Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Judging Bloggers by Their Books

Cross-posted from @TAC.

Earlier this month, Tyler Cowen posted the ten books that have influenced him the most, and “encourage[d] other bloggers” to do the same. Ross Douthat of the New York Times called Cowen’s invitation “irresistible,” which, judging by the number of bloggers who responded, it was. The Top Ten Influential Books Game gave bloggers easy material — namely, themselves — for a quick post. It also gave them a chance to prove that they are part of the club (that is, the club of influential bloggers).

Most importantly, Cowen’s Influential Books Game gave bloggers an excuse to promote themselves by composing lists designed to excite the maximum of reader admiration. Which is not to say that any lists were insincere: on the contrary, the top bloggers ended up sounding all very smart and thoughtful precisely because they really are just the sort of people whose lives were changed by reading Nietzsche. Still, as vehicles of self-promotion, some lists were better than others. To succeed, an Influential Books List needs to satisfy several competing criteria, namely: erudition (it should show how widely the blogger has read), plausibility (it should not claim that the blogger read Principia Mathematica at age 10), inventiveness (it should be unpredictable), freedom of thought or freedom from dogma (it should not unwittingly depict the blogger as an ideologue) and gumption (it should show that the blogger is unafraid to defend unpopular opinions).

Given these constraints, it is not surprising that bloggers generally agreed on what types of books should be included. I list them below. Who came up with the most impressive list? Let’s take a look! The contestants: Bryan Caplan, Matt Continetti, Tyler Cowen, Ross Douthat, Arnold Kling, Will Wilkinson, Matthew Yglesias. The categories, identified by the “signal” each is designed to send:

1. “I admit that I was pretty silly at age 18.”
  • Caplan: Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness
  • Continetti: None
  • Cowen: None (Cowen cites Ayn Rand but, showing gumption, does not express any adult reservations about her.)
  • Douthat: G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. “What Ayn Rand is to young libertarians,” Douthat writes, “Chesterton is to teenage Catholic conservatives.”
  • Kling: None
  • Wilkinson: Frank Herbert, Dune; Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  • Yglesias: Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey. Kingston, Yglesias explains, convinced him not “to be the kind of jerk who thought education was being ruined by PC demands to represent more women and minority writers.”
Best choice: Yglesias. Showing both erudition and freedom of thought, Yglesias conquered at age 18 a dogma that is uncritically accepted by seasoned intellectuals. Second prize goes to Douthat, whose early discovery of Chesterton shows erudition.

Worst choice: Continetti. Continetti admits that he grew up reading Ayn Rand and Rush Limbaugh, but still cites big conservative names such as Russell Kirk and Irving Kristol on the sophistic grounds that Rand and Limbaugh are “where you start, not where you end up.” Excluding Rand and Limbaugh, even though they influenced you, betrays dogmatism (only Russell Kirk is worth of serious attention!) and lack of gumption. If you like Ayn Rand or Rush Limbaugh, say so!

Ideal Choice: The best youthful obsession I can think of is C.S. Lewis’s obsession with the Sagas of Icelanders and other Norse legends. For a libertarian, love of Icelandic sagas has the added benefit of plausibly leading to an interest in stateless societies.

2. “My interests are more diverse than you know!”

  • Caplan: Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man
  • Continetti: Herman Wouk, War and Remembrance
  • Cowen: Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
  • Douthat: Roger Angell, Late Innings
  • Kling: Bill James, The Baseball Abstract, 1987
  • Wilkinson: Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  • Yglesias: Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey (doing double duty here)
Best Choice: Cowen. A prolific writer and academic economist, he’s also read all of Proust! Now there’s a cosmopolitan. Second prize goes to Douthat and Kling, although they lose points for lack of inventiveness, as it’s slightly cliche for writers to love baseball.

Worst Choice: Several bloggers show questionable literary taste, but Caplan shows none at all. Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid appears seemingly at random as the only book on his list (apart from Zarathustra) that isn’t ideological or related to economics, and then, as it turns out, only because Reid helped cure Caplan of his Randianism. As Yglesias notes, Caplan’s interests are strikingly narrow.

Ideal Choice: Proust is hard to beat, though I think the best choice might be Rabelais. A taste for Rabelais is as plausible as a taste for Proust yet requires even more erudition. Someone like Yglesias could have plausibly cited Borges, another good choice. Many of these bloggers could have done simply by citing a volume of poetry.

3. “I have read deeply enough in the Western Canon to consider the Great Books my friends.”
  • Caplan: Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
  • Continetti: Plato, The Republic; Smith, The Wealth of Nations
  • Cowen: Plato, Dialogues
  • Douthat: Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man
  • Kling: None
  • Wilkinson: Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics
  • Yglesias: Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals
Best Choice: Yglesias. Wilkinson also cites the Genealogy of Morals, but in Yglesias’s case you can tell that Nietzsche really got him thinking. Wilkinson’s choice of the Nicomachean Ethics and Continetti’s choice of The Republic lack inventiveness, as they rank too high on the list of best books of all time.

