My Big List O' Books

For the past week or so bloggers have been compiling lists of ten books that have influenced them throughout their lives. I haven't compiled mine yet, but you didn't think I could hold out against doing this forever, did you? So here it is.

I should note: this is not a list of books that I'm recommending. If you want that, see here — though the list is outdated. The key idea in the following list is that these books influenced me for some reason — and not always because of the book's content. Also: they aren't all books. And there are more than ten. And my definition of "influenced" is a little more pedestrian than most people's, I think. There are no big philosophy tomes or anything like that. That said, here they are in the order in which they influenced me:

1962-66: The Oz books, by L. Frank Baum and Ruth Plumly Thompson. We had a complete set of Oz books and my mother read them aloud to us when we were kids. They tended to get more outré and almost science fictiony toward the end of the series, and those were the ones I liked best. (My mother decidedly didn't.) I credit this, more or less, with leading me in the direction of Tom Swift and then science fiction in general.

1967: My Only Great Passion, by Jean and Dale Drum. Although officially my father was a speech professor, he also specialized in film history and criticism, and in the 50s he struck up a correspondence with Carl Th. Dreyer, the great Danish film director (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet). In 1967 he took a one-semester sabbatical and we all trooped over on SAS to live in the town of Køge for seven months while he and my mother did primary research for a biography of Dreyer. This was, by a wide margin, the most exciting thing that ever happened to me as a child.

(As it happens, the book failed to find a publisher after it was written. However, in the late 90s, after my father had died, my mother resurrected it at the urging of the head of the Danish Film Museum, headed to Denmark to do some additional research, and then updated the manuscript and got it published in 2000. If you're looking for a full-length English-language biography of Dreyer, this is pretty much it.)

1969: Adventure Comics #378. The Legion of Superheroes! A Curt Swan/Neal Adams cover! My love affair with comic books was born.

1975: APL: An Interactive Approach, by Leonard Gilman and Allen J. Rose. I still have my dog-eared copy of this book. Aside from a few months in my senior year of high school I never actually used APL for anything, but it was the language that showed me how much fun computer programming could be. That changed my life, and this was the book that taught me.

1979: The Power Broker, by Robert Caro. I probably don't have to say much about this. You know, Pulitzer Prize and all that. But this book not only opened my eyes to the use of political power, but also, I think, inspired my continuing love of really long books. I've never been entirely sure if Caro was fair to Robert Moses, but then, I've never been entirely sure he wasn't either.

1980: The Making of the President 1960, by Theodore White, and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, by Hunter S. Thompson. I think these are the two books that really got me interested in politics. I don't know that I'd recommend the former other than for its historical interest, but the latter is great reading regardless of whether or not you care about the 1972 presidential campaign. Hell, it's worth reading just for the scene where Thompson talks football with Richard Nixon.

1982: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I warned you that I wasn't necessarily recommending these books, right? In this one, Jaynes assembles evidence to suggest that up until a few thousand years ago humans were essentially all schizophrenic, routinely commanded by voices in our heads. (Thus the origin of all those endless pantheons of gods and goddesses.) However, as the two halves of our brains began to fuse, the voices ended — for most of us — and we became conscious and self-aware in the sense that we are today.

As it happens, virtually no one believes this. On the other hand, no less than Richard Dawkins says, "It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I'm hedging my bets." Me too. And even if it is wrong, it's a fascinating example of being wrong — complete with some really compelling explanatory power for the history of our species. It remains fascinating to me to this day. When I briefly took up fiction writing in the early 80s, my first story was based on Jaynes's concept.

1985: Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeill. I think Matt Yglesias had this on his list, and I have it for the same reason: it was my first real introduction to a version of history in which everything you think you know turns out instead to be caused by some vast underlying movement you had never even considered before. In this case, it's the effect of disease pools on the rise and fall of various civilizations. (The Spanish conquest of Mexico is the most famous example.) I think you have to be careful with adopting this kind of attitude toward history wholesale, but in the Great Man vs. Great Movement debate, I'm pretty clearly in the Great Movement camp, and this book is one reason why. It also prompted me to read McNeill's The Rise of the West, which is a very good book.

1998: American Aurora, by Richard Rosenfeld. This is a long book made up almost entirely out of excerpts from political newspapers published around the time of the Alien and Sedition Acts. That makes it sound boring. It's not. (Though it's frustrating at times unless you already have a pretty detailed knowledge of that era.) We've all heard about how politics in the past was actually far more polarizing and belligerent than it is today, and this book really makes that come to life. After you've read it, you won't think of modern politics the same way again.

