Must-read books from 2009

Every year I keep track of what I read.  It’s a bit nerdy, for sure, but it helps to keep me motivated.  This year’s reading was so interesting that I decided to put off writing this post until the year was, for all intents and purposes, over.  Last year I managed to get the list out in time for Christmas shopping.  This time you’ll have to refer to this compilation for birthdays or something.

In the past twelve months, I’ve managed to start and finish thirty three books, which I actually consider to be modest.  I’d far rather be averaging one per week.  Of these, I’ve chosen ten to discuss, which is a rather high proportion; nevertheless there was no difficulty in coming up with books that were deserving of singular mention.  There is no rhyme or reason to the order of this list, and most of them should appeal to a broad range of people.

Henry Hazlitt:  Economics in One Lesson

How I found it: This book is constantly referenced in literature put out by the Mises Institute.

In a relatively short volume, using concise, easy-to-understand language, Hazlitt discusses some of the most basic concepts of economics.  The backdrop for this book is the wave of Keynesianism and Socialism that swept the West in the early-mid 20th century.  One of Hazlitt’s most beautiful insights concerns the unseen effects of policy decisions.  One example would be artificially high wage rates as demanded by labor unions.  On the surface this appears to benefit the workers, but the effects of this man-made price floor ripple through the economy, until they come to damage the interests even of the labor unions themselves.  This is an excellent beginner’s book on economics; no prior reading is necessary.

Oliver Sacks:  Musicophilia

How I found it: Stumbled upon it while Christmas shopping in 2008

Expectans, expectavi Domine…..This book makes me think of a piece of Gregorian chant, an offertory melody whose text is, “I have waited, waited on the Lord…..and he put a New Song into my mouth.”  Sacks fills this book with heaps of fascinating information and incredible stories.  If you can read it with a dry eye, you’re a better man than I am.  One account early in the book relates the story of a man who had never been involved in any way with music in his entire life; then one day he was struck by lightning, and began composing and playing the piano.  A surgeon friend of mine tells me that neuroscientists such as Oliver Sacks tend to have more of an appreciation for the spiritual, and one does indeed get this impression from Sacks, who seems to be steeped in just as much wonder and amazement at these things as his readers.  Moreover, musicians will find the reading of this book to be an experience of renewal, a re-awakening to the truth that music is indeed a gift to be cherished.

Naomi Klein:  The Shock Doctrine

How I found it: After a lively lunchtime discussion about politics with a musician friend, he escorted me to the bookstore and bought it for me.

“But this isn’t capitalism!”  I found myself saying this over and over again as I read through this incredibly revealing book. Klein passionately and thoroughly exposes the work of the merchants of death in the U.S. government, from CIA operatives and psychologists (who perfected torture techniques already in the 1950’s) to the infamous economist Milton Friedman.  Under the name of capitalism, the United States effected coups, killed people, and established fascistic economic systems (I’m using this term literally, not pejoratively) in faraway lands, like wolves in sheeps’ clothing.  The book is hardly sympathetic to the free market, but proponents of capitalism need to read this book and reckon with what some jackasses have done over the years while falsely claiming to be friends of the free market.  For me, it lead to a more precise definition of capitalism:  The system of voluntary exchange which results from the ethic of non-aggression and private property rights.  As one will find out from this book, the U.S. government respects neither the principle of non-aggression nor private property rights.

Ludwig von Mises:  Human Action

How I found it: You can’t get through two articles from an Austrian economist without seeing this book cited.

At nearly 900 pages, Human Action is Mises’ grand discourse.  The profound and most basic difference that Mises’ approach has with others is that it bases the study of economics on—well, human action.  It is the gentle and humble opposite of the arrogance of Rand’s Objectivism and Friedman’s mathematical equations.  Most refreshing is Mises’ allowance of subjectivity in the field of economics.  If I were to recommend one tiny section of this book over all others, though, it would be Mises’ criticism of the holistic view of society, a section that soundly rejects the sanctimony of many do-gooders, while at the same time showing that Austrian economics, rather than being atomistic, actually considers the good of the culture at large and posits that voluntary exchange on the free market is the way to achieve it.

J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country

How I found it: A friend lent it to me.

I am absolutely horrible about reading enough fiction, so I rely largely on friends to bring such things my way—actually, one friend in particular, who’s taste has proven to be quite sturdy.  One of the strengths of fiction is that general principles can be taught without tempting readers to quibble over minutiae the way certain kinds of non-fiction do.  Carr is British, and this is a short story about an artist that leaves London to spend a month in the countryside restoring the apse painting of a church.  While he’s there he sleeps in the bell tower and kibitzes with a lunatic archaeologist who’s charged with finding someone’s remains in the church yard.  A delightful little read that can be done in one afternoon on your front porch with a cold glass of iced tea.  (Perhaps save this one for Spring, then…)

Haruki Murakami:  What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

How I found it: Browsing the book store looking for ways to throw money away

This title jumped right out at me, given that I’m a runner.  This is not a systematic “how-to” book or anything; it’s just a flow of conscious account of one man’s affair with the greatest sport in the world.  Murakami, a jazz bar owner-turned novelist, relates his journal entries to the reader.  This includes an account of his run along the original route that ends in Marathon, Greece, from which we get the name and distance for running events.  The title, he tells us, is based on someone else’s work which is called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Love,” and this is apposite.  The runner will find this book to be a source of new energy; non-runners will finish it perhaps a bit more curious about what it is that they’re missing.