Worst Choice: Douthat. Douthat tries a shortcut by citing Fukuyama as a “gateway drug to Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli and Nietzsche.” If you were truly intoxicated with the Great Books, however, you would not lump them together so blithely. Douthat’s choice shows lack of erudition and suggests Great Books curriculum dogmatism. Second worst is Continetti’s choice of Adam Smith, which lacks plausibility. Does Continetti really expect us to believe that he has read and pondered the entire Wealth of Nations?

Ideal Choice: Genealogy of Morals is good, but a bit too obvious for a young intellectual. I would go with another difficult but compelling philosopher such as Spinoza or Pascal (with a slight preference for Spinoza, as Jeeves’s favorite philosopher).

4. “I am not afraid to defend a book that you may hate.”
  • Caplan: Rand, Rothbard, Mises; Paul Johnson, Modern Times; Murray and Herrnstein, The Bell Curve
  • Continetti: Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation
  • Cowen: Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal; Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae
  • Douthat: Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  • Kling: Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man
  • Wilkinson: Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged; Murray and Herrnstein, The Bell Curve
  • Yglesias: None.
Best Choice: Douthat missed a chance to score big here. When a religious conservative praises Brave New World, it’s almost certain that he picked up his admiration from biotechnology skeptics such as Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama. If I am right, then Douthat should have showed more gumption by citing the oft denounced Leon Kass.

Worst Choice: Caplan. Caplan, showing dogmatism, lists a panoply of libertarian ideologues whom non-true-believers find tedious.

Ideal Choice: Herbert Spencer might work for a libertarian. Conservatives have no shortage of hated writers, from Joseph de Maistre and George Fitzhugh to Carl Schmitt. I could not find a liberal blogger citing anything very radical. I suppose only moderate progressives such Yglesias and Ezra Klein read Tyler Cowen’s blog.

5. “I may have my biases, but I have still learned from the other side.”
  • Caplan: None
  • Continetti: None
  • Cowen: John Maynard Keynes, General Theory
  • Douthat: Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites
  • Kling: None.
  • Wilkinson: Rawls, A Theory of Justice
  • Yglesias: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From the Underground
Best Choice: Cowen’s choice of Keynes is excellent, but Yglesias truly shines here. By citing Dostoevsky, the religious anti-utopian, Yglesias shrewdly overcomes the problem that conservatives have not produced great works to rival those of Mill, Locke or Rawls. Yglesias acknowleges the aesthetic power of reactionary ideas — which shows freedom of thought — but ultimately dismisses them with the memorable epigram, “sober thinking about big issues is boring.” An outstanding performance.

Worst Choice: Douthat’s choice of Christopher Lasch shows lack of inventiveness, as Lasch has long been conservatives’ favorite leftist. But Continetti and Caplan show no interest in understanding the other side whatsoever. When asked to cite your influences, you should at least try to establish that you’ve considered other points of view!

Ideal Choice: You can’t beat Yglesias’s choice here. A liberal would also do well to cite Joseph Schumpeter, the most brilliant conservative of the past century. Conservatives and libertarians could be more inventive than to cite Rawls. Charles Taylor, Foucault, Habermas, Amartya Sen — any of these would be more interesting choices.

6. “I have a well-formed, coherent worldview.”
  • Caplan: Rothbard, Mises, Richard Posner
  • Continetti: Burke’s Reflections; Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind; Irving Kristol, Neoconservatism
  • Cowen: Hayek, Individualism and the Economic Order
  • Douthat: Chesterton, Orthodoxy; C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
  • Kling: None.
  • Wilkinson: Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty; Cowen, In Praise of Commercial Culture
  • Yglesias: Derek Pargit, Reasons and Persons; Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender and the Family
Best Choice: This is a dangerous category, as being enamored with the canonical writers of your ideology shows lack of freedom of thought. I like Kling here, none of whose choices seems to have been chosen for ideological reasons. Cowen and Yglesias also excel by making clear that the lessons they have learned from various books are narrow, not ultimate.

Worst Choice: Caplan and Continetti again show dogmatism by citing a string of works popular only among like-minded readers.

Ideal Choice: The best strategy is not to cite a famous worldview-forming work at all.

7. “Gosh, I sure was precocious as a kid!”
  • Caplan: Rothbard
  • Continetti: None
  • Cowen: Plato’s Diaologues
  • Douthat: James Hibbert, Wolfe at Quebec
  • Kling: None
  • Wilkinson: Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  • Yglesias: Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals
Best Choice: Cowen. In Cowen’s case, you really can believe that at age 12 he had his nose buried in the Apology of Socrates.