1999: The Promise of Sleep, by William Dement. I've always slept poorly and I hoped this book, by a famous sleep researcher from Stanford University, would help me figure out why. It didn't. However, it did help me conquer jet lag, and you have no idea what a difference that's made. So listen up. This is one of those cheap and easy pieces of advice that you're often promised but almost never get in life.

A lot of people believe that if you, say, travel to Europe, all you have to do is force yourself to stay up all day on your first day and you'll be OK. You won't be. Here's why: twice a day your body releases stimulants that wake you up. This is (awkwardly) called "clock dependent alerting," and it happens once around 6 am and again around 7 pm or so — though this varies from person to person. So when I travel from California to Paris, even if I stay up all day and get to sleep just fine at midnight, around 4 am I'll wake up. And for the next three hours, no matter how hard I try, I can't get back to sleep. Around 6 or 7 am I can, but by then it's time to wake up. Result: I'm completely wiped out for the rest of the day.

So here's the answer: sleeping pills. Get a good quality prescription sleeping pill and take it when you go to bed even if you don't need it to fall asleep. You don't. You need it to stay asleep. I now take a sleeping pill every night for about a week (plus one on the plane over) when I travel to Europe, and it's like a damn miracle. I literally have no jet lag at all.

(Obviously this depends a lot on where you're traveling to and from. Going from LA to New York, for example, I take a pill because my evening stimulant rush hits around 10 pm and won't let me get to sleep before 1 or 2 am. So in this case, the pill does help me get to sleep rather than keeping me asleep. If you're traveling from the East Coast to Europe, ditto. If you're traveling west, it'll be something else. But the arithmetic is fairly easy to figure out. However, you really can hardly go wrong by just taking a pill an hour before bedtime and not fussing over it.)

(And if you're one of those people who don't care about this because you don't suffer from jet lag? Well, I hate you. Any other questions?)

2002: kausfiles. Whatever else you can say about Mickey, in 2002 I started reading Slate in my free time and it was kausfiles that introduced me to blogging. Three days later I started my own blog, and boy did that change my life.

2002: The Threatening Storm, by Kenneth Pollack. This one is sort of an honorable mention. For a few months in 2002-03 I supported the Iraq war, and that was a really fucking stupid thing to do. This book was one of the big reasons why I did it. So on the theory that learning from your mistakes is important, this book deserves a place on my personal list.

2005: Before the Storm, by Rick Perlstein. This is the best piece of political history I've ever read. I think that's recommendation enough. More here.

With two hours to go before Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber et al. arrive, the place is packed. Cars are scattered over a dozen or so lots and attendees are trekking overland through a climate that roughly resembles Mordor, if Mordor were pockmarked with potentially fatal abandoned mines. It's a free-for-all here; it took 25 minutes to drive 30 feet from the highway shoulder on account of the unregulated, lanes-be-damned traffic chaos (you do the emissions math). Irate motorists are voicing their discontent. Look people, it's called liberty; deal with it.

In keeping with the "lost in the desert" theme, the Tea Partiers I've spoken with remain united in opposition but totally scattershot in how to set things right. One man suggests Paul Ryan. Another Scott Brown. And of course, Governor Palin. To them, the movement’s apparent contradictions aren't flaws; they're signs of free will. I asked a supporter of J.D. Hayworth, the talk show host who's challenging John McCain from the right (an increasingly difficult task) in Arizona's GOP primary, whether he was dismayed that his other hero, Palin, had endorsed the traitor McCain.

"We don’t march in lockstep," he responded. "We're not Democrats."

(Read part I, II, III)

Tea Partiers from across the West have descended in their Winnebagos and pickups on tiny Searchlight, Nevada, former gold-mining capital of Clark County, and, more importantly, hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. They're here for the Tea Party Express' "Showdown in Searchlight," a conservative mega-rally (Sarah Palin is the featured speaker) in the Mojave that boosters have rebranded the "Conservative Woodstock." Burning Man might be more like it. The timing is impeccable: One week after the biggest progressive victory in two generations, conservatives are quite literally wandering in the desert.