John Robinson:  Dungeon, Fire and Sword

How I found it: Borrowed from a friend

This is the story of the Knights Templar during the Crusades.  In it you will find all manner of sanctimony, hypocrisy, and hiding behind religion for the sake of a political agenda.  The original mission of the Knights Templar was to guard the Temple Mount in Jerusalem when it was under Christian control.  Job creep set in, and, among other things, they came to guard the road to Compostella, a popular pilgrimage site, and to be some of the world’s first bankers.  They participated fervently in the mindless orgies that were the Crusades, proving that Islam is not the only religion to commit barbaric acts of war under the guise obedience to God and faith.  Ultimately, the success of the Templars was their undoing.  King Philip IV of France, who owed them enormous sums of money, manipulated an unholy alliance with the papacy to have the Knights tortured, tried, and killed on trumped up charges.  In a dramatic conclusion, Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of this order, was marched into the cathedral square in Paris to confess the “official version of events,” and in one last moment of courage, told the crowd the truth of what had been done to this order.  For this, he was rewarded with summary execution, but one cannot escape the impression that he was ultimately victorious over the lust for power which gripped the monarchs and the papacy at that time.

Murray N. Rothbard:  The Anatomy of the State

How I found it: On mises.org

At only fifty-plus pages, this book makes for good introductory reading to the anarcho-capitalist political philosophy.  In the short chapters contained in this volume, Rothbard contends with the superstitions that make people believe that the State is necessary.  The reading is not difficult; yet, the writer leaves out nothing of importance.  This would be a good companion alongside Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy, the State, with the added blessing that Rothbard does not suffer from Nock’s sometimes tiresome fatalism.

Louis Cheslock, ed.:  H.L. Mencken on Music

How I found it: Roaming around Bookhaven, a used book store in Philadelphia.

I have already reviewed this book here.

Richard M. Weaver:  The Ethics of Rhetoric

How I found it: Brought to my attention by Br. Stephen, of course

What would a year be without at least one Weaver book?  Like most of his work, I’m not sure how much of this volume I’ve absorbed; it may be worth a re-reading sooner rather than later.  Unlike the other volumes I’ve discussed here, I’ve actually had to pull this one off the shelf and thumb through it to jog my memory about what the writer discusses.  Among other things, some of which went over my head completely, Weaver discusses Edmund Burke’s use of the Argument from Circumstance and Lincoln’s use of the Argument from Definition.  The writer seems to have a surprising amount of admiration for Lincoln, given his dyed-in-the-wool Southern ways of thinking.  Perhaps the most interesting chapter in this book is Weaver’s exploration of grammar as it relates to rhetoric:  avoid the adjective, he says; it only begs the question.  Good advice which I have yet to follow.  Another chapter worth a great deal of study deals with the use of what Weaver calls ultimate terms:  “God words” and “devil words.”  This discussion is still timely.  Think of how people try to shut one another up by hurling accusations of “intolerance” or “Godlessness.”  (Well, maybe I remembered some of this book, after all.)  If you haven’t read any Weaver yet, I’d start with Ideas Have Consequences, or maybe Language is Sermonic.  The Ethics of Rhetoric is a bit heady, and the reader will benefit from some built-up familiarity with the writer’s ways of thinking.

————

The great football coach Lou Holtz, the last one to win a national championship at Notre Dame, once said that the difference between where you are now and where you’ll be five years from now comes from the people you meet and the books you read.  In my experience, this is an understatement.  Books are among my favorite things; I would take them first, God forbid, in the event of a fire.  Many of the works I’ve discussed above were given, lent, or recommended to me by friends, and I would like to thank them.  They know who they are.  From personal experience I can say that few things feel as rewarding as having given a book to someone who not only gets it but also appreciates it.  The ideas in books can be so exciting, along with taking them apart and putting them back together again.  I’m not even sure that Belgian beer can compare to this.

“But I’m not a reader.  I just don’t get into books,” you might say.  To that I can only reply that you haven’t found the right books.  Reading is a tool, not an object in itself.  Find something that piques your curiosity, fires your imagination, or soothes the deepest longings of your soul.  I guarantee you that a book has been written about it.  Tolle, lese.

Happy New Year.

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2 Responses

  1. Good list. Musicophilia’s my favorite of the list, music is a gift. You might like/hate the music of Michaelmatician. All about it here:

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