September 29, 2016

Forum: What Have Been Your Most Influential Books?

Every week on Monday morning , the Council and our invited guests weigh in at the Watcher’s Forum, short takes on a major issue of the day, the culture, or daily living. This week’s question:What Have Been Your Most Influential Books?

Fausta’s Blog : Many, may books, but the one that made a difference when I was very ill almost twenty years ago is “Toughness Training for Life: A Revolutionary Program for Maximizing Health, Happiness and Productivity.”

I had developed hypoglycemia – not diabetes – was misdiagnosed twice, and it took me two years to find the right way to control my blood sugars. Loehr’s book gave me a roadmap of sorts, and I highly recommend it.

 Bookworm Room : A lot of books have made a difference to me. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. I’d grown up in a very European household, which meant that I was snotty, prissy, and judgmental. Dale Carnegie’s book was the first step in my becoming a much nicer person, one who learned to respect and value others.

2. Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice, a book that helped me gain a bit of perspective about the (to me) overwhelming life choices I was making in my early and mid-20s. The book’s structure is a little unusual, as the narrator, Noel, is the lawyer for a young woman named Jean Paget. He meets her after the war because he is the executor of a will that leaves her a legacy.

The first part of the book has Jean describe to Noel her experiences as a prisoner of war held by the Japanese in Malaya, a time of great hardship and personal tragedy. The second part of the book is about Jean’s life after the war, and the way in which her wartime experiences end up profoundly influencing not only her life, but many other people’s lives as well.

At the end of the first half of the book, when Jean sees herself facing a bleak and lonely future, she concludes her narrative to Noel with regret over the waste of a part of her life, but Noel disagrees:

“It was three years wasted, just chopped out of one’s life,” she said. She raised her head and looked at me, hesitantly. “At least — I suppose it was. I know a lot about Malays, but that’s not worth much here in England.”

“You won’t know if it was wasted until you come to the end of your life,” I said. “Perhaps not then.”

For me, Noel’s simple statement was a stunning truth: I cannot control the future. My responsibility is to make the best decisions I can now, and then to make the best of whatever effects those decisions have upon my life. And that’s all I can do. It was a simultaneously freeing and empowering revelation. Incidentally, in the 35 or more years since I had that revelation, I’ve repeatedly been reminded that my ability to predict either my future or the changes in my world was terribly flawed and that many of my “smart” choices were stupid or irrelevant, and many of my haphazard choices have paid off.

3. Keith Richburg’s Out Of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, which tells about Richburg’s time as the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Africa. For him, it was a stunning revelation that he had benefitted greatly from his black ancestors’ suffering when they were sold from their homes, shipped in horrible conditions to America, and then enslaved. Life for blacks in America, he learned, is infinitely better than it is for blacks in Africa. America, moreover, has a much healthier and, at least when he wrote the book, much less corrupt culture than Africa. The book was a stepping stone in my journey to conservativism.

4. Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, which opened my eyes to the insanity that is modern feminism. (And keep in mind that she wrote the book in 1995, before things had reached the critical mass we see now.) I had an old-fashioned notion of feminism: equal pay for equal work, equal access to jobs provided that women could meet reasonable standards, and the freedom from being subject to workplace harassment. Sommers described a very different animal indeed, with campus feminists vying for the title of most oppressed (is a black feminist more or less of a victim than a white feminist in a wheelchair). When the insanity of American campuses exploded into the public eye last year, it was old news to me.

5. Philip K. Howards’ The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America, which tackles the regulatory state more than the statutory one (or at least that’s how I remember it). I’d always thought of regulations as our friends. It wasn’t until I read his book that I realized that modern regulations perfectly embody the statement that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” They stifle economic development and individual initiative. This is another book from the 1990s that describes a situation that has only become worse in the ensuing years.

6. All of Jane Austen’s and Georgette Heyer’s books, which have provided endless laughter and solace because of their exquisite renderings of human decency and human foibles in a vanished pastoral landscape.

7. The Bible is a wonderful book. I read it first as a history book and literary effort. I’ve read it since as a history book and moral guide.

I’m sure that, given a bit more time, I could create an endlessly long list, but this seems like a reasonable stopping point.