I realized how packed the event would get when I drove into town to the welcome of a chorus of No Vacancies (all the RV parks and motels in the area have been booked up for weeks). Luckily the owner of the property where the event is being held has opened up his land to anyone wanting to spend the night. Hundreds took him up on the offer (myself included). It wasn't quite a field of dreams, but it's kind of surreal to pull off a lonely highway, down an unmarked road (I missed the turnoff three times), and find an encampment of hundreds of Tea Partiers. At least a hundred RVs were there when I arrived late last night, with just as many other vehicles, and a smattering of campaign buses thrown in for good measure. For a conservative Woodstock, I can't report much loud partying, though: "Downtown" Searchlight was largely Tea Party-free Friday night, and if there were any bonfires or karaoke contests, they were over by the time I got there. Fox News showed up at 7 this morning, just as I left for coffee.

My Lunch With Felix

Here's a random assortment of topics from my lunch with Felix Salmon today at Eat Chow in Costa Mesa. He had the shrimp tostada and I had the swordfish, with olives and truffle parmesan fries on the side. Enjoy.

  1. The Spice Station on Sunset Blvd. is awesome. Even if you're not really in the market to buy any spices, you should check it out.
  2. We should all be more worried about the potential of a mass casualty event — an epidemic, a gigantic earthquake, a massive hurricane, etc. — to annihilate the insurance industry and take out the rest of the financial system as a side effect. The AIDS epidemic nearly did it, Felix says, and missed only because most of its victims weren't insured. A really big hurricane hitting Long Island could do it, though.
  3. Lunch with Tyler Cowen is always great. He unerringly picks out the best thing on the menu. (But I wonder: how does Felix know this unless he tries everything else on the menu too?)
  4. The corporate bond market didn't really exist before 1980. This one is actually kind of embarrassing. A little while earlier I had been telling Felix that no matter how much I read about the finance biz, I never really felt like I could acquire even a layman's grasp of it. It's just too damn deep and complex for a nonpractitioner. Then, later, in response to something he said, I sort of shook my head and muttered "fucking fixed income market." He laughed, and I explained that I was still gobsmacked about how the sleepiest, most boring corner of the financial industry had become such a world-devouring monster.

    No, he said, it was a mistake to think of it that way. In fact, the corporate bond market barely even existed before the 70s. It wasn't that the bond market morphed from boring to rocket science, it was that the bond market essentially started up and then just got ever more complex as time went on. Now, that's a pretty basic historical fact, but I really didn't know it. Though, in retrospect, I think I sort of did. But I had forgotten. In any case, the disintermediation of banks and the practice of corporations selling bonds on a large scale directly to institutional investors — as opposed to retail coupon clippers — has really only been around for a few decades. And that led, step by inevitable step, to the towering, tottering creations of the fixed income quants in 2005.

    I probably have some of this wrong. Maybe Felix will see it and point us all to a good brief history of the corporate bond market, the Eurobond market, and the changing tax status over time of debt vs. equity.
  5. You will never get good fish and chips in a restaurant where it's just one item on the menu. You have to go someplace where they serve it in vast quantities and people are queued up outside the door. This has something to do with the cycle time/freshness of the batter.
  6. I should be reading David Merkel and Bond Girl.
  7. Getting Congress and the Fed to impose higher and more rigid capital requirements on big financial institutions is important, but what's even more important is getting an international agreement in place to make sure everyone else does it too. However, there's really no one who does a good job of reporting on this. Largely this is because the discussions are all held behind closed doors, so we only hear about the status of negotiations when someone like Larry Summers or Mervyn King drops hints in a speech. It's like reporting on the intelligence community, except worse.

That's all. Consider this an open thread.

On Wednesday, the Congressional Black Caucus scored a big victory in its ongoing mission to formulate a jobs creation package that actually targets the chronically unemployed (which, as we've reported recently, largely means black people). The Disaster Relief and Summer Jobs Act passed a House vote, and though the bill does not include the full $1.3 billion for youth summer jobs that the CBC wants, it does make a "down payment" of $600 million that would create approximately 300,000 new jobs. The bill also promises to provide $5.1 billion in disaster relief to communities through FEMA to address the lingering impact of Katrina and other natural disasters—which, again, usually leave larger impacts on poorer (and minority) victims. Now, the bill joins several other small-business and jobs measures that are likely to pass in the Senate.

The CBC chairwoman, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), defended the push for new legislation in a press release. "When you take a look at the numbers, it’s clear why this funding is so critical," she wrote;

The youth unemployment rate currently stands at more than 23 percent. Many low-income and minority youth populations face even greater challenges. African-American youth unemployment rates are now estimated to be as high as 42 percent. So we need targeted assistance to help put our young people to work, and to teach them an array of valuable job skills that they can use throughout life.

