The Books That Influenced Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel

Michael J. Sandel

American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University, Michael J. Sandel is no stranger to Farnam Streeters. He’s argued why we shouldn’t buy presents and the limits of what money can buy.

And now, thanks to The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking, we know which books have influenced him the most and why.

These seem to be among the books that can help us reflect on the moral and political conditions of liberal democracy in contemporary America.

The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt

Arendt offers the most compelling modern case for the ancient claim that politics is essential to the good life, not merely instrumental to the pursuit of private interests and ends.

Four Essays on Liberty by Sir Isaiah Berlin

Berlin grounds liberalism in the idea that the human good is ultimately plural, that there is no single, overarching value that orders all the rest. To acknowledge the tragic possibility that inheres in moral and political life is to respect above all people’s freedom to pursue their own ends, to negotiate their own moral circumstance.

Outlines of the Philosophy of the Right by G. W. F. Hegel

Hegel contrasts the idea of a civil society, where people cooperate to further their interests, with the idea of a political community as an ethical life that enlarges the self-knowledge of the participants.

Social Limits to Growth by Fred Hirsch

Hirsch recasts economics as political economy, and political economy as moral economy. Cost-benefit analysis to the contrary, he shows that the market is not a neutral way of evaluating goods. Not all values can be translated without loss into commodity values, nor does all economic growth produce greater welfare.

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays by Michael J. Oakeshott

Oakeshott’s romantic conservatism contrasts powerfully (and eloquently) with more familiar libertarian versions. Against a philosophy of abstract principles and natural rights, he conceives politics “as the pursuit of intimations.”

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Rawls provides the most important philosophical defense of liberalism in our time. Individual rights cannot be overridden by utilitarian considerations, he argues, and the principles of justice that specify our rights do not presuppose any particular conception of the good life.

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, and Thomas C. Shelling.

6 Books Bill Gates Recommended for TED 2015

Bill Gates

Bill Gates, long an avid reader, attended the TED conference again this year and continued his tradition of recommending books to fellow attendees.

1. Business Adventures, by John Brooks

Warren Buffett recommended this book to me back in 1991, and it’s still the best business book I’ve ever read. Even though Brooks wrote more than four decades ago, he offers sharp insights into timeless fundamentals of business, like the challenge of building a large organization, hiring people with the right skills, and listening to customers’ feedback. (Here’s a free download of one of my favorite chapters, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox.”)

2. The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin studies the lives of America’s 26th and 27th presidents to examine a question that fascinates me: How does social change happen? Can it be driven solely by an inspirational leader, or do other factors have to lay the groundwork first? In Roosevelt’s case, it was the latter. Roosevelt’s famous soft speaking and big stick were not effective in driving progressive reforms until journalists at McClure’s and other publications rallied public support.

3. On Immunity, by Eula Biss

The eloquent essayist Eula Biss uses the tools of literary analysis, philosophy, and science to examine the speedy, inaccurate rumors about childhood vaccines that have proliferated among well-meaning American parents. Biss took up this topic not for academic reasons but because of her new role as a mom. This beautifully written book would be a great gift for any new parent.

4. Making the Modern World, by Vaclav Smil

The historian Vaclav Smil is probably my favorite living author, and I read everything he writes. In this book, Smil examines the materials we use to meet the demands of modern life, like cement, iron, aluminum, plastic, and paper. The book is full of staggering statistics. For example, China used more cement in just three years than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century! Above all, I love to read Smil because he resists hype. He’s an original thinker who never gives simple answers to complex questions.

5. How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell

Business journalist Joe Studwell produces compelling answers to two of the greatest questions in development economics: How did countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China achieve sustained, high growth? And why have so few other countries managed to do so? His conclusion: All the countries that become development success stories (1) create conditions for small farmers to thrive, (2) use the proceeds from agricultural surpluses to build a manufacturing base that is tooled from the start to produce exports, and (3) nurture both these sectors with financial institutions closely controlled by the government.

6. How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff

I picked this one up after seeing it on a Wall Street Journal list of good books for investors. It was first published in 1954, but it doesn’t feel dated (aside from a few anachronistic examples—it has been a long time since bread cost 5 cents a loaf in the United States). In fact, I’d say it’s more relevant than ever. One chapter shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons. It’s a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds these days. A great introduction to the use of statistics, and a great refresher for anyone who’s already well versed in it.

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The Books That Influenced Thomas Schelling

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Found in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking.

Here is what Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, who won the prize for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis,” that culminated in The Strategy of Conflict, had to say about which books influenced him and why.

These books give readers a taste of the best in natural science, social science, classical and modern history and literary style.