 The Razor :Books can play very personal roles on one’s life, and one whose every word resonates with one person may completely bore another. Years ago a friend pestered me to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Black Swan,” and I have to admit it really changed how I viewed economics, risk and Life in general. Another friend bought PJ O’Rourke’s “Holidays in Hell” for me, and I’ve since included it at times when I could only bring a few books along for extended stays. Finally, “The Logic of Failure” by Dietrich Dorner explains the fallacies and mental shortcuts that lead to disaster in complex situations, whether its Chernobyl or one’s bad personal decision making. Final mention is Philip K. Dick’s “Ubik” – perhaps his best work and one that has never reached the screen. Like most of Dick’s work it questions the very foundations of Reality and has stuck with me ever since I devoured the book in high school.

But I must reiterate: Books are extremely personal and so I tend not to demand others read them. Instead I prefer to raise their existence to the awareness of others so that they may find, like some literary stray cat, their proper owner.

 JoshuaPundit : Ahh, books. I was a pretty steady reader from a very young age. The first book I can recall making a major impression on me was Gibbon’s Decline And Fall Of the Roman Empire, which I read at sixteen. I went to a fairly blue collar, rather run down high school not noted for its academic prowess, but it was an older school with a library that reflected different times. I found the book in the shelves, read a few pages and was hooked.The last time anyone had checked it out was over a decade ago. It was simply there waiting for me.

It taught a great deal about how societies become decadent and collapse, often without the inhabitants even fully realizing it.

I ended up reading quite a bit of history of the ancient and modern world. Favorites would be Caesar’s Commentaries,Xenphon’s Anabasis,Plutarch, Bernal Diaz Del Castillo’s The Discovery And Conquest of Mexico, a first hand account from one of Cortez’s conquistadors, William H. Prescott’s The Conquest of Peru, Bruce Caton’s Civil War trilogy, and Churchill’s histories of WWI and WWII. William L. Shirer’s books on the Twentieth Century  and Barbara Tuchman’s books are also favorites of mine, although both lean a bit to the Left at times. Henry Kissinger’s books are huge favorites of mine as well..what a mind!

I also learned a great deal from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and Miracle in Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen, a brilliant account of the 1787 Constitutional convention, which shows how the Founders hammered out our Republic based on the diaries and accounts of those whom were there.

While I do read fiction for pleasure (I’ve always been a Melville fan and still consider him one of America’s best writers and I’ve always loved Somerset Maugham and Shakespeare’s plays  among others) the other books that especially influenced me are spiritual and metaphysical in nature.

Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi is one of them, simply because his style is so, well, human. Sir James Fraser’s The Golden Bough is another favorite, as well as some of its offshoots from the Golden Dawn Society, leading ultimately to the Zohar.

 And as those of those of you whom know me might imagine, I have also been quite influenced by the Jewish Torah (the Five Books Of Moses) as well as the Writings, The Prophets, the Megillot which include the Book of Esther and Kehilla (Ecclesiastes) as well as my admittedly limited knowledge of Gemara, Talmudic law. I admit to also being influenced by the Qu’ran and hadiths of Islam as well which I read after 9/11, but in quite a different way.

GrEaT sAtAn”S gIrLfRiEnD :

How America Got it Right by Bevin Alexander

Left-wing critics—both at home and abroad—relish blasting our country for being the world’s sole superpower, or even an “imperialist” power.

But as acclaimed military historian Bevin Alexander shows in How America Got It Right, these criticisms are completely off the mark. Alexander reveals how the United States has done and continues to do exactly the right thing in military and foreign affairs. As the world’s dominant political force and military power, he says, we are the only nation that will actually go into the world and strike down evil. And we must not shirk that responsibility—especially because we cannot rely on our so-called allies to defend our freedoms.

Alexander tells the dramatic and sometimes surprising story of how, from the American Revolution to the War on Terror, America’s core principles and ideals have shaped our march to economic, military, and political supremacy.

 To Rule The Waves by Arthur Herman

In the mid-16th century, England was a minor player on the world stage. The Spanish and the Portuguese, ahead in the race for the spoils of Asia and South America, dominated international trade and controlled the world’s oceans. They were the European superpowers. England could only watch enviously as ships laden with gold, silver and spices sailed into Lisbon and Cádiz, fattening the treasuries of their enemies.

The situation would change quickly. By the end of the century, England would defeat Spain. Her growing navy, almost mystically identified with the national character and destiny, would defeat the Dutch and the French, on the road to creating a global empire and, Arthur Herman argues in his rousing history, the world as we know it today. The British Navy, he writes, reshaped the world to suit the British Empire, and “those needs — access to markets, freedom of trade across international boundaries, an orderly state system that prefers peace to war, speedy communication and travel across open seas and skies — remain the principal features of globalization today.”

