course, that would likely be reversed, but the trend was noteworthy all the same. One of the most animated conversations followed the list created by Kieran Healy, an Irish sociologist at Duke University who is a member of the academic supergroup blog Crooked Timber. “Everyone else is doing it, at least for ‘American/ white/ politics/ economics/ mostly libertarian type guys’ values of ‘everyone’,” he wrote, and his terrifically diverse list, which features works by Clive James, Pierre Bourdieu and game theorist Thomas Schelling, as well as books on biomechanics, the collective dietary habits of ravens and power dynamics in medieval German society, led to a long and engaging discussion about what it is to be shaped and influenced by books.

But the underlying premise that went largely unquestioned, the notion that books play a predominant role in shaping our intellectual outlook, was roundly rejected by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who came up with a non-list instead: “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.”

Was Klein’s rejection of the notion of the book as the most exalted form of intellectual transmission specific to him, or an indication of the changing relevance of books in the intellectual development of future generations?

For the purposes of the trend started by Cowen, it is fair to say, it’s neater to settle upon a handful of books that demonstrably influence your thinking than to enumerate all those conversations or articles or online discussions that played an equally important part in shaping your intellectual outlook. The “list of 10” spins its own narrative, paring a lifetime of learning and curious engagement with the world down to an easily digestible scholarly montage.

And it also serves to make some of us feel unforgivably ignorant – time to go back to the library, I think.