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

I have had a fascination with evolutionary biology, provoked by such beautiful books as George Gaylord Simpson’s This View of Life, but had never picked up a copy of Darwin’s original work until ten years ago. I have rarely had such pleasure and excitement in reading a sustained piece of scientific reasoning and presentation of evidence. It is technically accessible to any intelligent reader. It is a genuinely participatory experience.

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

I knew that classical Greece produced people at least as smart as people anywhere today, but until I read this I had no idea how modern they were in their thinking. Nothing written in this century can touch Thucydides (or the people he quotes) for subtlety of political and diplomatic discourse and strategy. I like Rex Warner’s translation in the Penguin edition, but some readers may need large print. If you like it go on to Herodotus and Xenophon.

Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior by Erving Goffman.
I was hooked on Goffman from the time I read “On Face Work,” the first essay in this collection. If you like this try “Stigma,” “Forms of Talk,” and “Asylums.” He looks at the same people we look at doing the same things we see them doing, and he sees things we can’t see without his help. He once pointed out to me that a woman can be naked with her husband without embarrassment, naked with her sister without embarrassment, but not naked without embarrassment in the presence of both.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

I bought a copy in 1943 because it fit in my pocket and I was vaguely aware that it was a classic. I read it for an hour on a streetcar and was captivated by the story, the style and the purported author. It is an endlessly digressive autobiography that begins with his conception and barely gets up to his birth. Sterne writes a lovely, leisurely sentence that can wind on for three hundred words and you never lose your way or have to look back.

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

I have a book on baseball that says fear is the fundamental factor in hitting, and hitting with the bat is the fundamental act of baseball. For John Keegan, a distinguished military historian, fear is the fundamental factor in exposing oneself to enemy weapons, and exposing oneself is the fundamental act of combat, as he vividly describes, at the level of the individual soldier, the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. A superbly thoughtful history of military combat.

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson and B. F. Skinner.

The Books That Influenced B. F. Skinner

harvard guide to influential books

Found in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking.

B.F. Skinner is a legendary psychologist. Building on those who came before him, he is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning. His analysis of human behavior culminated in Verbal Behavior and Walden Two.

Here is what Skinner had to say about which books influenced him and why.

Bacon is Shake-speare by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence

How Plants Grow: A Simple Introduction to Structural Botany by Asa Gray

Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex by Ivan P. Pavlov

The Problems of Philosophy (1911) by Bertrand Russell

Behaviorism by John B. Watson

He writes:

The books that have been most important in leading me to my present position as a behaviorist are not books that I would recommend to anyone seeking to understand that position. They were important, not so much because of their content, but because of their bearing on my life at the time I read them. A mere accident sent me to Sir Edwin-Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shake-speare, and that book sent me in turn to all I could find of, and about, Francis Bacon. I have acknowledged the role of three great Baconian principles in my life, but I would not send anyone to Durning-Lawrence to discover them.

Gray’s How Plants Grow, my high-school botany text, taught me, with the example of the radish, how living things pass on to the future the contributions they have received from the past. Later I found the same theme in Hervieu’s “La Course du Flambeau,” but I would not send anyone there for further instruction. I was greatly influenced by the first third of Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy. According to his biographer it was “written at speed for the American market,” and it certainly is not regarded as one of Russell’s great books. Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes taught me the importance of controlling laboratory conditions, but I soon departed from the Pavlovian paradigm. John B. Watson was important, of course, but I read only his Behaviorism, a book written for the general public. I am not sure I ever read his Psychology, from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist.

This is all perfectly reasonable, since, after all, if anything I have done is “creative,” should we expect to find it in anything I have read?

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson.

The Best Books of 2014: Your Overall Favorites

best reads 2014

From how to read books and raise kids to philosophy and finance.




The third annual (2012, 2013) look at your favorite reads featured on Farnam Street. You’re a well-read bunch.

In no particular order:

Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader

FIASCO is the shocking story of one man’s education in the jungles of Wall Street. As a young derivatives salesman at Morgan Stanley, Frank Partnoy learned to buy and sell billions of dollars worth of securities that were so complex many traders themselves didn’t understand them. In his behind-the-scenes look at the trading floor and the offices of one of the world’s top investment firms, Partnoy recounts the macho attitudes and fiercely competitive ploys of his office mates.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

Since its original publication nearly thirty years ago, Getting to Yes has helped millions of people learn a better way to negotiate. One of the primary business texts of the modern era, it is based on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project, a group that deals with all levels of negotiation and conflict resolution.

It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone

Despite the age-old saying, individuals everywhere still have a hard time realizing that it’s not all about them. Robin Dreeke uses his research and years of work in the field of interpersonal relations and behavior to help readers focus on building relationships with others in “It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone”. As the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program within the Counterintelligence Division, Dreeke has used the techniques listed in “It’s Not All About Me” with skilled professionals within the FBI as well as with sales professionals, educators and individuals across the country and world.