 Soldiers of Destruction by Charles Sydnor

Simply one of the best written books available despite the subject matter.

With “Soldiers of Destruction”, Sydnor has managed to write a military account of the infamous SS Death’s Head Division that is both lively and engrossing. Sydnor delves into the history of the division, their actions in combat and their involvement in the concentration camp system. He does all this without getting bogged down in statistics (like so many other books on the Wermacht or SS). He does however, provide massive amounts of footnotes for those who wish to do further research.

The writing style is smooth, engaging and engrossing.

As you read it’s nigh impossible not to develop a great amount of respect and awe for the fighting capabilities of the SS, yet always counter the praise with derogatory mention of their fanaticism and loyalty to National Socialist ideology; two factors that molded them into what they were. It helps to negate their combat achievements.

The subject matter of this book is not for everyone. The SS Totenkopf Division personified Himmler’s absolute ideal of the SS. It could be argued that they were the most politically indoctrinated of all the SS divisions. They were brutally efficient soldiers who were indifferent to hardship. Defeat was an unacceptable option for Totenkopf soldiers in combat. It is no wonder that on several occasions the division fought until almost total decimation. Victory of annihilation was the order of the day.

Numerically outnumbered almost 6 to 1 on the Eastern Front, the Totenkopf soldiers of the SS managed to rout entire Soviet armies. They were constantly thrust into the most dangerous of situations on the front. Even today the United States Marine Corps and the U.S. Army mimic some of the combat tactics developed and perfected by SS divisions like the Totenkopf on the Eastern Front.

If you like military history you’ll love this book. Your WWII collection will not be complete without Dr. Sydnors’ book

 The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman

Those of us raised up by besotted Beatle worshipers long after Lennon was assassinated have a mystical legendary idea of what exactly wiped clean and drew again the face of popular music.

Goldman’s writing is simply amazing – easily one of the best written books in any library.

The critics hated it including cats like Sir George Martin, Yoko Ono and Sir Paul McCartney. Other writers like Bob Spitz in “The Beatles” take pains to demolish it even as they lift (with attribution) great bits of it – truly a tribute to Dr Goldman’s all absorbing fantastic writing.

Lennon was presented in the book as a talented but deeply flawed man who manipulated people and relationships throughout his life, flinging them aside when they were no longer useful to him. Goldman also suggested that Lennon was a heavy drug-user and that he was dyslexic, schizophrenic and suffered in the early stage stages of Parkinson’s.

The Persian Puzzle by Ken Pollack

Indispensable to understanding Iran. Informed and eminently readable study provides a detailed narrative of that turbulent quarter-century of U.S.-Iranian relations from the advent of the Islamic Republic to the present. Having tracked this subject since the late 1980s, as a U.S. government analyst until 2001 and at the Brookings Institution since, Pollack writes as an insider just far enough down the pecking order to be able to describe the official thinking and action without the compulsion to defend past policy.

It’s especially good in recounting Washington’s different efforts to reach arrangements with Iran, from the ill-fated Iran-contra affair to the carpets, caviar, and pistachios initiative in the 42’s term. Pollack gives considerable attention to the pressing problem of trying to keep Iran from going nuclear: he lashes out against Washington’s European allies for their “perfidy,” accepts that Iran’s rulers so badly need to present the United States as the existential enemy that a settlement is unlikely, and rejects pre-emptive military action against Iran, instead advocating a three-track diplomatic approach as the least bad of the unpromising options available.

Other influential books include:

The Pentagon’s New Mapby Thomas P.M. Barnett

Neoconservatism&by Justin Vaiise

An End To Evilby Dave Frum and Richard Perle

Counterinsurgency by David Kilcullen

Secret History of The Iraq War by Yossef Bodansky

Dreadnaught and Castles of Steel by Robert K. Massie

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

No Higher Honor by Condoleezza Rice

War and Decision by Douglas Fieth

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Stately McDaniel Manor : My students often ask me my favorite book. They also ask me my favorite song–to them, all music is a “song.” They have no idea how impossible it is to answer those questions. My favorite book is often the book–usually books–I’m reading when the question is asked. My favorite music is the music I’m rehearsing when the question is asked.

