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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.