Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars is where I picked up this blog meme, and so I’m gonna go ahead and join in as well. Here are some books I’d call influential in no particular order.
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
Even though I was young still when I got to this, reading it made me suddenly realize that my whole idea of literature, journalism, and what they could be had become pretty uptight. My parents encouraged me to read and I enjoyed it a lot. But most of the stuff I went through before Fear and Loathing seemed almost bland and tedious when I was re-reading it after Fear and Loathing. It gave me this way of being critical of the stuffiness in language which I barely even notice beforehand.
Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs
I read the shit out of this book. I even took it to a photocopier to copy the whole damn thing and then do that cut-up thing he described in other works, except of course it wasn’t completely random like he claimed. Burroughs was definitely into some weird shit, but it was usually in the context of fiction so there’s no real problem with that seeping out into the real world (aside from his personal life). He always had this reckless approach to writing I admired and the result was that he could create these alternate realities which were both terrible and beautiful, nightmarish and utopian, and disgusting and amazing all at the same time. All of that is best conveyed in Naked Lunch. The film adaptation though, eh, it probably should never have even been attempted in the first place.
Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman
This one is a little dated in some ways. It’s from the 80s, so this is all way before the internet made it easy to spread unpopular ideas and opinions. In order to hear those, you had to know who to look for and where to go to buy their books or magazines or whatever else. So to the extent that this was more all-encompassing this book is less relevant than it used to be. But where it’s still relevant is in how we can self-censor, and how much easier it is to err on the side of conservatism. I also loved how the approach to the study of the media is more scientific than rhetorical, which was refreshing. Of course it can’t be completely 100% scientific since you can’t really have a control group with historical events. For now at least, that would be considered “unethical.”
The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
This is probably the best current book advocating science and skepticism out there. There are many layers here. So for instance you might open it at random and get to a page detailing an account of an alien abduction. If you keep reading, you’ll get to a larger context of the infallibility of eyewitness testimonies. An even larger context would be revealed if you keep reading and see how this connects to mistakes people made in the past about “witches” and “demons” – as well as the social problems caused by those mistakes. And in the context of the book as a whole you get back to the straightforward advocacy of science as the best tool we have in order to make sense of the world around us.