At the beginning of this month, the CBC launched a five-week campaign to gather policy solutions for and from the chronically unemployed. It is now accepting emailed suggestions at I've already submitted mine.

After a tense few weeks of ballot-counting and political posturing, the results of Iraq's parliamentary elections were released Friday, and the country's political future looks as murky as ever, with no party coming close to a majority of the body's 325 seats. And with the status of US troops hanging in the balance, it looks as if an Iran-friendly firebrand cleric—and antagonizer of America—will play the role of kingmaker.

A few minor players got boosted to the big leagues in the Iraqi vote, held March 7. The biggest winner was the secular Shiite party of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose faction gained 91 seats. That was just two more than the number retained by current Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki and his Shiite Dawa party, which means Maliki's likely to lose his job. (As our own Kevin Drum pointed out yesterday, his coalition had already been preparing to throw him under the bus.) He's not giving up without a fight, though, announcing his intentions to pull a Norm Coleman. "No way we will accept the results," he told the New York Times. "These are preliminary results. We will challenge the results through the law and courts."

Besides the electorate's apparent rebuke to Maliki, a number of interesting story lines arose out of the election—whose turnout of about 60 percent is the highest ever recorded in post-Saddam balloting:

Will Defense Secretary Robert Gates' latest overhaul of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the US' policy on gays in the military, kill soldiers' morale? A day after Gates announced the new changes to DADT, the right is crying foul, saying the new regulations will "more confusion and fear among military members" and undercut morale in the armed services. Gates announced yesterday new guidelines that essentially make it more far more difficult to kick out of the military a soldier, sailor, marine, or airman who doesn't publicly admit they're gay. Gates' latest announcement is a "major step toward the end of the law," said a spokesman for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

Today, multiple conservative and Christian groups decried Gates' decision, warning of the damage it will inflict on servicemembers and claiming it'll weaken the military. "Members of the military already fear punishment for agreeing with the federal law that homosexuals in the military 'would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion,'" said Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for American, a conservative Christian group that blasted Gates' decision. CWA's president, Wendy Wright, also chimed in, this time playing the national security card. "Our military should have one objective: to keep America safe," she said. "The job of the military—and the ability to do that job—is too important to be subject to the demands of a special interest group."

Of course, groups in favor of repealing DADT deny these assertions altogether, saying the safety of American troops will only be improved by ridding the armed services of the Clinton-era policy. Comments like those made by CWA and its ilk, then, are most likely so much sound and fury before DADT is thrown out into the dustbin of history.

It's been a long week, hasn't it? And with all the gunshots and death threats and growing panic over our imminent slide into tyranny, it's time to chill. So here they are, the world experts on chilling.

And with that, I'm off to meet Felix Salmon for lunch. Have a good weekend, everyone.

From Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah) on why he supported an individual mandate in 1993 but doesn't support it now:

Well, in 1993, we were trying to kill Hillarycare, and I didn't pay any attention to that, because that was part of a bill that I just hadn't centered on.

Well OK then! I guess we can put this right up there with Mitt Romney's increasingly strained explanations for why the individual mandate was a good idea when he implemented it in Massachusetts but not so good when Barack Obama implemented it for everyone.

Oath Keepers sympathizer and influential Tea Party blogger Mike Vanderboegh has spent the week in an all-out offensive to defend his demand that followers vandalize the offices of Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats following the passage of this week's historic healthcare legislation. "Break their windows, Break them NOW," he told readers last Friday.

Vanderboegh's website, Sipsey Street Irregulars, has an impressive following and is known to some as the epicenter of the Three Percenter movement. So it wasn't surprising when so-called patriot Americans nationwide obeyed the call to arms and started crushing windows with rocks, sling shots, and baseball bats.

Predictably, Vanderboegh caught some flack for his comments. Democratic Party officials in New York, where much of the damage occurred, have demanded his arrest but Vanderboegh says he hasn't yet been questioned by local or national authorities.

But for people critical of the Three Percenter leader, his statements this week have only made Vanderboegh less sympathetic. Appearing on Alan Colmes' radio show last weekend, he defended this unorthodox opposition to health care reform by saying he was "trying to save the lives of Nancy Pelosi, and every one of these people who do not understand the unintended consequences of their actions."