Collected Maxims and Other Reflections

Deceptively brief and insidiously easy to read, La Rochefoucauld’s shrewd, unflattering analyses of human behavior have influenced writers, thinkers, and public figures as various as Voltaire, Proust, de Gaulle, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

A must read.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Why do some children succeed while others fail? The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs. But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter more have to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control. How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators, who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character.

Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience

This spectacular collection of more than 125 letters offers a never-before-seen glimpse of the events and people of history—the brightest and best, the most notorious, and the endearingly everyday.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition

You’ll learn the six universal principles, how to use them to become a skilled persuader—and how to defend yourself against them. Perfect for people in all walks of life, the principles of Influence will move you toward profound personal change and act as a driving force for your success.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Meditations: A New Translation

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style.

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, 3rd Edition

Seeking Wisdom is the result of Bevelin’s learning about attaining wisdom. His quest for wisdom originated partly from making mistakes himself and observing those of others but also from the philosophy of super-investor and Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles Munger. A man whose simplicity and clarity of thought was unequal to anything Bevelin had seen.

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

Confessions of a Sociopath takes readers on a journey into the mind of a sociopath, revealing what makes them tick and what that means for the rest of humanity. Written from the point of view of a diagnosed sociopath, it unveils these men and women who are “hiding in plain sight” for the very first time.

The Books That Influenced Edward O. Wilson

harvard guide to influential books

Too often life gets in the way of reading and thinking. Rarely are we given a chance to look back at what influenced our thinking. Sometimes these are small fragments — words, thoughts, marginalia, ideas, or even a book.

The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking contains an annotated listing of the books that mattered to over a hundred Harvard University faculty members along with some commentary on why.

Here is Pulitzer-winning writer and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s contribution.

I was an adolescent, from fifteen to eighteen years of age, when I encountered the books that were to have the most profound and lasting influence on my life. Thereafter I read thousands of books, many of equal or superior quality, and put most to good use; but I have to confess that individually they have had a steadily declining effect on my world view, style and ambition. Hence I can only offer you works that might, either literally or as examples of a genre, influence a certain kind of young person to take up a career as a biologist and naturalist. More I cannot promise.

Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Even as a small child I dreamed of going on faraway expeditions to collect insects and other animals. This book set my imagination on fire, and I was thereafter a nesiophile, a lover of islands, the concrete symbols of new worlds awaiting exploration. The compulsion was one of the mental factors that led me in later years to develop (with Robert H. MacArthur) the theory of island biogeography, which has become an influential part of ecology.

Heredity and Its Variability by Trofim D. Lysenko

Although I was later to see Lysenkoism for what it was, false in conception, political in aim, and very nearly the death of Soviet genetics, I was enchanted by this little book when I encountered it at the age of sixteen. It appealed to my mood of rebelliousness. It seemed to me that Lysenko was offering a radical and effective challenge to conventional science, and that even the callow and inexperienced might have a chance to proceed directly to new realms of discovery.

An Essay on Morals by Philip Wylie

When I was a seventeen-year-old college student, these Menckenesque essays broke me out of the fundamentalist Protestant faith in which I had been raised and moved me toward the secular humanism with which I increasingly identify today. I still find Wylie a delightful read.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

The perfect young man’s book: a vision of a pure life devoted to the search for scientific truth, above money grubbing and hypocrisy. How I longed to be like Arrowsmith, to find my mentor in a real Gottlieb. The feeling was intensified when I discovered Jack London’s Martin Eden shortly afterward.

What Is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger

This taut little book, which I encountered as a college freshman, invited biologists to think of life in more purely physical terms. Schrodinger was right of course, as witness the rise of molecular biology soon afterward. For me his arguments suggested delicious mysteries and great challenges. (Later, I was especially pleased when a reviewer likened my own book Genes, Mind, and Culture, published with C. J. Lumsden in 1981, to What Is Life? saying that it offered a comparable challenge from biology to the social sciences.)

Systematics and the Origin of Species from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist by Ernst Mayr

By defining the biological species in strong, vital language and connecting the process of species formation to genetics, Mayr opened a large part of natural history to a more scientific form of analysis. This is an example of a very heuristic work, which invited young scientists to join an exciting quest in field research. More than forty years after its publication, I am still wholly involved in this effort.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I hope that I have not missed the editors’ purpose entirely by listing books that affected one rather rebellious adolescent in the 1940s, but I was quite surprised myself when I came up with this list after careful reflection. Let me make partial amends by citing the work that I pull off the shelf most often, and gives me the greatest pleasure, now that I am in my fifties: Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. For this work reflects the point to which I have come, in company with such a magnificent spirit who “bears in mind that all that is rational is akin, and that it is in man’s nature to care for all men, and that we should not embrace the opinion of all, but of those alone who live in conscious agreement with Nature.