Worst Choice: None is really a bad choice here. Douthat’s tale of how he learned so much “historical arcana,” however, seems artificial, as it turns out that the book in question did not actually make a deep impression on him.

Ideal Choice: Plato’s Dialogues. It’s surprising that not more teenagers read Plato, whose dialogues are often very entertaining. Other plausible and erudite choices would be lively classical historians such as Herodotus or Suetonius. For the blogger with a reputation for braininess, Godel, Escher Bach would work nicely.

8. “I’ve got some serious candlepower up here.”
  • Caplan: Hard to say, since the most difficult works are all in his field
  • Continetti: None
  • Cowen: Quine, Word and Object
  • Douthat: None
  • Kling: Again, it’s hard to say, as the most difficult works are all in his field.
  • Wilkinson: David Armstrong, Universals: An Opinionated Introduction
  • Yglesias: Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained; Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
Best Choice: Cowen. Though an economist by training, Cowen has still read some rather hefty philosophy. (Yet he somewhat undercuts his victory in this category by drawing a “meta-lesson” from Quine about how to arrive at a deeper understanding than the one you already have. This often means that the reader has not actually understood the book in question.) Yglesias’s choices are good, but he loses points for lack of inventiveness by picking the two recent works of analytic philosophy that non-philosophers might have actually read.

Worst Choice: This category isn’t really fair to Continetti and Douthat, since they’re competing against academic economists and amateur philosophers. Still, apart from Continetti’s implausible choice of Adam Smith, neither selected any book that would really strain the old bean.

Ideal Choice: The ideal choice would separate the real brains from the pretenders by revealing that the blogger understands and could independently derive, say, Godel’s incompleteness theorem. The ideal blogger would cite Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, while making clear that he doesn’t accept the conclusions.

9. “There’s no way the rest of you guys have read anything as obscure as this.”
  • Caplan: None (works in his own field don’t count)
  • Continetti: None
  • Cowen: Susan Love Brown, The Incredible Bread Machine
  • Douthat: None
  • Kling: None
  • Wilkinson: None
  • Yglesias: Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution
Best Choice: Surprisingly, only Yglesias and Cowen compete in this category, which is ripe for displays of inventiveness. Yglesias cleverly picks a famous author’s less famous book. Cowen admits that he picked up libertarianism very early on, but from a surprising source.

Worst Choice: No bad choices here. Continetti, Kling and Wilkinson picked science fiction books, but only the most popular within their genre.

Ideal Choice: So many possibilities! I’m going to go with an actual personal choice, namely, Chateaubriand’s Genius of Christianity, a monumental apology for Western civilization that is hard to find in English translation.

10. “I may be highly literate but I’m not a snob.”
  • Caplan: Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  • Continetti: Harlan Ellison, Deathbird Stories
  • Cowen: None
  • Douthat: Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
  • Kling: Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
  • Wilkinson: Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns
  • Yglesias: None.
Best Choice: I’m not competent to judge comic books, fantasy or science fiction, so I’ll have to call a tie between Continetti, Kling and Wilkinson. Douthat’s choice of Tolkien lacks inventiveness. Also, his defense of fantasy goes a bit overboard. Sure, fantasy “re-enchants” the world (read: it’s about gods and spirits and stuff) but that’s a far cry from saying that it captures “more reality” than the alternatives. At most, it captures a neglected piece of reality. In fact, while it does re-introduce supernatural spirits, fantasy also simplifies natural human spirits, so the results is actually a net loss of enchantment.

Douthat’s re-enchantment theory also fails to account for the appeal of its cousin genre, science fiction, which is fantastical but not supernatural. Finally, both genres appeal almost exclusively to geeky males who (as our blogging contestants themselves prove!) normally prefer non-fiction. This suggests that the appeal of fantasy is not in its supernatural elements but its elaborate system-building.

Worst Choice: No bad choices here. Ironically, Cowen, a leading anti-snob, is the least tempted by popular culture!

Ideal Choice: It may not be a perfect choice, but you couldn’t go wrong by citing P.G. Wodehouse. An admiration for Wodehouse is highly plausible and also shows erudition, since all voracious readers love him. Surprisingly, no took up the obvious challenge here, namely, to make a plausible defense of an author whom everyone else thinks unworthy of consideration. Douthat, however, gets extra credit for defending Stephen King as a “runner up” influential author.

Overall Winners: Tie between Yglesias and Cowen. (Cowen, however, should be handicapped since he started the “contest” and thus may have designed it so he would win.)

Just so there’s no misunderstanding, I should acknowledge that the Top Ten Influential Books Game was not set up as a competition nor was it taken as such (at least not explicitly). In “judging” the winners, I have my tongue in cheek. Still, this exercise confirms some general impressions, in particular that Cowen is a freakishly clever polymath and that, of those who have made blogging their trade, Yglesias has the most depth. The others are all very smart, worth reading, and brilliant in their areas of comfort, but not of the same general caliber.

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