But, meaningful books…

Anything by John Ringo, for understanding of novel narration, characterization, getting tactical and gun details right, how to write women, and for sheer fun in reading.

Shakespeare, for understanding human nature–and dramatic irony.

The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill, for understanding ideas and their influence.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, for its humanity.

C.S. Lewis, for helping in the spiritual struggle.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens because it’s timeless, honest emotion.

Cyrano de Bergerac (OK, it’s a play; so what?) by Edmund Rostand, for its humanity and grace.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, for its hopefulness.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, because sometimes there are no good choices.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I would have liked him.

The Glittering Eye : That’s a subject I haven’t thought about in years. From age 7 to 20 my life was marked out in books like milestones along a road.

The book that influenced me the most was the first one I ever read–my dad’s fourth grade reader. When I completed first grade I couldn’t read a word. According to my mom that summer I took my dad’s fourth grade reader, disappeared behind the couch, and when I re-emerged at the end of the summer not only could I read, I was reading far above grade level.

It was a wonderful book! An anthology of stories, fables, poetry, and snippets from popular literature (popular at the turn of the last century that is). It was the first of many.

There is no frigate like a book, indeed.

Laura Rambeau Lee, Right Reason : As a young teenager full of questions of a philosophical nature I discovered the authors Taylor Caldwell and Ayn Rand. Throughout the years I have consumed nearly everything they have written. Caldwell wrote many works of fiction and several historical fictions. After reading many of her books I dove into a book titled A Pillar of Iron, which revealed the life and writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Caldwell wove the story of Cicero’s life in Rome during the time of Julius Caesar with many of his writings and orations concerning government, philosophy, law, religion, and the nature of man. Cicero’s words spoke to me and provided many answers to the questions I sought; particularly the concept of natural law. I went on to read many of his works after being introduced to him through Caldwell’s book.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged also impacted me tremendously. Growing up in the Soviet Union she saw firsthand the destruction brought upon the people by communism. She extolled the virtues of selfishness in its purest form and believed that capitalism is the only system where the individual can reach their own potential.

Having not yet been introduced to such ideas as capitalism and communism these works opened my eyes and impressed upon me the rights of the individual. Perhaps being women writers both Rand and Caldwell portrayed female characters of independence and intelligence, many in spite of the circumstances of the times in which they lived. Of course, growing up during the women’s rights movement of 60s and 70s these characters were particularly appealing to me.

More recently The 5000 Year Leap by W. Cleon Skousen shed light on the founding fathers and the philosophers whose writings they drew upon in crafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The writings of Cicero most decidedly contributed to their belief in the laws of nature and nature’s God and the inherent rights of the individual which is at the core of our country’s founding.

Finally, when I attended college in the 1970s I took many classes in German given by professor Rainulf Stelzmann. He had grown up as a young boy during the Weimar Republic, saw the rise of Hitler and was later conscripted into the Wehrmacht. His parents were both university professors. His father had spoken out against Hitler and was dismissed from his teaching position and later arrested for being what the Nazis deemed politically no longer “bearable,” a crime punishable by death by decapitation or hanging. Professor Stelzmann would tell little bits of his experiences during his years in Germany and I kept taking his classes just to hear more of his stories. Like so many I wondered how such evil could be permitted to exist in what was considered a civilized society.

Many years later I met Herr Stelzmann and discovered he had written a book. Thinking of Germany at Night recounts his experiences as he explains the methods the Nazis used to indoctrinate the German youth and assert control over an entire population. It is quite an enlightening read as he described his life in Germany and his experiences as a soldier having been sent to the Russian Front. Fortunately for him he was captured by the Americans and not the Russians.

Repeatedly throughout history we have seen the struggles between those who seek to enslave men and those who stand and fight for freedom and liberty. If people would acknowledge that this struggle between good and evil has always existed and understand the conditions that allow evil to insert itself into a society we could somehow stop it before it ends in death and destruction. Unfortunately, too few of us are able to see the very real threats we face as evil grows again in the world. By the time most people wake up to the threat it will be too late to stop it. And so the cycle will continue.

  Well, there you have it.

Make sure to tune in every Monday for the Watcher’s Forum. And remember, every Wednesday, the Council has its weekly contest with the members nominating two posts each, one written by themselves and one written by someone from outside the group for consideration by the whole Council. The votes are cast by the Council, and the results are posted on Friday morning.

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